President Obama swooped into Baghdad under a cloak of secrecy today, but his presence quickly turned into a raucous meeting with several hundred U.S. troops who cheered wildly when he told them it is time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their country.
By the time Air Force One was "wheels up" four hours later, the president has consulted with his top commander in Iraq, the president and prime minister of Iraq, and shook hands with dozens of delighted American soldiers who tried to photograph their commander-in-chief with cell phones.
At one point Obama's motorcade was flanked by a cordon of U.S. troops five deep, standing at attention and saluting.
"It was wonderful seeing those troops out there," Obama said.
In a brief address that was part pep talk and part pat on the back, Obama said that the next 18 months will be a "critical period" in Iraq, referring to the August 2010 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
"You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement and for that you have the thanks of the American people," Obama told about 700 U.S. service members, including Vice President Biden's son Beau, at Camp Victory the sprawling American camping that is a short car drive from Baghdad airport.
"You will be critical in terms of us being able to make sure Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, and we can start bringing our folks home," Obama said at the Al Faw Palace, a former palace for Saddam Hussein.
Obama got one of his biggest cheers when he told the troops it is time for the Iraqis to step up and take over.
"It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country," he said to a chorus of cheers.
Obama told the troops he understood how difficult the tours overseas have been on their families back home and said he and his wife Michelle are working to provide additional resources.
"We have not forgotten what you have done, grateful for what you will do and as long as I'm in White House you will get support you need and the thanks you deserve," he said, citing increases in his budget for military families.
Obama received a raucous welcome from the troops gathered at the palace. Many held up digital cameras above their head to try and snap a picture of the president on the stage. Someone in the crowd shouted, "I love you," to which the president replied, "I love you back."
Obama said he would keep his remarks short in order to shake as many hands as possible, and after he finished speaking, he worked the ropeline, greeting the troops.
The president made the surprise detour on his way home from his European trip, stopping in Baghdad today to meet with U.S. commanders and consult with Iraqi officials.
Obama said there has been "significant political progress" in Iraq but noted there is still "a lot of work to be done."
After a 30 minute meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama stood with the prime minister and said the U.S. is committed to an orderly transition from American to Iraqi forces and said the planned drawdown will ultimately result in the removal of all U.S. troops by 2011. He also had a sit-down with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Earlier he met with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. army commander in Iraq, at the airport and then drove to Camp Victory.