WASHINGTON â€” After more than seven years of war, President Barack Obama declared the combat mission in Iraq over on Tuesday night, saying itâ€™s in the best interests of both Iraqis and
Americans and that ending combat will help the United States focus on new priorities, especially restoring the economy.
In excerpts released by the White House ahead of a prime-time Oval Office address to mark the formal transition of security authority in Iraq, Obama said that â€œnow, it is time to turn the page.â€
Turning his attention to the issue dominant in the American publicâ€™s mind two months before
Novemberâ€™s elections, the president said that â€œtoday, our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.â€ He added that â€œin the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.â€
On Iraq, he said that the U.S. has paid â€œa huge priceâ€ in human and dollar costs since President George W. Bushâ€™s invasion in 2003.
â€œWe have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people, a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.â€
Now, â€œWe have met our responsibility,â€ Obama said, according to the excerpts.
For weeks, the president and his advisers have been highlighting the transition date as a promise fulfilled. At the same time, Obama and his team insist they are well aware of the difficulties that remain in a country where insurgents pose a serious threat and the elections six months ago have yet to yield an agreement on a government. Violence exploded last week with insurgent attacks and car and suicide bombings in 14 cities.
Despite the transition to Iraqi security forces, roughly 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq for counterterrorism, training and protection of U.S. personnel. They are expected to stay at least through the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqis.
Republicans on Tuesday emphasized the possibility that Iraq may not be stable enough even by then to succeed without U.S. forces present.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Iraqis and Americans â€œdeserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened.â€
Boehner said that in recent months â€œweâ€™ve often heard about ending the war in Iraq, but not much about winning the war in Iraq. If we honor what our men and women fought for, we cannot turn our backs now on what they have achieved.â€
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama â€œcould very well find himself negotiating a new security agreement next year.â€
Just as the end of the combat mission marks a milestone for the nation, it is also a bookend for
Obama, who opposed the preemptive war from the start and campaigned on that opposition but
has had to oversee the war as commander-in-chief for a year and a half.
Before his speech Tuesday, Obama flew to the Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas, where thousands
of U.S. soldiers deployed to and returned from combat in Iraq.
He called Bush from Air Force One, though aides declined to release any detail about the call.
At Fort Bliss, Obama told soldiers that â€œwhat Iâ€™d like to do is just to come around and shake all of your hands personally, to say thank you to all of you, to say thank you for a job well done, and to know that you are welcome home with open arms from every corner of this country. People could not be prouder of you, and we are grateful.â€
A day earlier, he visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and honored 11 soldiers with the Purple Heart. Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq for a formal ceremony to hand responsibility from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno to Gen. Lloyd Austin.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the American Legion National Convention in
Milwaukee on Tuesday, said, â€œI am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,â€
Gates said. His voiced quivered as he read the number of troops killed in Iraq, 4,427.
A USA Today/Gallup poll last week found that 34 percent of Americans now say it was worth going to war in Iraq.
Americans are divided over whether the U.S. is any safer from terrorism because of the war. As for the elephant in the room â€” whether the U.S. should renew a combat mission if Iraqi forces canâ€™t maintain security â€” Americans say no by about a 2-to-1 ratio.
The poll of 1,003 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Even before Obama spoke, Republicans were branding the president as a hypocrite. They said more credit was due to Bush, for backing Gen. David Petraeusâ€™ troop surge that was credited with helping to stabilize the situation enough to turn governance over to the Iraqis.
McConnell recalled that â€œthe surge wasnâ€™t very popular when it was announcedâ€ and that â€œone of its biggest critics was the current president.â€