President Obama on Monday said the U.S. is on track to have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this month and all troops gone from the country by the end of next year — even as it has been gripped by a recent spate of violence and a political stalemate.
In a speech before the Disabled American Veterans meeting in Atlanta, Mr. Obama made his first extensive remarks on the Iraq war in months, reiterating his pledge to end the U.S. combat mission in the seven-year-old war and laying out the transition to assuming a merely supportive role.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “Make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing — from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.”
The drawdown in U.S. troops comes as Iraqi politicians remain deadlocked over the formation of a new governing coalition and violence has surged in recent weeks. July was the deadliest month in Iraq in more than two years with 535 people killed, according to Iraqi figures released Saturday. The deadliest month ever was May 2008, when 563 people were killed.
The U.S. government has disputed the those figures, saying only 222 Iraqis were killed last month.
As Mr. Obama’s order for a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan remains controversial, the speech is an opportunity for him to shift attention to a country where the U.S. is ending its military mission by following through on the drawdown agreement that the Bush administration struck with the Iraqi government. Combat forces are set to leave by Aug. 31 and all troops are scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2011.
Mr. Obama’s comments drew a quick rebuke from Republicans who noted that, as a senator, he opposed the troop surge that is widely credited with reducing violence there.
“As the drawdown of U.S. forces continues throughout the next 17 months, we hope that President Obama continues to keep in mind his promise to listen to the commanders on the ground and make decisions based on their counsel,” House Republican Leader John Boehner’s office noted in a press release Monday.
Mr. Obama, who won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 in part because he opposed the Iraq war from the start, said the end of the war closes that debate and is a chance to pay tribute to the troops who fought and died there.
“Our nation has had vigorous debates about the Iraq War. There are patriots who supported going to war and patriots who opposed it. But there has never been any daylight between us when it comes to supporting the more than 1 million Americans in uniform who have served in Iraq — far more than any conflict since Vietnam,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama touted his administration’s record on veterans issues, noting that under his watch the Veterans Administration budget has surged and eligibility for benefits has expanded. He also said the government is hiring thousands of new claims processors and reforming the claims process to help deal with the massive backlog and concurrent delays.