President-elect Barack Obama said Monday that the U.S. is now “on a glide path” to have all combat troops out of Iraq 16 months after he takes office, but continued to leave wiggle room that vexes antiwar voters.
In his first extensive public comments on Iraq since winning the election, Mr. Obama said he will make good on his campaign promise to give the military a new mission to end the Iraq war “responsibly,” though he added that the deadline could shift depending on both U.S. troops’ and Iraqis’ security.
“I believe that 16 months is the right time frame,” Mr. Obama said after announcing his national security team that includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state andDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has overseen military gains in Iraq under President Bush.
“But as I have said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders. And my number one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.”
Antiwar groups found him too timid, saying Mr. Obama always has left room for keeping troops in Iraq longer than many voters have anticipated.
“There’s a lot of disappointment on the part of the peace movement,” said Barbra Bearden, spokeswoman for the national group Peace Action, which has started a “No soldier left behind” program to pressure Mr. Obama to fully remove troops.
Mr. Obama on Monday also tapped for his team retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones to be his national security adviser, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to be homeland security secretary, Eric H. Holder Jr. to be attorney general, and Susan Rice to be ambassador to the United Nations.
The president-elect has clashed with both Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton over Iraq and other foreign-policy priorities, and some observers said he was abandoning his pledge for change by asking them to be part of his administration.
“Obama’s decision to turn to a cadre of insiders who refused to speak out against the Iraq war before it began, and who have since deflected calls to end the mission in a timely fashion, suggests that we will only get more of the same,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign-policy studies for the Cato Institute.
Miss Bearden of Peace Action said antiwar groups have always been skeptical about Mr. Obama’s plans to end the war since he “never fully addressed the ideas of permanent bases, or residual troops, or how reconstruction or diplomatic efforts will be handled, all of which involve troops on the ground.”
“The devil is in the details; he has been vague on when his withdrawal date would be,” she said.
But others who have long called for troop reductions withheld criticism, saying Mr. Obama will deliver the change he promised and that any withdrawal is a good start for troops who have served multiple tours.
Mr. Obama said the status of forces agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament last week “points us in the right direction” for a withdrawal of troops. The agreement calls for U.S. forces to be withdrawn by the end of 2011.
Mr. Obama has said he would consider leaving a “residual force” of U.S. troops to provide training for Iraqi security forces or to protect U.S. civilians in Iraq.
“We will have to remain vigilant in making sure that any terrorist elements that remain in Iraq do not become strengthened as a consequence of our drawdown,” he said.
Officials at the United Nations said they were relieved by Mr. Obama’s pick of U.N. ambassador and hopeful it would mark renewed engagement for the U.S.
“We have been without strong leadership from one of the most powerful countries in the system,” said a U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss another nation. Over the past few months, he said, lack of U.S. engagement had dragged out difficult negotiations over the peacekeeping mission in Sudan and delayed discussions on budgetary matters.
The choice of Mrs. Clinton to head the State Department was also welcomed by many ambassadors, who feel they already know her after eight years of her husband’s presidency.
Mr. Obama said his security team brings together “strong personalities and strong opinions” in an effort to encourage debate and avoid “groupthink.”
The president-elect acknowledged past disagreements with members of his team, particularly Mrs. Clinton, but said they share the same broad vision for American power and diplomacy.
“I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made. So as Harry Truman said, the buck will stop with me,” Mr. Obama said.
Unlike previous announcements, Mr. Obama allowed each member of his national security team to address reporters, and they laid out a decidedly internationalist approach, promising to work with other nations and to build international institutions.
Mrs. Clinton spoke first, thanking the people of New York for electing her twice to serve as senator. She said it was a tough decision made when she remembered her own frequent campaign promise that America’s standing in the world must be renewed as a force for positive change.
“President Kennedy once said that engaging the world to meet the threats we face was the greatest adventure of our century,” she said. “Well, Mr. President-elect, I am proud to join you on what will be a difficult and exciting adventure in this new century. And may God bless you and all who serve with you and our great country.”
Mr. Obama took six questions, bringing his total to 28 questions in the five news conferences he has held since winning the election.
He and Mrs. Clinton left the news conference each with an arm on the other’s back, chatting.
Mr. Obama appeared relaxed later Monday on the flight from snowy Chicago to Philadelphia, where he was to meet with the nation’s governors.
Jacket off, he perched on the edge of his seat in the first-class cabin for much of the charter flight.
He laughed frequently, checked his BlackBerry and gestured as he told his aides - including press secretary Robert Gibbs and adviser Valerie Jarrett - what seemed to be a funny story.
• Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from the United Nations.