ATLANTA, (AFP) – President Barack Obama pledged Monday that the United States will end its combat mission in Iraq as scheduled on August 31 despite a recent flare-up in violence.
Obama told a veterans group meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, that he would meet the deadline he established shortly after taking office “for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility.”
“I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end,” he told the group. “And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised, on schedule.”
When he became president, Obama inherited a security agreement with Baghdad that calls for all US forces to pull out by the end of 2011.
There are about 65,000 US soldiers currently stationed in Iraq and Obama has ordered the force to draw down to 50,000 by September 1.
He said the withdrawal would be “one of the largest logistics operations that we’ve seen in decades.”
His comments Monday came amid increasing violence in Iraq, with the Baghdad government releasing figures Saturday that said 535 people died in July, including 396 civilians, 89 policemen and 50 soldiers.
That figure was the highest for a single month since May 2008 when 563 people were killed in violence.
But Major General Stephen Lanza, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said the Iraqi figures did not “reflect the security situation” while data provided to media by unofficial sources were “grossly overstated.”
Obama said that even as militants try to derail the country’s progress, “violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years.”
He said the United States will maintain a transitional force in Iraq in the coming months and remove all of its troops by the end of 2011.
“And during this period, our forces will have a focused mission: supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts,” he said.
“Now, these are dangerous tasks. There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress. And the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.”
He argued however that the US mission is changing “from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama was “adopting” the program to wind down the war that was outlined by the administration of former president George W. Bush.
“So I commend the president for continuing the policies,” McConnell told Fox News television. “He… continued the policy in Iraq and I think we’ve made progress. Although, it’s still difficult there because the bombings continue.”
August 31 will officially mark the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which Bush launched with the March 2003 invasion of the country, White House officials said. The transitional mission will be called Operation New Dawn.
Obama announced the date for the end of US combat missions in Iraq at a speech in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in February 2009, a little over a month after taking office.
There were 144,000 US troops in Iraq when he took office.
Along with the troops, Washington is reducing its military equipment in the country.
By the end of August, US forces in Iraq will cut back its equipment from 3.4 million pieces in January 2009 to 1.2 million pieces, which are required to support the remaining troops, according to the White House.
The equipment is being transferred to Afghanistan, US military stockpiles and to Iraqi security forces.
By the end of the month, US forces are also scheduled to reduce from 121 to 94 the number of bases they occupy in Iraq, White House officials said.
By comparison, in June 2009, US troops occupied 357 Iraqi bases.