Saying that he had fulfilled his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, a solemn President Obama on Tuesday declared U.S. combat operations over — but with violence and political gridlock continuing to plague the country, he warned that America's mission is not complete.
In only his second Oval Office address to the nation, the president hailed the progress of Iraqi security forces and the symbolism of the U.S. troop drawdown — about 50,000 are slated to remain throughout 2011 in a supporting role — but he warned that American sacrifices will continue as part of a continued partnership with the fledgling democracy in Baghdad.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country. This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office," Mr. Obama said in the speech, which lasted about 20 minutes. "Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page."
Mr. Obama prodded Iraq's feuding politicians to "move forward with a sense of urgency" to end a months-long political stalemate and form a new government. At the same time, he called forunity in the U.S. around his own troop escalation in Afghanistan, while noting that the United States has a number of domestic issues to address as well.
With the Afghanistan war now nearly a decade old, "there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there," Mr. Obama said.
"But we must never lose sight of what's at stake. As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.
An early opponent of the war and subsequent troop surge in Iraq, Mr. Obama said political debates over the brutal conflict should not prevent all Americans from honoring the more than 1 million U.S. troops who served there.
More than 100,000 troops have left Iraq on Mr. Obama's watch. The war began under President George W. Bush with 90,000 troops in March 2003 and reached a high of 170,000 during the surge in October 2007. More than 4,400 members of the U.S. military have been killed during the conflict, according to the Associated Press.
During a visit with troops at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, ahead of his remarks, Mr. Obama insisted that the speech doesn't represent a "victory lap" — a sentiment that's borne out by continued insurgent attacks and the failure of Iraqi politicians to form a governing coalition six months after an election earlier this year.
Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee at nearly the same time that the milestone doesn't mean "all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq."
Still, Mr. Obama said the challenges have not shaken Iraqis' allegiance to their new constitution, nor their determination to control their destiny. He expressed confidence that Iraqi security forces would be able to maintain the gains made in the fighting over the past few years.
In his own nationally televised address hours before Mr. Obama spoke, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called Tuesday "an immortal day," despite the huge challenges still facing his country.
"Iraq today is sovereign and independent," he said. "With the execution of the troop pullout, our relations with the United States have entered a new stage between two equal, sovereign countries."
Republicans said Mr. Obama has essentially embraced the status-of-forces agreement Mr. Bush negotiated with Iraqi leaders at the end of his tenure, which left the plan for a structured withdrawal that Mr. Obama has embraced.
"By adopting the Bush administration's plan for winding down the war and transitioning security responsibilities to the Iraqi military over time, the president has enabled us and the Iraqis to build on the gains our troops have made," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a speech to the Lexington Public Policy Luncheon.
Mr. Obama said during the speech that he called Mr. Bush on Tuesday morning from Air Force One. While noting their differences on the war, he praised his predecessor's support for the troops and commitment to the U.S. security.
Still, the two men are tied together by the war. It defined Mr. Bush's tenure, and Mr. Obama's opposition to it was instrumental in helping him win the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Mr. Obama, then a U.S. senator, also opposed the 20,000-troop surge Mr. Bush developed in 2006 and announced in early 2007, saying at the time that it would hurt security. Mr. Obama even backed a resolution in the Senate disapproving of the escalation.
Now, though, White House aides insist the president never doubted the ability of the troops to help improve security, but that the bigger factor is the political progress Iraqi officials and religious leaders made.
Republicans said they fear Mr. Obama might squander those gains by focusing on his plan for full withdrawal by the end of 2011, rather than adjusting the U.S. military presence to conditions on the ground.
"Over the past several months, we've often heard about ending the war in Iraq, but not much about winning the war in Iraq. If we honor what our men and women fought for, we cannot turn our backs now on what they have achieved," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
The winding down of operations in Iraq comes as Mr. Obama is escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, where he has ordered 30,000 additional troops to fight the Taliban and secure the war-ravaged country. Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Bush's team for ignoring the war in Afghanistan, said the combat withdrawal in Iraq means that more resources can now be shifted there.
From 2003 through 2010, the U.S. spent $709 billion on operations in Iraq, according to the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office — about double what has been spent in Afghanistan and the rest of the war on terrorism.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday said the U.S. "paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people."
At Fort Bliss, the president personally greeted some 170 troops and relatives of troops gathered at a dining facility, telling them, "The most pride I take in my job is being your commander in chief.
"You are welcome home with open arms from every corner of this country. People could not be prouder of you, and we are grateful," he said.
Mr. Bush initially justified a pre-emptive war in Iraq by saying the international community needed to prevent dictator Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction, though no active nuclear or biological weapons programs were found in the subsequent years.
Early operations appeared to progress well, with the U.S.-led coalition taking Baghdad the next month and Mr. Bush infamously declaring that major combat operations were over that May, speaking in front of a "Mission accomplished" banner on board the USS Abraham Lincoln.
In December 2003, U.S. troops finally captured Saddam, who was executed three years later for crimes against humanity. But things took a turn for the worse after the U.S.-ordered dismantling of the Iraqi armed forces and the release of a series of photos in 2004 showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, a scandal that set off a firestorm of criticism and exacerbated already existing tensions.
Later, when a bomb demolished the dome of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006, it ignited a new round of sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and many analysts said the country was on the verge of a civil war.
Faced with a choice of withdrawing or increasing troops, Mr. Bush decided on the surge.
More than seven years after it began, polls show, the majority of Americans are opposed to the war. A national CBS News survey taken Aug. 20 to Aug. 24 found 59 percent said the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq and 72 percent think the Iraq war was not worth the cost in lives and money. Still, Mr. Obama earns solid marks for his handling of the drawdown, with 52 percent saying they approved.
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