Obama sets troop withdrawal for Iraq

  • Article by: PETER BAKER , New York Times
  • Updated: February 27, 2009 - 11:05 PM

IRAQ: President Obama mapped out plans for a dramatic reduction of U.S. troops in 19 months and a complete withdrawal by December 2011. In doing so, he called on Iraqis to take control of their own destiny.

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.

President Obama declared the beginning of the end of one of the longest and most divisive wars in American history on Friday as he announced he would withdraw combat forces from Iraq by August 2010 and all remaining U.S. troops by December 2011. ¶ The decision, outlined before thousands of camouflage-clad Marines here, underscored the transformation in national priorities a month after Obama took office as he prepares to shift resources from the increasingly stable Iraq to the increasingly volatile Afghanistan.

But it also marked a sharp change in U.S. attitude about Iraq after years of wrenching debate over war and peace. Despite some grumbling on the left and right, Obama's pullout plan generated support across party lines Friday -- including from his rival in last year's election and advisers to his predecessor -- indicating an emerging consensus behind a gradual but firm exit from Iraq.

The plan will withdraw most of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq by the summer of next year, leaving 35,000 to 50,000 behind with the limited missions of training and advising Iraq security forces, hunting terrorist cells and protecting U.S. civilian and military personnel. Those "transitional forces" will leave by 2011 in accordance with a strategic agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush before he left office.

"Let me say this as plainly as I can," Obama told the Marines. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

He added: "I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."

Obama presented his plan at the same base where, in April 2003, with U.S. forces nearing Baghdad, Bush declared that "we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."

Six years, more than 4,200 military deaths, tens of thousands of civilian deaths and $657 billion later, the definition of victory has evolved. If the uneasy but relatively democratic Iraq that is emerging counts as a victory of sorts, it proved to be longer, bloodier and more damaging to the U.S. reputation than anticipated.

At the same time, the consensus behind Obama's plan may stem in part from the subsiding violence since Bush changed strategies and sent more troops in January 2007, a shift that the new president, who opposed it, did not directly address in his speech. The urgency on the left to pull out faster has eased as the casualty rate has fallen, while the imperative on the right to stay has diminished with the successes of the last two years.

Republicans who backed Obama on the issue said he owes his ability to pull out to the troop buildup. "The dramatic success of the surge strategy has enabled us to move from a discussion about whether the United States could bear the catastrophic consequences of failure in Iraq, to planning the way in which to consolidate success there," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who clashed with Obama over the future of Iraq during the campaign, called the withdrawal "reasonable" and said he is "cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success."

The next logical step

Former Bush aides called it the logical next step after his agreement to pull out by 2011. "The specific timing is only slightly different but consistent with the goal of helping Iraq become self-sufficient in providing its own security," said Gordon D. Johndroe, Bush's last national security spokesman. "This is possible because of the success of the surge."

During his speech, Obama noted the "renewed cause for hope in Iraq" and praised troops who "got the job done." He cited three of the architects of the surge strategy, calling Ambassador Ryan Crocker an "unsung hero" and Gens. David H. Petraeus and Ray Odierno the "finest generals."

In a separate interview with PBS, Obama said the security progress of the last two years still left much undone in political reconciliation, citing a long-awaited law distributing oil revenues that has yet to pass. "Frankly, we have not made the kind of progress over the last year to two years, despite the surge," he said.

Obama called Bush moments before the announcement as a courtesy, aides said. But then during his speech, Obama implicitly rebuked Bush for getting into Iraq in the first place, noting that Iraq taught painful lessons about how and when America should go to war. Obama said America must go to war only "with clearly defined goals" after weighing "the costs of action" and building support at home and abroad. To that end, he vowed intensive diplomacy in the region.

"Every nation and every group must know, whether you wish America good or ill, that the end of the war in Iraq will enable a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East," Obama said. "And that era has just begun."

Not fast enough

Some Democrats complained too many troops would remain after August 2010, but tempered their criticism after Obama's speech. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, who on Thursday called a 50,000-member residual force too big, on Friday called Obama's plan "sound and measured," while urging him to keep "only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also criticized the residual force earlier in the week, said Friday it should be "as small as possible" but praised Obama's withdrawal plan as "good news because it signals that the war is coming to an end."

In interviews after the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that while major combat units will leave Iraq, the remaining forces may be involved in combat as required, especially in fighting terrorism.

Asked whether an upswing in violence in Iraq might require Obama to send back more troops, Gates said that the planners had taken such considerations into account.

Fear of a vacuum

Obama called Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq en route here to brief him. Yassen Majeed, an adviser to al-Maliki, said the prime minister was "very comfortable with the plan."

"I think we're ready to take over the responsibilities from the Americans," Majeed said. "Our forces will be up to it, and we are even ready right now."

But others were cautious, including Sunni lawmakers worried about their influence in the Shiite-dominated government. "All Iraqis want the Americans to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, a senior Sunni politician. "We're just afraid of the vacuum that this withdrawal may cause."

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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