Obama on fact-finding mission in Iraq

Presumptive US Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama began a fact-finding visit to Iraq on Monday in which a US military presence he has vowed to scale down was to be the focus of his talks with Iraqi leaders and US military officials.

Obama's second visit to the country, after a 2006 trip, is the second leg of a foreign tour he hopes will boost his foreign policy credentials, reported dpa.

As soon as he arrived in Baghdad the Illinois senator held talks with al-Maliki on the presence of US troops in Iraq and the possibilities of troop cuts, an Iraqi cabinet official told the Voices of Iraq news agency.

Obama said that, if elected, he would seek to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and commit more troops to Afghanistan.

His plan has created a controversy in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki retracted his comments to the German magazine Der Spiegel, released on Saturday, in which he was quoted as saying that he backed Obama's proposal for a withdrawal.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabagh issued a statement disputing the magazine's version of the interview, saying al-Maliki's statements had been "misunderstood and mistranslated."

Al-Maliki's reported comments came a day after US President George W Bush agreed to a so-called general time horizon for withdrawing troops from Iraq, which means no specific timeframe.

US and Iraqi negotiators have so far failed to agree on a long-term security pact that would lay down the legal bases for the US military presence and obligations in Iraq after a UN mandate expires at the end of December.

Iraqi leaders were expected to seek clarifications from Obama over his withdrawal proposal, especially over the nature of the US military role he envisages in Iraq after a troop withdrawal.

The senator wants Afghanistan to be the focus of the war on terror and thinks Iraq is a distraction from this policy objective.

The number of coalition forces who died in Afghanistan in July, is three times higher than in Iraq, and reached 22 on Saturday with the death of a Canadian soldier.

With the lowest level of violence since 2004, may parts of Iraq have been enjoying a state of normalcy and confidence in the future.

However, many Iraqis fear that any hasty withdrawal of the US-led multinational forces may undermine a fragile security and shaky political stability.

Other Iraqis think Obama's withdrawal proposal was part of the US presidential campaign in which he was seeking to attract votes of Americans tired of the war.

Obama stopped at a base in the southern city of Basra before flying to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi leaders, according to media reports.

During the two-hour visit to the Basra base, he met American and Iraqi soldiers.

The base houses mainly British troops but also about 1,000 US military personnel.

Obama's visit is part of a congressional team's foreign trip. They also visited Afghanistan and made an overnight stop in Kuwait. The delegation will also travel to Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England. dpa str sf pmc jab

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