BAGHDAD // The US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama met with the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad today, witnesses and Iraq's state television said. Mr Obama, who earlier arrived in Iraq as part of a US congressional delegation, has pledged to remove US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office if he wins the November presidential race. He has also welcomed a suggestion by Mr Maliki that a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
Mr Obama today began his first on-the-ground inspection of Iraq since launching his bid for the White House - with US commanders ready to brief him on progress in a war he long opposed and Iraqi leaders wanting more details of his proposals for troop withdrawals. His planned stops in Baghdad - and other areas of the country - marked the second major leg of a war zone tour that opened in Afghanistan.
The contrasts in tone and message were distinct. Mr Obama sees the battle against the resurgent Taliban and al Qa'eda in Afghanistan as America's most crucial fight and supports expanding troop strength to counter a sharp rise in attacks. But he had stood against the Iraq invasion and now worries that an open-ended US combat mission will sap military resources and focus - at a time when Iraq violence has dropped to its lowest level in four years. The Illinois senator's first stop was Basra, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to give details of the trip.
Basra is the centre for about 4,000 British troops involved mostly in training Iraqi forces. An Iraqi-led offensive begun in March reclaimed control of most of the city from militias believed linked to Iran. Mr Obama's precise travel plans were kept secret, but he was expected for meetings today in Baghdad - where the airport is located near the vast Camp Victory, a nerve centre for the US military in the palaces and gardens that were once part of Saddam Hussein's presidential compound.
They made no public statements and moved directly into talks. The meetings were expected to include the top US commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, and other military chiefs outlining the significant gains in recent months against both militias and insurgents, including al Qa'eda in Iraq. The White House and military leaders - and many residents of Baghdad - trace the momentum back to last year's build-up of more than US 30,000 troops in and around Iraq's capital.
Mr Obama has endorsed removing US combat forces over a 16-month period, but has been less precise on the size and type of US military role needed in Iraq after an exit from the battlefield. Iraqi leaders are expected to press Obama for more clarity on his long-term vision. *Agencies