– “As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” Mr. Obama told a convention of Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta on Monday. “Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised and on schedule.” –
By Peter Baker
ATLANTA — Nearly eight years after he denounced what he called a “dumb war” in Iraq and nearly two years after he won the White House promising to end it, President Obama marked the formal conclusion of the combat mission in a country still finding its way in a new era.
“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” Mr. Obama told a convention of Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta on Monday. “Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised and on schedule.”
By the end of this month, the American force in Iraq will have shrunk to just 50,000 troops, from 144,000. The remaining “advise and assist” brigades will officially focus on supporting and training Iraqi security forces, protecting American personnel and facilities and mounting counterterrorism operations. Those 50,000 troops are due to leave by the end of 2011.
Mr. Obama’s appearance before the veterans group is the first of several similar events in coming weeks meant to draw attention to the transition in Iraq. While he has gone months without mentioning the war much in public as he focused on tightening regulation of the financial industry and stopping the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the president is now trying to remind Americans of one of his most important decisions.
The high-level public focus on Iraq appears aimed at least in part at blunting some of the growing frustration, particularly among his liberal base, over the war in Afghanistan. The president essentially is arguing to skeptics in the public and in Congress that he is bringing at least one war to a conclusion and can do so with another eventually as well.
A fact sheet prepared by the White House, for instance, pointedly notes that even with his troop buildup in Afghanistan, the drawdown in Iraq means that the total number of uniformed Americans in the two countries will have dropped from 177,000 when he took office to about 146,000 by the end of August.
But with the Afghan conflict now the longest-running war in American history and casualties rising in July to their highest level since it began nearly nine years ago, Mr. Obama may have difficulty offsetting the growing anxiety about one war by claiming success in another. In the House, 102 Democrats voted last week against a $59 billion spending bill to pay for the two wars, 70 more than the number who voted against a similar measure last year.
The replacement of the commanding general in Afghanistan and the publication by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret United States military reports have focused attention on the struggles in turning around the war. The number of troops in Afghanistan has tripled since Mr. Obama took office, but he has ordered that some of them begin pulling out by July 2011.
The tension over that deadline was evident on a talk show on Sunday, when the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates outlined starkly different ideas of what they hope or anticipate will happen next summer. Just last month, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. played down the July 2011 start of a withdrawal, saying it could mean pulling out “as few as a couple thousand troops.”
Ms. Pelosi made clear she found that unsatisfactory. “I hope it is more than that,” she said on “This Week” on ABC. “I know it’s not going to be turn out the lights and let’s all go home on one day. But I do think the American people expect it to be somewhere between that and a few thousand troops.”
But Mr. Gates, appearing on the same program, said he hopes to limit any troop pullout at first. “My personal opinion is that drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” he said.
Mr. Obama made no reference on Monday to the withdrawal deadline before the veterans group, where it might not be as popular as it is with his supporters, but instead vowed to continue pursuing radicals in Afghanistan, noting that Al Qaeda plotted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from there.
“If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack,” he said. “And as president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen.”
But Mr. Obama argued that his strategy in Afghanistan was beginning to show results.
“It’s important that the American people know that we are making progress and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable,” he said.
With Iraq, Mr. Obama has stuck to his withdrawal schedule despite changing conditions on the ground. He promised during the campaign to pull out combat forces within 16 months. But after taking office he extended that to 19 months to give the Iraqis enough time to hold a new election, assemble a fresh government and get through a transition with the security of a robust American force.
Instead, the election that was supposed to be held in December did not take place until March and the vote was so close that Iraqi political leaders are still deadlocked over forming a new government nearly five months later and no resolution is in sight. There are also lingering problems, like a crippled electrical infrastructure that leaves many Iraqis often without power.
Some critics have said Mr. Obama ought to slow the drawdown to make sure insurgents cannot take advantage of the current political confusion.
But White House officials said they believed it was safe to stick to the original timetable because the caretaker government had proved effective at maintaining security despite the political stalemate. Moreover, they noted that the 50,000 American troops that would remain constituted a powerful force in their own right, capable of handling various contingencies.
In excerpts his Georgia speech, Mr. Obama hailed the improved security in Iraq, without mentioning that he had opposed the troop buildup ordered in 2007 by his predecessor, George W. Bush. That, along with a strategy change and other factors, is credited by many with turning the war around. Mr. Obama has now assigned the architect of that plan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, to take command of the troop buildup in Afghanistan.
“Today, even as terrorists try to derail Iraq’s progress, because of the sacrifices of our troops and their Iraqi partners, violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years,” Mr. Obama said.
But he cautioned that the fighting was not over: “There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress, and the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.”
Mr. Obama used the speech to straddle the longstanding domestic divide over the Iraq war by embracing the accomplishments of American troops. “Our nation has had vigorous debates about the Iraq war,” he said. “There are patriots who supported going to war, and patriots who opposed it. But there has never been any daylight between us when it comes to supporting the more than one million Americans in uniform who have served in Iraq — far more than any conflict since Vietnam.”
Republicans, though, were happy to remind Mr. Obama that he opposed the troop buildup that helped make it possible to pull American forces out, sending out e-mails juxtaposing his statements predicting the surge would fail with his claims of success today.
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, issued a statement recalling the surge.
“As a result, the drawdown of U.S. troops that began under the previous administration has been able to continue,” he said. “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.”