AMMAN, JORDAN — After visits to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama shifted his focus to Mideast peace efforts Tuesday as he arrived in the region for two days of talks with leaders in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The all-but-sure Democratic nominee for president vowed to work "from the minute I'm sworn in to office to try to find some breakthroughs" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I think it's unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region," Obama said shortly after his arrival in Jordan under tight security. "What a U.S. president can do is apply sustained energy and focus on the issues of the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Obama spoke in a dramatic setting, the ancient ruins atop Citadel Hill, or Jebel al Quala, near the towering pillars of the Temple of Hercules. Across the valley behind him, thousands of concrete dwellings were visible, terraced across the steep hillsides of Amman, the capital. Soldiers with heavy weaponry patrolled the roasting hilltop as dust clouds swirled around Obama's lectern.
Obama's nine-day trip abroad is aimed at building voter confidence in his ability to handle foreign affairs at a time when Republican rival John McCain is portraying him as naive and unfit to protect the nation's security.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Tuesday, McCain mocked the first-term Illinois senator for making "his first trip to Afghanistan ever" in recent days and getting his "first briefing ever" from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Today, Obama plans to visit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. He will also spend time in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, a memorial to Holocaust victims.
Obama flew from Amman to Tel Aviv on Tuesday night.
He arrived in Jordan after wrapping up his Iraq visit on Tuesday morning with a stop in Ramadi, once a breeding ground of the Sunni Arab insurgency. He met for three hours with tribal leaders who voiced concern, he said, that a "precipitous" withdrawal could lead to new violence.
"I have proposed a steady, deliberate drawdown over the course of 16 months, and I emphasized that to them," Obama said.
Obama said Petraeus, who met with him Monday, made clear that he "does not want a timetable" for a U.S. pullout. But Obama renewed his call for a gradual withdrawal of troops, saying the U.S. needs to shift forces to Afghanistan to fight resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda forces planning terrorist attacks.
Unlike a commander in chief, Obama said, Petraeus does not need to think about how some of the $10 billion spent by the U.S. on the Iraq war each month could be used "to shore up a U.S. economy that is really hurting right now."
Even as he left the combat zones of Iraq behind, an attack Tuesday morning near the Jerusalem hotel where Obama planned to stay illustrated the enduring violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Palestinian man rammed a construction vehicle into a city bus and four vehicles, injuring six people before an Israeli civilian and border policeman shot and killed him.
Obama called the attack "a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long." Terrorism makes Israelis "want to dig in and simply think about their own security, regardless of what's going on beyond their borders," he said.
At the same time, Palestinians get frustrated when "they can't get to their job or they can't make a living" on the West Bank or in Gaza, he added. "It's hard for them, if they see no glimmer of hope, to then want to take that leap in order to make concessions."
Obama's calibration of the balance between Israeli and Palestinian interests showed the delicate task he faces in weighing the impact of his Mideast trip back home -- particularly on Jewish voters.
He is scheduled to meet today with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
He also plans to confer in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In Jordan, Obama met privately with King Abdullah II at Beit al Urdun palace. Afterward, they joined Queen Rania and invited guests for dinner. Abdullah drove Obama to the airport in his Mercedes 600, dropping him off on the tarmac. Jordanian soldiers wearing red-pattern kaffiyehs saluted Obama as he headed up the stairs of the plane.
The king, who cut short a visit to the United States to greet Obama, released a statement saying he told Obama "that ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and achieving a just settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict tops the priorities of the people of the Middle East."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.