April 25, 2009— -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise trip to Iraq Saturday, and the top issue that dominated her agenda -- violence.
A week of heightened violence and bombing attacks have left close to 150 people dead and hundreds injured in Iraq. Suicide bombings have targeted mainly Shiite pilgrims from Iran, and they come at a vulnerable time when the U.S. is trying to draw down troops in Iraq. This week saw the single deadliest day in Iraq in more than a year.
This is Clinton's fourth trip to the country but the first in her current role. Her trip was intentionally kept secret for security reasons, given the dramatic uptick in violence this week. In Iraq, Clinton denounced the violent attacks.
"I condemn these violent recent efforts to disrupt the progress that Iraq is making," Clinton said at a press conference after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Violence was clearly a key issue of discussions in the secretary's meeting with U.S. commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno, and a number of Iraqi officials.
This month's 18 major attacks pale in comparison to the scores of attacks that were carried out during the worst period of the war in 2006 and 2007. But these recent bombings have made Iraqis jittery because they come at a time when the United States is withdrawing its forces from Iraq to meet the June 30 deadline.
In February, President Obama announced an 18-month drawdown of troops in Iraq, saying he would "responsibly end the war in Iraq."
Today, Clinton told reporters that the violence will not change the timetable that the Obama administration has set for withdrawal, even though General David Petraeus told Congress just yesterday that the progress is "fragile and reversible."
"The resilience of Al Qaeda in Iraq, though considerably diminished ... it retains the capability and it does retain the desire to re-establish its networks," he said.
But today, Clinton echoed Obama's words in saying that the withdrawal will proceed in a "responsible and careful way."
She said, "These events, tragic as they are, do not alter the context of continuing security progress."
Drawdown Still On
When asked by ABC News whether the U.S. would still reduce troops even if there are still months and months of violence, Clinton responded that the U.S. plan is to draw down. This week, Clinton said at a hearing on Capitol Hill that the administration has requested $482 million in the supplemental budget for civilian efforts "to partner with our military efforts as the withdrawal continues."
But she also tried to assure Iraqis -- several hundred of whom had gathered at a town hall meeting to see the United State's top diplomat -- that they were not being abandoned.
"I wanted to come today to repeat the commitment that President Obama and I and our government have to the people and nation of Iraq," she told the crowd. "We will be working closely with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces as we withdraw our combat troops, but we need to be sure that all of you are supporting a strong, nonsectarian security force and we will work to try and help make that happen."
While violence may have exploded in Iraq this week, Clinton and Obama have other crises elsewhere to tackle as well.
Just this past week, Clinton's comments on Capitol Hill that Pakistan could be a "mortal danger" to the United States caused a stir in Washington. Clinton later said she thought the Pakistani people also realized the seriousness of the situation.
"I do believe that there is an increasing awareness, on the part of not just the Pakistani government but Pakistani people, that this insurgency coming closer and closer to major cities does pose such a threat," she said at a House hearing.
For now, it remains to be seen whether the violence in Iraq and Pakistan will abate.