- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

UPDATED:

Announcing an end to a 6-year-old war he opposed and campaigned against, President Obama Friday said he will bring home more than 90,000 troops from Iraq over the next 18 months.

“Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” he said, promising a “new era of engagement in the world.”

Mr. Obama made his announcement from Camp Lejeune in Cherry Point, N.C., his first visit to a military base since becoming president Jan. 20 in a speech peppered with applause.

“The United States will pursue a new strategy to end the war in Iraq through a transition to full Iraqi responsibility,” he said. “This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.”

“To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region,” he said. “Our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.”

Though Mr. Obama has said former President George W. Bush made a mistake to invade Iraq, he paid his predecessor a “courtesy” call to brief him on the troop withdrawal plan, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. Obama also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to detail the plan and to get his agreement that Christopher Hill would serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

The president’s plan would remove between 92,000 and 107,000 troops from Iraq over the next year and a half, until full withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011.

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There are currently about 142,000 troops in Iraq. By next August — more than 7 years since it began and Mr. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” — between 35,000 and 50,000 troops will remain there, Mr. Obama said.

“Every nation and every group must know — whether you wish America good or ill — that the end of the war in Iraq will enable a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East,” the president said. “As a nation, we have had our share of debates about the war in Iraq. It has, at times, divided us as a people. To this very day, there are some Americans who want to stay in Iraq longer, and some who want to leave faster. But there should be no disagreement on what the men and women of our military have achieved.”

The president lauded the achievements of the U.S. military, saying thanks to them Iraq has improved and violence “has been reduced substantially,” adding they will leave Iraq’s citizens “with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life.”

Mr. Obama also warned, “But let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.” “Too many fundamental political questions about Iraqs future remain unresolved,” he said. “Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute. Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has had difficulty delivering basic services. Not all of Iraqs neighbors are contributing to its security. Some are working at times to undermine it. And even as Iraqs government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner — politically and economically — in the region, or with the international community.”

He said he made the decision after “careful consideration of events on the ground” and “the simple reality that America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities” such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He noted that as combat brigades move out, the United States will pursue “sustained diplomacy on behalf of a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq.”

“The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraqs future is now its own responsibility,” he said. “The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraqs leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people. Iraq is a sovereign country with legitimate institutions; America cannot — and should not — take their place. However, a strong political, diplomatic, and civilian effort on our part can advance progress and help lay a foundation for lasting peace and security.”

An opening prayer before the event asked god to guide political leaders with the “knowledge, prudence and justice to lead our nation.”

Mr. Obama offered a message to the Iraqi people, noting their rich history, to make America’s intentions “clear.”

“The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources,” he said. “We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country. And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations.”

He acknowledged there will be people “who will insist that Iraqs differences cannot be reconciled without more killing.”

“They represent the forces that destroy nations and lead only to despair, and they will test our will in the months and years to come,” Mr. Obama said. “America, too, has known these forces. We endured the pain of Civil War, and bitter divisions of region and race. But hostility and hatred are no match for justice; they offer no pathway to peace; and they must not stand between the people of Iraq and a future of reconciliation and hope.”

The president said the United States will engage the entire region, including Iran and Syria because “we can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation.”

He said his goals are to refocus on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and actively seeking “a lasting peace” between Israel and the Arab world.

He touted his own budget proposals to give military a pay raise, increase the funding for the Veterans Administration and the size of the military, and promised his administration would make military families a top priority.

Mr. Obama said his administration will ask for more help from the international community to settle refugees and displaced Iraqis.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the lone Bush-era Cabinet member that Mr. Obama asked to remain in place, appeared at the president’s side amid a backdrop of Marines.

In fulfilling a campaign promise with slightly different timetable than initially proposed, Mr. Obama earned support from his presidential rival Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“I think the plan is reasonable,” Mr. McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor Friday morning. “I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success.”

The Republican, who once accused Mr. Obama of being willing to lose the war to win the election, said the administration must be “cautious” about the withdrawal and noted the president reserves the right “revisit” the plan.

Mr. McCain also urged Mr. Obama “not to succumb to pressures, political or otherwise, to make deeper or faster cuts” or to leave fewer than 50,000 troops in Iraq.

He lauded the “dramatic success of the surge strategy,” something he staked his own political future on, but noted the gains are “fragile.”

Mr. Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war on a 16-month withdrawal timetable, adding he wanted to be “as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.”

Senior administration officials briefed reporters Thursday night on the decision, which they said Mr. Obama came to Wednesday after a meeting with his National Security Council and “a very rigorous process,” and “intensive work” over weeks of discussion.

“We believe that this is a plan that will advance our interests in Iraq and the region, that will ensure that we can responsibly bring our troops home, and increase our flexibility as it relates to our mission,” one official told reporters, speaking on a condition of anonymity because the president had not yet announced the policy.

After the combat mission concludes next August, the troops remaining in Iraq will take on a limited mission encompassing three goals. They will help to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces, protect civilian and military personnel and conduct counterterrorism missions, the officials said.

Mr. Obama’s presidential candidacy was bolstered in both the primary and general election by his early opposition to the Iraq war, which his primary rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted for in October 2002. The war also was a central theme of his race against Mr. McCain, a Vietnam veteran who warned the Obama Iraq policy was dangerous.

On the campaign trail Mr. Obama called Iraq a distraction from the war in Afghanistan, which he believes is the central front of the terrorism fight. Mr. Obama announced this month he soon will increase troop presence in Afghanistan by 17,000.

The officials said some troops in Iraq will return home “relatively quickly,” in part so Mr. Obama’s plan to redeploy troops to Afghanistan can begin.

The officials said Mr. Obama would not dictate to generals on the ground an exact pullout timeline for troops in Iraq, and noted there was concern about making sure there were enough forces on the ground to help provide security for upcoming regional and national elections.

The new plan fits in line with the Status of Forces Agreement the Iraqi government agreed upon last year when Mr. Bush was still in office. That plan requires a complete drawdown of troops from Iraq to have zero there by Dec. 31, 2011.

Reporters asked if the troop levels were static, and the officials stressed, “As commander-in-chief, he obviously reserves the right to revisit any plans to ensure that they are continuing to serve national security interests.”

But the officials added the decision was the product of “a dozen working groups,” discussions with “all facets” of government, consultation with the intelligence community and Mr. Obama’s direct interaction with the joint chiefs and generals.

They said it was “not a political decision” for the president, who wants to make sure the shift in U.S. strategy did not jeopardize the gains that have been made in Iraq.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on NBC Wednesday she was concerned by initial reports of the 50,000 troops to remain in Iraq.

“I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000,” the California Democrat said. “I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.”

Echoing that was Sen. Russ Feingold, though the Wisconsin Democrat also hailed the reduction of troops.

“I question whether such a large force is needed to combat any al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq or whether it will contribute to stability in the region,” he said.

The officials said one reason Camp Lejeune was chosen is that many Marines there may be deployed to Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Julian Brennan, killed Jan. 24 in Afghanistan, was based at Camp Lejeune.

Mr. Obama wrote a personal letter to his family, one of the first times he performed the solemn presidential duty.

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