President Obama declared Friday that he will withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, ending talks for an extended deployment with Baghdad and ruling against the earlier advice of some senior military commanders who had recommended keeping several thousand troops there into 2012.
"I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year," Mr. Obama said at the White House. "After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
The decision ends one of America's longest wars, and caps months of unsuccessful negotiations with Iraq over the issue of immunity for American troops should they stay beyond 2011. Mr. Obama made the announcement after speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on a private video conference.
Currently there are nearly 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. While Mr. Obama declared that the war is over, the schedule for total withdraw of U.S. troops is in accordance with a deal struck by President George W. Bush in 2008.
In September, the administration aired plans to reduce the U.S. troop strength in Iraq to about 3,000 by year's end. Some senior military advisers were said to be "livid" about the reduction in force, arguing that more troops were needed to keep training Iraqi forces and to serve as a guard against renewed influence in the country by neighboring Iran.
And while violence is down sharply from its peak levels of five years ago, sectarian violence remains a constant feature of Iraqi life, with both Sunni and Shiite militants regularly staging bombings and other attacks. In just the latest incident, Iraqi officials said a triple bombing in the capital of Baghdad killed at least three people this week.
U.S. military officials have expressed growing alarm in recent weeks about aid they say is being given to Iraqi insurgents from Iran.
But the Iraqi prime minister was also under intense pressure from his anti-American coalition allies, the Sadrists, to reject any American military presence. An adviser close to Mr. al-Maliki told the Associated Press earlier this week that American officials have discussed the possibility of redeploying many of the Iraq-based forces to neighboring Kuwait.
Mr. Obama, an opponent of the war, declared in August 2010 that the combat mission had ended, but had kept his options open until Friday on whether the U.S. military presence would extend in some other capacity.
"Over the next two months our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home," Mr. Obama said Friday. "The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops."
More than 4,400 U.S. service members have been killed since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The U.S. and Iraq had been in talks about keeping more American troops there beyond 2011, but Iraqi leaders, facing fierce domestic political cross-currents, refused to give U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. The U.S. refused to allow its soldiers to stay without such a guarantee.
"We talked about immunity," said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser to the president. "We feel like we got exactly what we needed to protect our interests."
Mr. McDonough said the U.S. will continue to have a "robust security cooperation" with Iraq as military consultants and others remain in the country to provide training on American equipment. For example, Iraq just purchased F-16s from the U.S.
National security aides said Iraqi forces have become much more competent at handling their own security. And they noted that security threat incidents in Iraq have dropped from about 1,500 per week in 2007 to about 150 per week currently.
Mr. Obama had promised during the 2008 presidential campaign to end the war, a pledge he reminded his audience of on Friday.
"After a decade of war the nation that we need to build and the nation that we will build is our own, an America that sees its economic strength restored just as we've restored our leadership around the globe," Mr. Obama said.
His announcement capped a week in which NATO and Libyan rebel forces also hunted down and killed Col. Moammar Gadhafi, seven months after Mr. Obama initiated a military operation in Libya.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who in 2006 memorably insisted that the war was "lost," praised Mr. Obama's move as "the right decision at the right time."
Said the Nevada Democrat, "The Iraqi people have demonstrated the capability to secure their own country, and it is time for us to leave."
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