Obama: End of Iraq combat mission not ‘a victory lap’
After his remarks, the president shook hands with each of the soldiers and family members gathered in the base dining hall, asking where they or their loved ones had served. He also met separately with families of deceased troops.
As he left the room, Mr. Obama said: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this time with you and see all of you face to face. Just know that we’re all thinking about you and all praying for your families.”
Mr. Obama’s comments were echoed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who told an American Legion audience in Milwaukee, “This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished.”
“I am not saying all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,” he continued, noting the continued violence and lack of a new government. The combat mission in Iraq has left more than 4,400 U.S. troops dead and thousands more wounded.
Mr. Obama was an early critic of the war, speaking out against it during the U.S. invasion and promising during his presidential campaign to bring the conflict to an end. The White House sees Tuesday’s benchmark as a promise kept and has gone to great lengths to promote it as such, dispatching Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Iraq to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony and raising Tuesday night’s remarks to the level of an Oval Office address, something Mr. Obama has done only once before.
Appearing on nationally broadcast interviews Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly brushed aside questions about whether Mr. Obama would credit Mr. Bush’s troop surge with helping to pave the way for the withdrawal.
Top Republicans, however, were in no doubt.
“Some leaders who opposed, criticized and fought tooth and nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said, in excerpts of a speech he was to give to the American Legion convention in Milwaukee. “Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated, but progress.”
Since the start of the war, 200,000 personnel from Fort Bliss have deployed to Iraq, serving in every major phase of the war. Fifty-one soldiers from the base have died there, and many more were wounded.