WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has hailed the end of the war in Iraq nearly nine years after it began and promised that the United States will remain a strong partner as it rebuilds and reestablishes itself in what he called "a rapidly changing region."
Speaking at a joint White House press conference with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Obama said this would be a "season of homecoming" as the last U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq by a December 31 deadline.
"In the coming days, the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq, with honor and with their heads held high," Obama said. "After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq ends this month."
The agreement to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq
on December 31 was negotiated and signed four years ago under former President George W. Bush. But the fact that the date arrives on Obama's watch has a certain resonance. As a U.S. senator from the state of Illinois, Obama was strongly opposed to the war, and his rise to national prominence was at least partly a result of his eloquent and frequent arguments against it.
On December 12, he praised Iraq's progress and emergence as a "sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic" nation and said the country "can be a model for others who are aspiring to build democracy" -- a transformation he said helped to justify U.S. sacrifices "of blood and treasure."
At the war's peak, in 2007, some 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed on Iraqi soil; just 6,000 remain. Since 2003, nearly 40 countries have contributed troops, and the last non-U.S. forces pulled out of the country in May.
The December 12 meeting between Maliki and Obama appeared to mark a significant shift in the relationship between the two governments. From economic cooperation to future security support, Obama left little doubt that Washington will continue to be a major force in the country, even though, as he said, the days of U.S. boots on the ground and U.S. military bases in the country "are over."
"Today, the prime minister and I are reaffirming our common vision of a long-term partnership between our nations that is in keeping with our Strategic Framework Agreement, and it will be like the close relationships we have with other sovereign nations," Obama said. "Simply put, we are building a comprehensive partnership."
Maliki said Iraq will need U.S. help on security issues, combating terrorism, training, and equipping its military, as well as areas like education and developing its wealth.
He said there were "very high aspirations" for the relationship between the two countries.
The Pentagon announced that it would help Baghdad rebuild its destroyed air force by supplying it with F-16 fighter jets, in addition to other security equipment and training. Obama also said that "given the challenges we face together in a rapidly changing region," a formal communications channel between the two countries' national security advisers has been set up.
Those challenges include the wave of popular uprisings that have swept the Arab world in 2011, including in neighboring Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad continues to violently suppress pro-democracy demonstrators.
Obama said the Syrian struggle came up in his talks with Maliki. "The prime minister and I discussed Syria, and we share the view that when the Syrian people are being killed or are unable to express themselves -- that's a problem," he said. "There's no disagreement there."
Even as the White House hails the end of a conflict that has divided U.S. public opinion, cost taxpayers trillions of dollars, and killed and wounded thousands, it is anxious about what will happen next in its strategically important Arab ally.
Neighboring Iran has sought a foothold in Iraq for years and U.S. officials are watching closely to see how it may try to influence Baghdad after U.S. troops leave.
Obama mentioned Iran in the context of what the two leaders discussed on Syria, saying, "even if there are tactical disagreements between Iraq and the United States on how to deal with Syria, I have absolutely no doubt that these decisions are being made based on what Prime Minister Maliki believes is best for Iraq, not based on considerations of what Iran would like to see."
Iran was also mentioned by the U.S. president in response to a question about the U.S. drone that Tehran claims to have brought down on its soil on December 4. U.S. officials have acknowledged the loss of the plane and Iranian state television has shown what it said was video footage of it.
Obama said he wouldn't comment on classified intelligence matters, but did say the United States had "asked for it back," adding, "We'll see how the Iranians respond."
The Iraqi president's office said their delegation to Washington this week included Trade Minister Khairallah Babiker, Transportation Minister Hadi Farhan al-Amiri, National Security Adviser Falih al-Fayad, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, among other officials.
Zebari was set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later on December 12 to announce a newly created Joint Coordination Committee.
written by Heather Maher based on RFE/RL and agency reports