President Obama welcomed home some of the last U.S. troops from Iraq on Wednesday, thanking them and their families for their years of sacrifice and service and pledging to help them transition to life after combat.
The visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., home to the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces command, was part of a week of events marking the end of the tumultuous nine-year war that toppled Saddam Hussein but also strained the U.S. military as civil war broke out and troops became targets for al Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent operations.
"As your commander in chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: Welcome home!" Mr. Obama told a sea of servicemen and women in desert fatigues assembled inside an airplane hangar at Fort Bragg.
Mr. Obama said the troops are returning with their heads held high, but stopped short of declaring victory in Iraq, deeming the success in reducing violence in the country and winding down the conflict "an extraordinary achievement."
"It's harder to end a war than to begin one," he told roughly 3,000 soldiers, who cheered and responded to lines in the speech with cries of "Hooah!"
By the end of this week, about 5,500 troops will be left in Iraq, down from a high of 170,000 during the surge in 2007. Every one of them will have left by the end of this month.
Michelle Obama, speaking before her husband took the stage, expressed a special thanks to the families of those who have been deployed who "might not wear uniforms, but serve right alongside you."
Hinting of the implications of the troop withdrawal on Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, Mrs. Obama, also stressed that the president kept his promise "to responsibly bring you home from Iraq."
Before addressing the troops, the president and first lady visited with five servicemen and women who had recently returned home, and with the family of a soldier who was killed Nov. 14 when his convoy struck a roadside bomb.
"We hope he is the last casualty from the war," said one female soldier in the crowd who asked to remain anonymous.
The soldier said she wasn't sure whether the U.S. had accomplished what it set out to do in Iraq, but the time had come for the military to leave and let the Iraqis take over.
Leaving Iraq allows Mr. Obama to concentrate his attention on the country's economic concerns and on the task of winding down the war in Afghanistan.
But prominent critics, such as Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr. Obama and lost in 2008, wanted some troops to remain in Iraq to help stabilize the country and establish it as a democratic U.S. ally in the Middle East. They said Mr. Obama was allowing domestic political concerns to dictate the end of the war, instead of the situation in Iraq.
Mr. McCain also accused Mr. Obama of a bit of hypocrisy by failing to acknowledge the success of the 2007 troop surge, which Mr. McCain supported during the presidential race and Mr. Obama ardently opposed.
"All of this is possible because in 2007, with the war nearly lost, we changed our strategy, changed our leaders in the field, and sent more troops. This policy was vehemently opposed at the time by the president and his senior leaders, often right here on the floor of the Senate," Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, on Wednesday wrote an open letter to Mr. Obama arguing that "words of welcome to our returning soldiers is not enough," calling it a "disgrace" that veterans of the Iraq war face higher unemployment than the national average.
Throughout the fall, Mr. Obama has unveiled several initiatives aimed at helping returning veterans find work, including a tax credit for companies that hire veterans and an effort headed by Mrs. Obama to win commitments from the private sector to create 100,000 jobs for veterans.
"Our commitment [to you] doesn't end when you take off the uniform," Mr. Obama told the troops.
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