, BAGHDAD, Apr 25 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met top American military commanders in Baghdad on Saturday on a surprise trip to assess and discuss the country’s fragile security situation with Iraqi leaders.
America’s top diplomat landed in the Iraqi capital a day after two suicide attackers killed 55 Shiite pilgrims at a shrine in the city, and less than 48 hours after a similar attack killed dozens in a northern town.
A spike in bombings has claimed more than 250 lives so far this month in a wave of violence that has engulfed the country just nine weeks before US troops are due to leave Iraqi cities and major towns.
Clinton was met at Baghdad international airport by the newly-arrived US ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, the US military commander Admiral Michael Mullen, and Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Clinton flew in from Kuwait and was immediately whisked off to meet General Ray Odierno, the senior US army officer in Iraq, at the US embassy in Baghdad.
"I want his evaluation of what these kinds of rejectionist efforts mean and what can be done to prevent them by both the Iraqi government and the US forces," Clinton said, referring to suicide attacks on Thursday and Friday.
The secretary of state was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and the United Nations Secretary General’s special representative to Iraq Staffan de Mistura.
"We want to display and reinforce our continuing commitment to the Iraqi people and to the stability, security and self reliance of Iraq," Clinton said on her fourth trip to the war-torn nation, but her first as secretary of state.
"The Iraqi government has come a long, long way," she added, noting that the recent level of attacks was regrettable but not on a par with the violence that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2006.
"I see no signs of that at this time, in part because in any conflict there comes a point; sometimes it’s far later than we would wish, where a critical mass of people on all sides just says enough," Clinton said.
"The suicide bombings that are lethal and terrible in the loss of lives and injuries they inflict are, in an unfortunately tragic way, a signal that the rejectionists fear that Iraq is going in the right direction."
US soldiers are due to withdraw from Iraqi cities and major towns by the end of June under an agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad last November.
Clinton’s trip also came two weeks after President Barack Obama visited Baghdad and warned that the next 18 months in Iraq would be "critical".
In February, Obama announced a new strategy that will see most combat troops withdraw by August 2010, although a force of up to 50,000 will remain until the end of the following year.
Violence has fallen dramatically since the Sahwa, mostly former Sunni insurgents, allied with US forces against Al-Qaeda in late 2006 as more American troops poured into the country under former president George W. Bush’s "surge" strategy.
But the past few weeks have witnessed an alarming rise in bombings and suicide attacks.
The toll from Friday’s blasts brought to at least 140 the number of people who have died in the past 48 hours as suicide bombers targeted areas packed with civilians in the capital and a restaurant filled with Iranian pilgrims in central Diyala province.
Hundreds of worshippers had gathered to pray at the Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine in the historic and predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah in northern Baghdad when the attackers struck Friday lunchtime.
Clinton’s visit comes days after the US Senate finally approved the appointment of veteran US diplomat Hill as the new administration’s ambassador to Baghdad.
The former US pointman on North Korea’s nuclear programme inherits the post at a sensitive time six years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and as Obama begins to pull troops out of the country.