- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2009

Announcing an end date to a six-year-long war he opposed and campaigned against, President Obama Friday said he will bring home more than 90,000 troops from Iraq over the next 18 months.

“Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” Mr. Obama declared at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling military base in North Carolina that houses the largest concentration of Marines and Navy personnel in the world.

Mr. Obama, acknowledging “difficult days ahead” as the U.S. acts to give Iraqis full responsibility with the aim of a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” country, said that up to 50,000 troops would remain after the deadline to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.

The plan drew praise from voters, military leaders and lawmakers, including his rival for the presidency, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but it did raise some concerns among anti-war groups and Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat and co-founder of the Out-of-Iraq caucus, said she was “deeply troubled,” called the residual troop force level “unacceptable,” and reminded the president he won the election in part because of his promise to end the war.

Mr. Obama praised the military’s efforts but stopped shy of crediting the Bush administration’s troop surge, which the White House said quelled violence but didn’t produce the promised political reconciliation on the ground.

The president called former President George W. Bush before the speech, in what was described as a brief, cordial courtesy call. He also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to detail the plan and to get his agreement that Christopher Hill would serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

The troops cheered for the president and received him warmly, not a major surprise, especially since his frequent campaign visits to North Carolina - including in military strongholds - helped him win the longtime Republican-leaning “red” state in November. It was Mr. Obama’s first visit to a military base since becoming commander in chief Jan. 20.

Since the war began in March 2003 and Saddam Hussein was toppled, more than 4,200 U.S. troops have been killed.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the lone Cabinet holdover fromthe Bush administration, said there is no set timeline for how many troops would come home and when.

“There will be drawdowns this year of combat brigades, but in terms of how many and when, I think we’ll wait and get the specific recommendations from General [Ray] Odierno,” he said, referring to the commander of troops in Iraq.

Should conditions on the ground change, the troops remaining would be capable of combat, Mr. Gates said.

While speaking to the Marines - many of whom will be redeployed to Afghanistan as part of the president’s plan to add 17,000 troops there - Mr. Obama touted his own budget proposals to give the military a pay raise and help veterans, and promised that his administration would make military families a top priority.

After the speech, he met with wounded Marines and their families.

Mr. Obama said the U.S. will help Iraq build international trade and commerce to make sure it will not support or be a safe haven for terrorists.

“Our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed,” he said.

The president said the United States will engage the entire region, including Iran and Syria, because “we can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation.” He said his goals are to refocus on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and actively seek “a lasting peace” between Israel and the Arab world.

The president’s plan would remove between 92,000 and 107,000 troops from Iraq over the next year and a half, until full withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011, under the Status of Forces Agreement approved by the Iraqi government last year.

There are currently about 142,000 troops in Iraq.

Senior administration officials told reporters that working groups and weeks of discussion led to three options: the 16-month plan, the 18-month plan the president chose, and a 23-month plan some advisers wanted.

Mr. Obama’s presidential candidacy was bolstered in both the primaries and general election by his early opposition to the Iraq war, which his primary rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, voted for in October 2002. The war also was a central theme of his race against Mr. McCain, a Vietnam veteran who warned that Mr. Obama’s Iraq policy was dangerous.

Mrs. Pelosi and other critics said they don’t understand the justification for 50,000 troops for the additional 16 months.

Anti-war Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, one of Mr. Obama’s opponents in the early primaries, said the plan was the “right direction” but doesn’t go far enough.

Anti-war activist group ANSWER was even tougher, calling it a “major disappointment,” accusing the president of agreeing “to continue the criminal occupation of Iraq indefinitely” and blasting him for not criticizing the invasion during Friday’s speech.

The group is planning a march on the Pentagon on March 21.

But Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets, said the plan was a “huge step toward winding down the war.”

“We’re relieved that President Obama is now moving in this direction … [and] commend [him] for having the clarity of vision to do what is right, and follow through with his promise to begin the process of redeploying from Iraq,” he said.

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