Obama in Iraq to push for political progress

BAGHDAD, April 7 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama flew to Baghdad on Tuesday to meet U.S. military commanders and Iraqi leaders, making his first trip as president after announcing his new strategy to wind down the unpopular six-year-old war.

Obama's visit to Baghdad was shrouded in the secrecy typical of similar trips made by his predecessor George W. Bush. For security reasons the visit was not publicised beforehand and was made known only after Air Force One had touched down at Baghdad International Airport.

Obama flew from Istanbul at the end of his first major international tour, making his first visit to Iraq since before he won the White House in the November 2008 U.S. election.

His arrival came a day after a string of seemingly coordinated bombings across the Iraqi capital killed 37 people. On Tuesday, a car bomb killed nine people and wounded 20 in the Shi'ite Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, police said. [nL7548804].

The attacks underscored security challenges as the U.S. military prepares to implement Obama's order to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010.

Obama said he had come to Iraq for face-to-face meetings and to get a better sense of the security situation.

"We spent a lot of time trying to get Afghanistan right (but) there's still a lot of work to be done here," he told reporters in Baghdad before meeting the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno.

The sectarian warfare and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have receded sharply over the past year, but Iraqi security forces still face huge challenges as they take on policing and military operations from the United States.

Obama said there had been significant progress in Iraq, but that much work remained to be done by the leaders of Iraq's squabbling political factions to reach "equitable, fair" solutions.

Bad weather prevented Obama from flying to the Green Zone, the heavily guarded compound that houses the Iraqi government in central Baghdad. But the White House said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would travel to Camp Victory, the sprawling U.S. base near the airport, to see the president.

Under Obama's new Iraq war strategy, announced in February, the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be drawn down to between 35,000 and 50,000 - a number that anti-war critics consider too high -- by the end of August 2010. Their mission will be redefined mostly to help train Iraqi forces. But they too must leave by the end of 2011.

Additional reporting by Michael Christie, Ahmed Rasheed and Mohammed Abbas, Writing by Ross Colvin, Editing by Frances Kerry