- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2010

President Obama said Monday the U.S. will stick to its timetable to have combat troops out of Iraq later this month and all U.S. troops out by the end of next year, even as some experts say Iraq’s military is not yet strong enough to take control of the security situation and its political progress is too slow.

In a speech to disabled veterans in Atlanta, Mr. Obama reaffirmed that the U.S. will see through a previous agreement struck in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration to wind down the war, drawing applause from skeptics of the seven-year-old conflict.

But his vow also revealed that divisions over the war remain deep, as foreign policy hawks said Mr. Obama must make sure the scheduled withdrawal takes into account conditions on the ground, including a recent spate of violence and Iraqi politicians’ continued failure to form a government nearly five months after elections concluded.

“I think it’s a mistake to make decisions about getting into a conflict or getting out of a conflict on the basis of an arbitrary timetable, and I think his decision reflects more politics than anything else,” said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Bush. “Even though I think we’re at a time of great political challenge in Iraq with the government formation still up in the air and the level of violence up, I think the signal he wants to send is we’re getting out come hell or high water, and I think that’s a mistake.”

Mr. Obama, who won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 in part because he opposed the Iraq war from the start, said it’s crucial that he keep his promise on bringing troops home and stick to the agreement that all combat troops leave by the end of August. A transitional force of 50,000 will remain in the country through 2011 in a supportive role to train Iraqi troops.

As Mr. Obama has ratcheted up operations in Afghanistan with a surge of 30,000 additional troops, the drawdown in Iraq is an opportunity for him to shift attention to a country where the U.S. is ending its military mission and to try to bolster his promises to start pulling out of Afghanistan next year with evidence he’s doing it in Iraq.

“The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq,” Mr. Obama told the annual convention of Disabled Veterans of America. “But make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing - from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.”

The speech, marking Mr. Obama’s first extensive comments on the Iraq war in months, comes amid a recent spike in violence. Just on Monday, bombings and drive-by shootings claimed the lives of 12 people, underscoring the ongoing security challenges even after a U.S. troop surge in 2007.

Indeed, July was the deadliest month in Iraq in more than two years, with 535 people killed, according to Iraqi figures out Saturday. The deadliest month ever was May 2008, when 563 people were killed.

Citing the human costs of the conflict, as well as the financial and strategic costs, Center for American Progress senior fellow Brian Katulis said following the timeline is the “most sensible and pragmatic thing we can do at this stage.”

“The Iraq war remains a net negative for U.S. national security interests on balance,” he said. “I think it leaves [Iraqis] in a situation that is quite difficult and very uncertain, but largely it’s for them to sort out their future with the support of the U.S. and other countries.”

Mr. Katulis described as a “myth” the belief that the U.S. surge made a positive difference in Iraq, arguing instead that the true surge that mattered was that of Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008. Still, it remains a “very dangerous place,” he said.

Reacting to Mr. Obama’s speech, Republicans noted that the president was a staunch critic of the surge, which they credit with bringing increased stability to the embattled country.

“As a result [of the surge] the drawdown of U.S. troops that began under the previous administration has been able to continue. I commend President Obama for listening to our commanders in the field and working closely with them, the Iraqi people, and the Congress to ensure that we continue to make progress there,” House Republican Leader John A. Boehner said in a statement.

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