President Barack Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, fulfilling a campaign promise and ending one of the longest conflicts in U.S. history.
“After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” Obama said at the White House today. American soldiers “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.”
The president spoke after conducting a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Obama said both governments agreed on the next stage in the relationship as the U.S. withdraws its remaining 41,000 troops in Iraq.
Obama’s opposition to the war was a central element in his rise to national prominence, and his vow to bring U.S. troops home was a building block of his 2008 campaign for president.
The U.S. had been negotiating on the terms of an accord with the government of Iraq on whether to keep some U.S. forces there past the end of 2012. The current U.S. agreement with Iraq for keeping troops in the country, negotiated in 2008 under President George W. Bush, expires at the end of this year.
Both governments have said that Iraq needs help with external security and with the continued training and development of its security forces. A sticking point has been U.S. insistence that its troops have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Training and Equipment
Obama said discussions will continue on how the U.S. might help train and equip Iraqi forces.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a policy research organization in Washington, said “a large U.S. footprint” in Iraq will remain, given the staffing level at the U.S. embassy and the number of private security contractors.
“I would be surprised if they’re doing anything that would diminish their plans for ongoing security assistance and police training, which will be run under the State Department,” Katulis said.
Denis McDonough, deputy White House national security adviser, said the U.S. got “exactly what we needed to protect our security interests” in negotiating with Iraq.
He said the withdrawal by the U.S. won’t embolden Iran, which borders Iraq, to seek to expand its influence in the region. The U.S. sees “an Iran that is weaker and is more isolated,” he said.
Obama said the final stage of withdrawals marks a larger transition as the U.S. also draws down troop levels in Afghanistan.
“The tide of war is receding,” he said. That will allow a stronger focus on the U.S. economy, he said.
“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,” Obama said.
There have been 3,525 U.S. personnel killed in action in Iraq; an additional 957 died of other causes. More than 32,000 have been wounded. The war has cost at least $752 billion, including training for Iraqis and related diplomatic missions, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in January.
U.S. military units have been steadily pulling out of Iraq since reaching a peak of almost 170,000 in 2007.
The troop-withdrawal announcement came under fire from critics of Obama’s policies in the region.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement that the withdrawal represents an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq,” and said it could put U.S. gains in the war at risk.
“The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government,” he said.
Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, said the withdrawal “marks a harmful and sad setback for the United States in the world.”
McCain, a prominent voice in his party on defense matters, said military commanders have told him the Iraqi military still needs assistance from U.S. forces.
Among members of the Democratic Party’s base, who have been disappointed by compromises such as the removal of a government-run “public option” from his health-care overhaul and budget deals with congressional Republicans, the withdrawal from Iraq is an achievement the Obama campaign can point to in seeking to raise enthusiasm for his re-election bid.
For Democrats “it’s a significant moment because it delivers on a core promise of the campaign,” said Chris Lehane, who was press secretary to former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Obama, as a state senator in Illinois, opposed the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion, calling it a “dumb war” in a speech to a rally in Chicago. That later became a highlight of the political biography that fueled enthusiasm for him as public sentiment turned against the war.
Today’s announcement bolsters Obama’s ability to draw distinctions with Republican challengers on a national security record that also includes the killing of Osama bin Laden and a military intervention that helped rid the world of Muammar Qaddafi, Lehane said.
Still, the impact on Obama’s re-election campaign is likely to be minimal, Lehane said.
“At the end of the day, there’s one omnipresent, overhanging issue: the economy,” he said.