President Barack Obama said the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by year’s end fulfills a promise he made to voters, while Republican presidential challengers called it a sign of U.S. weakness and a strategic mistake.
“Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,” Obama said at the White House yesterday.
Obama made the announcement after the Iraqi government didn’t agree to provide immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops staying into next year. About 39,000 troops were in Iraq as of yesterday, following a drawdown of about 2,000 this week, according to the Defense Department.
“Across America, our servicemen and women will be reunited with their families,” Obama said. “Today, I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.”
More broadly, Obama said during his presidency the U.S. has killed Osama bin Laden, helped end Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and is beginning to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “The tide of war is receding,” the president said.
The troop withdrawal announcement came under fire from critics of Obama’s policies in the region, including presidential rivals.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement that the Iraq withdrawal represents an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq.”
Romney also 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,” Romney said.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said Obama is “putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment.”
Jon Huntsman Jr. and Michele Bachmann, two other Republican presidential contenders, also released statements criticizing the withdrawal as premature and the result of a failure to work out a deal with Iraqis to protect U.S. troops.
Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican 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.
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 successful presidential campaign.
Among members of the Democratic Party’s base, who have been disappointed by compromises Obama has made that include the absence of a government-run “public option” from his health-care overhaul and budget deals with congressional Republicans, the departure from Iraq is an achievement the president’s campaign can herald in seeking to spur enthusiasm for his re-election bid.
“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.
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.
Obama said that, after almost nine years of war, 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 troops in Iraq.
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 was the U.S. insistence that its troops have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
The U.S. rejected a proposal from Maliki several months ago to reach an administrative agreement that wouldn’t require approval from the Iraqi Parliament. Pentagon officials said they needed broad political support to minimize the risk to troops. Iraq’s insistence two weeks ago that U.S. forces wouldn’t have legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution was a deal breaker.
The U.S. commander’s initial request to keep 30,000 forces in place four months ago fell to discussion of 9,000 to 10,000 two months later and as few as 3,000 four weeks ago, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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.
McDonough 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.
“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.