BAGHDAD — During an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reassure anxious Iraqis that the U.S. would not abandon them despite plans to start withdrawing U.S. troops soon.
Her visit coincided with a sudden surge of violence that had claimed the lives of nearly 160 people in the previous two days. But Clinton said she was confident that the bloodshed did not mean recent gains in security were being eroded.
"These are tragic, terrible events, but they don't reflect any diversion from the security progress that has been made," she told reporters at a news briefing with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Clinton's first visit to Iraq as secretary of State came the day after two suicide bombers killed 71 people at a Shiite Muslim shrine. The previous day, 88 people died in two other bombings, stirring fear that the insurgency is recovering its strength as U.S. forces are preparing to leave.
Nearly half the victims were Iranian pilgrims who were visiting Iraqi shrines. On Saturday, Iran's supreme leader accused the United States of carrying out the attacks.
"The main suspects in this crime and crimes similar to that are American security and military forces who ruthlessly occupied the Muslim country under the umbrella of the 'war on terrorism,' " Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, Iranian state television reported.
Many Iraqis, regardless of religious or ethnic group, appear to resent the increased role Iran has played in their country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military alleges that some Shiite insurgent groups receive arms and training from Iran.
Khamenei's accusation may be taken by such militants as a signal to step up attacks on U.S. forces.
Clinton said the ayatollah's statement was disappointing, and blamed the attacks instead on remnants of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and other violent groups.
She said Iraq could continue to count on U.S. support, albeit in different forms.
"The end of the United States combat presence in Iraq by 2011 will mark the beginning of a new phase of our countries' relationship. As we draw down militarily, we will deepen our civilian cooperation," she said.
President Obama's plan calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq's cities by the end of June, combat forces to leave the country by the end of August 2010, and all troops to be gone by the end of the following year.
But many Iraqis are concerned that the U.S. is pulling out too soon. At the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy, Clinton held one of the town hall meetings that have become a hallmark of her diplomacy, and some members of the invited audience of about 100 Iraqis expressed their anxieties.
"Frankly, some people are afraid and concerned," one Iraqi stood up and told her. "There are so many people who don't trust the Iraqi security forces."
Clinton responded that Iraqis needed to set aside their sectarian differences so they could learn to trust their security forces. "The more united Iraq is, the more you will trust the security forces," she said.
Another member of the audience asked whether the U.S. was engaged in a "kind of retreat" from Iraq. Clinton replied that America remains "very committed" to the country.
"But the nature of our commitment will look very different because we are withdrawing our combat troops over the next few years," she said. "We want to see a stable, self-reliant, sovereign Iraq."
Visits by top U.S. officials are routinely kept under wraps for security reasons, and the Iraqis attending the event had not been told they would be meeting with Clinton.
Sheik Kadhem Qureishi, a cleric from the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City who was seated in the front row, said he was pleasantly surprised to hear that Clinton would be hosting the meeting.
"It's an indication of her good intentions and the interest of the American people in Iraq," he said.
Also on Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed in an attack on his patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk, the military said. The death brought the number of U.S. military fatalities in the Iraq war to 4,278, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Ahmed is a Times staff writer.