WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama has consigned the Iraq war to history, declaring he will end combat operations within 18 months and open a new era of diplomacy in the Middle East.
Even so, Obama will leave the bulk of troops in place this year, contrary to the hopes of Democratic leaders for a speedier pullout. And after combat forces withdraw, 35,000 to 50,000 will stay behind for an additional year-and-a-half of support and counterterrorism duties.
Just six weeks into office, Obama used blunt terms and promised to write the last chapter of a war that began six years ago. It has cost more in lives, money and national stamina than ever envisioned.
“Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” Obama said Friday to Marines who are about to deploy by the thousands to America’s other war front, Afghanistan.
Like Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon before him, Obama came into office with an inherited war he pledged to end without delay. Eisenhower did, in Korea. Nixon didn’t, in Vietnam. Obama says he will. “Iraq’s future is now its own responsibility,” Obama said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flanked Obama during the announcement. It was a symbolic statement that top military advisers are on board with a strategy some had openly questioned before Obama’s inauguration.
In Congress, Democratic leaders remained cool to the suggestion that tens of thousands of troops would remain. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said Obama’s announcement was good news because it meant an end to the war, but she cautioned that the troops left behind must have a “clearly defined” mission. Obama succeeded in winning over most Republicans, who initially dismissed the timeline as arbitrary.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidency to Obama, said he supported the plan. “Let us have no crisis of confidence now,” he told his colleagues on the Senate floor Friday. “Instead, let us welcome home our fighting men and women, not just thanking them for serving in Iraq, but congratulating them on bringing us to victory there.”
More than five years have passed since Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, a statement that proved false as sectarian violence brought Iraq to the brink of disaster.
Obama did not claim a mission accomplished. Instead, he suggested America accomplished the mission as best it could.
“What we will not do is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals,” he said. “We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq’s streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq’s union is perfected.”
Obama’s promise to pull home the last of the U.S. troops by the end of 2011 is in accord with a deal that Iraqis signed with former President George W. Bush.
Meantime, Obama is accelerating the end of the war by withdrawing roughly 100,000 troops by the summer of 2010. Obama was moving to fulfill in large measure the defining promise of his campaign, to end combat operations within 16 months of taking office. He is doing it in 19 months instead.
More than 4,250 Americans have been killed in Iraq, a costly, unpopular enterprise at home that Obama criticized when support for the invasion was strong and few other politicians dared stand against it. Total Iraqi deaths are unknown but number in the tens of thousands and are perhaps above 100,000.
Obama applauded the armed forces for its successes in Iraq, where U.S. deaths and violence in many parts of the country are significantly down. He never credited Bush’s buildup of troops in 2007 as contributing to those improvements. The president also told the Iraqi people they will not be forgotten.
“Our nations have known difficult times together,” he said. “But ours is a bond forged by shared bloodshed, and countless friendships among our people.
Yet he acknowledged violence will remain “a part of life” and daunting problems include political instability, displaced citizens and the stress of declining oil revenues. In Iraq, where several TV stations showed Obama’s speech live, some citizens applauded the ironclad withdrawal plan while others questioned whether Iraq could defend itself alone.
The president, who ran against the war in his upstart White House bid, said the Iraq conflict is one huge, painful lesson. Admonishing the Bush era, Obama said the U.S. must no longer go to war without clearly defined goals. He said it must communicate the costs of war clearly, use diplomacy as well as military might.