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Obama Travels To Iraq For First Visit As President

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Ari Shapiro, I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama this hour touched down in Baghdad. It was an unannounced stop on his first overseas trip as president. He headed straight for America's largest military base there, Camp Victory, where he'll speak to troops and hand out medals. This stop in Iraq comes at the end of a round of meetings in Europe and Turkey. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us from Istanbul.

And Don, this stop in Iraq was kept pretty secret, right?

DON GONYEA: It was. There was, I can tell you, a great deal of speculation going back several days. A lot of people thought we're so close to Afghanistan, so close to Iraq, that maybe the president would use this as an opportunity to stop over there on his way home. Turns out, that is exactly what happened. He took off from Istanbul at, let's see, at 2:20 local time this afternoon. And it was about a two-and-a-half-hour window, we wondered where he was, before we finally got official word from White House officials speaking to the rest of us in the press corps - who are back here finishing up and filing our stories on the European trip - that he had, indeed, landed at Baghdad International Airport.

MONTAGNE: And now do you know who the president will meet in his brief stop there in Iraq?

GONYEA: Yes. He's going to sit down with General Ray Odierno at Camp Victory. Odierno is the top US commander in Iraq. So he'll get that first-hand assessment of things there. Recall, too, that it was just, you know, a few weeks back that President Obama announced that he is going to draw down US combat troops in Iraq over the next two years - a little bit less than that. And a lot of those troops will be going over to Afghanistan. Now, while here, he is also going to meet with troops, and he will - as you mentioned - participate in a ceremony awarding 10 medals of valor.

Then, there are the Iraqi officials. He had planned on taking a helicopter to meet with Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Talabani. There are weather problems there. So we're now hearing that he's either going to talk to them on the phone, or maybe they may find their way to Camp Victory to see him. But he will have that conversation with those Iraqi leaders to address the political component of what needs to happen next. The White House says that's a very, very important part of Iraq being able to stand on its own in the future.

MONTAGNE: Now, Don, one thing about the president's last two days there in Turkey is that both the people in Turkey and the government have been very much opposed to the war in Iraq. What has Mr. Obama been saying?

GONYEA: Remember, Iraq sits right on the border here with Turkey. President Obama did something unusual today. He did a town hall meeting in a foreign country, in Turkey, in a majority Muslim country - 99 percent Muslim here in Turkey. And he took questions about a variety of topics, but someone asked: Is there really any difference between you and George Bush, kind of at the core? The war goes on, there's still conflict in the Middle East. And President Obama talked about that in this answer. Give a listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to Iraq, I opposed the war in Iraq. I thought it was a bad idea. Now that we're there, I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out, that we do so in a careful enough way that you don't see a complete collapse into violence.

MONTAGNE: President Obama, earlier today in Turkey. But the event, of course, we were just listening, was there. What else did he do in that country?

GONYEA: Well, he met with the prime minister. He met with the president. He toured some historic sites. He toured the Blue Mosque and other places here. So he did all of that, and he also held that roundtable. But mostly, it was to send a message to Turkey, how critical it is. The White House sees Turkey -because it is a Muslim country, but also a member of the NATO alliance - as an example to the Muslim world as a secular democracy, but it's also a country that they feel can reach out as the US pursues these missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: All right. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Don Gonyea is speaking to us from Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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