Marking a long-sought milestone in a much-maligned war, President Obama affirmed Monday that U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of August — "as promised and on schedule" — as the United States moves toward a supporting role in a country still struggling with violence and a fractured government.
ATLANTA — Marking a long-sought milestone in a much-maligned war, President Obama affirmed Monday that U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of August — “as promised and on schedule” — as the United States moves toward a supporting role in a country still struggling with violence and a fractured government.
“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,” Obama told a group of disabled veterans.
The president gave assurances that U.S. forces in Iraq will drop to 50,000 by the end of the month — a reduction of 94,000 troops since he took office 18 months ago. The remaining troops will form a transitional force until a final U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, he said.
Obama used the upcoming milestone to highlight what he sees as both a bright spot on his foreign-policy agenda and a campaign promise close to fulfillment.
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During his campaign, Obama pledged to bring a swift, orderly end to a war he said he would not have waged, although the departure has not been as quick as he initially had promised. Shortly after taking office, the president revised a 16-month withdrawal time frame and set the Aug. 31 deadline.
Still, for a White House beleaguered on other fronts — from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to increasing violence in Afghanistan — Iraq is seen as a success story the administration intends to tell. Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and other administration officials will emphasize progress in Iraq in speeches in coming weeks, White House aides said.
Obama’s speech Monday to a convention of the Disabled American Veterans served as a sort of pivot for the president as he tries to regain Congress’ confidence that the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. Last week, 102 Democrats in the House voted against a $59 billion appropriation for both wars, 70 more than opposed a war-spending bill a year ago.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — 33,000 when Obama took office — will have nearly tripled to 96,000 by September.
But a White House fact sheet also highlighted a different number: By the end of August, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have dropped from 177,000 to 146,000.
Monday, the president restated his case for the stepped-up presence in Afghanistan.
“If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attacks,” he said. “As president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen.”
Obama expressed confidence in the Afghan government’s anti-corruption efforts and the U.S. campaign to target key al-Qaida leaders. The Pakistan government, accused of shielding anti-U.S. elements, has begun to target extremists, he said.
“Because in this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for al-Qaida and their extremist allies,” he said.
There is no consensus on what impact the withdrawal in Iraq will have on security in the region.
It comes at a time of deepening political uncertainty, fueling fears of a resurgence of violence once U.S. combat troops leave. Negotiations on the formation of a new government are stalled over the question of who should be prime minister, and few now expect progress until at least September.
Many Iraqis who otherwise might have welcomed the drawdown as a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty are instead apprehensive, with political tensions rising between the country’s divided factions and the insurgency not yet defeated.
“Iraqis had hoped they would have a strong independent government by now, but no one expected it to drag on this long,” said Basma Khatib, a women’s rights activist. “It’s a big mess, and things might get a lot worse if we don’t have a government soon.”
U.S. officials note that the withdrawal will make little practical difference on the ground. Iraqi troops have been responsible for security in most hot spots since U.S. troops withdrew from the cities in June 2009, and troop levels already have fallen to 65,000.
It is rare these days to see a U.S. military vehicle on the streets — and even the withdrawal is taking place stealthily, at night.
Although violence has fallen sharply since 2006 and 2007, the peak years of the sectarian killings that raged across Baghdad and elsewhere, there has been no discernible decline over the past year, suggesting Iraqi forces have made little progress in eliminating what remains of the insurgency.
In Washington, U.S. experts are sharply divided on whether a further drawdown is advisable, with some arguing that disengagement is overdue and others saying a rapid exit would threaten stability throughout the region.
“It’s hard to say what stable enough would be in Iraq, but certainly we’re not there yet,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Still, the administration has shown no sign of wavering from the August deadline. A transitional government is functioning and stable, White House spokesman Bill Burton said.