President Obama declared an end to the seven-year U.S. combat mission in Iraq, saying Tuesday night that the United States has met its responsibility to that country and it is now time to turn to pressing problems at home.
WASHINGTON - President Obama declared an end to the seven-year U.S. combat mission in Iraq, saying Tuesday night that the United States has met its responsibility to that country and it is now time to turn to pressing problems at home.
In a prime-time address from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama balanced praise for the troops who fought and died in Iraq with his conviction that getting into the conflict had been a mistake in the first place.
He also emphasized that he sees his primary job as addressing the weak economy and other domestic issues - and to make clear that he intends to begin disengaging from the war in Afghanistan next summer.
"We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home," Mr. Obama said.
"Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it's time to turn the page."
Seeking to temper partisan feelings over the war on a day when Republicans pointed out that Mr. Obama had opposed the troop surge generally credited with bringing Iraq a measure of stability, the President offered some praise of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama acknowledged their disagreement over Iraq but said that no one could doubt Mr. Bush's "support for our troops, or his love of country, and commitment to our security."
Mr. Obama said the nation's perseverance in Iraq must be matched by determination to address problems at home.
Over the past decade, "we have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas," he said.
"And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad."
He acknowledged a war fatigue among Americans who have called into question his focus on the Afghanistan war, now approaching its 10th year.
He said U.S. forces in Afghanistan "will be in place for a limited time" to give Afghans the chance to build their government and armed forces.
"But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves," the President said.
He reiterated that in July he would begin transferring responsibility for security to Afghans, at a pace to be determined by conditions on the ground.
"But make no mistake: This transition will begin, because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are all in Baghdad for an official ceremony today to mark the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.
The very sight of Mr. Obama addressing Americans from the Oval Office - from the same desk where Mr. Bush announced the beginning of the conflict - shows the distance traveled since the Iraq war began.
On the night of March 20, 2003, when the miles-long convoy of the Army's Third Infantry Division first rolled over the border from Kuwait into Iraq, Mr. Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
One of the biggest fears among the U.S. troops in the convoy pouring into Iraq that night - every one of them suited in gas masks and wearing biohazard suits - was that the man they came to topple might unleash a chemical weapons attack.
Seven years and five months later, the biggest fears of U.S. soldiers revolve around the primitive, basic, homemade bombs, and old explosives in Afghanistan that were left over from the Soviet invasion.
"Much has changed since that night," when Mr. Bush announced the war in Iraq from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama said.
"A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested."
The withdrawal of combat forces represents a significant milestone after the war that toppled Saddam touched off waves of sectarian strife, and claimed the lives of more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and more than 70,000 Iraqis.
U.S. troops reached Mr. Obama's goal for the drawdown early - last week. Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said then the number of troops had dropped to 49,700, roughly the number that are to stay through next summer.
The remaining "advise and assist" brigades will officially concentrate on supporting and training Iraqi security forces, protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, and mounting counterterrorism operations. Still, as Mr. Obama himself acknowledged, that milestone came with the ambiguity and messiness that accompanied the war itself.
A political impasse since elections in March has left Iraq without a permanent government at a time that government was supposed to be asserting control in the wake of the U.S. combat troop pullout.
Across Iraq, frustration is mounting at shoddy public services, including a lack of electricity, and the inability of the country's leaders to form a government.