By Matt Spetalnick
BAGHDAD, April 7 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, marking a new chapter in his strategy to wind down the unpopular war in Iraq and shift the United States’ military focus to Afghanistan.
The White House said that Obama would meet U.S. commanders and troops. He would also speak to Iraqi leaders, but would call by telephone rather than see them in person because poor visibility prevented helicopter travel around the capital, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Flying secretly from Istanbul at the end of his first major international tour, Obama was to visit the scene of a war that he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush. It was his first visit to Iraq since before his November 2008 election victory, which was bolstered by his campaign pledge to start bringing U.S. troops home.
Air Force One touched down at Baghdad International Airport a day after a string of seemingly coordinated bombings across the Iraqi capital killed 37 people. On Tuesday, a car bomb killed nine people and wounded 20 in the Shi’ite Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, police said.
The attacks underscored security challenges as the U.S. military prepares to implement Obama’s order to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010.
Asked why Obama had come to Iraq, Gibbs said "there are several important reasons, not the least of which is to see and spend some time with the men and women who are serving our country honorably here."
Less than three months into his presidency, Obama was intent on reassuring U.S. commanders he shares their concerns over preserving security gains and making sure troops do not feel forgotten as their numbers are drawn down.
The sectarian warfare and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have receded dramatically over the past year, but Iraqi security forces still face huge challenges as they take on policing and military operations from the United States.
During his brief visit, Obama was to meet with General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, address troops at Camp Victory, and speak to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
"We all know that throughout the next many months the solution to the challenges of Iraq lie in political solution," Gibbs said. "That’s why the president is anxious to talk to Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Talabani."
Scaling back troop levels in Iraq will help Obama boost troop numbers in Afghanistan to tackle worsening violence. He had accused Bush of being too fixated on Iraq to focus on the more vital fight against Islamic militancy in Afghanistan.
Despite the switch in priorities, Obama chose Iraq instead of Afghanistan for his first visit to a war zone as U.S. commander-in-chief, a decision made easier since he was already in neighboring Turkey.
With a withdrawal timetable now in place, Obama’s visit was aimed at giving him a first-hand look at how his exit strategy is playing out on the ground. Obama has also made clear he will press al-Maliki’s government to keep its part of the bargain, from expanding security forces to pushing through further political reforms.
"The United States will remove our combat brigades by the end of next August while working with the Iraqi government as they take responsibility for security," Obama told Turkey’s parliament on Monday before heading for Baghdad.
Under Obama’s plan, the roughly 140,000 troops now in Iraq will be drawn down to between 35,000 and 50,000 - a number that anti-war critics consider too high — by the 2010 deadline. Their mission will be redefined mostly to help train Iraqi forces. But they too must leave by the end of 2011.
Unlike Bush, blamed by many Iraqis for the tens of thousands who died after the invasion even as some acknowledge their gratitude for the fall of Saddam Hussein, Obama would be welcomed by Iraqis, analysts said.
"No flying shoes this time for sure," said political analyst Hazem al-Nuaimi, referring to an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush, forcing him to duck, during the then-U.S. leader’s final visit to Iraq in December.
Obama’s Iraq pullout plan is a key component of his effort to repair the United State’s battered image abroad after eight years of what Bush’s critics perceived as "cowboy diplomacy."
But, by visiting Iraq so early, Obama is running a political risk. The war came to define Bush’s foreign policy legacy. Now if Obama’s pullout strategy goes wrong, it could weigh on the rest of his presidency.
Six years after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, the war has proved longer, bloodier and more damaging to America’s reputation than anticipated, especially in the Muslim world. The enduring image of Bush’s final trip to Baghdad was the shoe-throwing incident.
The Iraq visit followed a two-day stop in neighboring Turkey, viewed as critical to aiding the U.S. pullout.
Obama was also fresh from a NATO summit where he won warm words for his new approach to Afghanistan, but only token European contributions of extra soldiers, trainers and money.
(Additional reporting by Michael Christie, Editing by Patricia Wilson and Frances Kerry)