WASHINGTON -- Declaring that it is time to "turn the page," President Barack Obama has announced the official end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, bringing to a close more than seven years of war in that country.
Obama made the announcement in a nationally televised evening address from the White House on August 31.
"Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," he said.
As a candidate for the White House, Obama often called the invasion of Iraq in 2003 under former President George W. Bush a "dumb war." Since taking office in January 2009, he has reduced the number of U.S. troops there by some 90,000 and closed or transferred control of hundreds of military bases to the Iraqi Army.
Some 50,000 U.S. troops will now remain in Iraq until the end of 2011 on an "advise-and-assist" mission to increase the capacity of the army and police.
Obama said that although the last combat troops have left Iraq, the U.S. commitment to building the country's future would continue. The United States will remain Iraq's "friend and partner" in a new relationship "based upon mutual interests and mutual respect," he said.
"As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians -- diplomats, aid workers, and advisers -- are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world," he said.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (right) in Baghdad.
The formal end of combat operations has coincided with a sudden spike in violence by insurgents that has seen 50 Iraqis killed in recent days. Obama acknowledged that the violence will likely continue but said "these terrorists will fail to achieve these goals" because "Iraqis...have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction."
Even as he ticked off details of the massive U.S. military pullout from Iraq, he made it clear that it does not herald the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from the world stage. Rather, he said, "the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen [its] leadership in this young century."
"One of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power -- including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America's example -- to secure our interests and stand by our allies," he said.
"We must project a vision of the future that is based not just on our fears, but also on our hopes," Obama added, "a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world, but also the limitless possibility of our time."
No Victory Lap
Earlier in the day, Obama flew to Texas to visit troops at the U.S. Army base at Fort Bliss, which provided much of the heavy armor and thousands of troops who served multiple tours in Iraq. He said his speech to the nation was not "a victory lap" and added, "There's still a lot of work" for the United States to finish.
In that spirit, the White House sent Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq this week to reassure Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani that United States is not abandoning them. The end of combat operations comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the government, which has been in a political deadlock for more than six months after March elections failed to produce an outright winner.
In his Oval Office remarks, Obama spoke directly to the Iraqi leadership, saying, "I encourage Iraq's leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people. And when that government is in place, there should be no doubt: the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States."
He added, "Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq's future is not."
Obama's delivery on his campaign pledge to end the Iraq war comes as his Democratic Party is preparing for tough congressional elections this November. Democrats hope the war-weary public will reward them with votes, fearing polls that show the opposition Republican Party is on track to pick up dozens of seats -- possibly enough to regain control of the House of Representatives.
A U.S. soldier celebrated the withdrawal as he crossed the Iraqi border into Kuwait on August 18.
A few Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, used the announcement to credit former President George W. Bush's 2007 troop surge for turning the tide against the insurgents. Writing in "The Wall Street Journal," McCain said, "Though most Democrats still cannot bear to admit it, the war in Iraq is ending successfully because the surge worked."
Obama said he had called his predecessor earlier in the day and admitted that the two men publicly disagreed about the war from the beginning. But he said, "No one could doubt Bush's support for [the] troops, or his love of country and commitment to [its] security."
Al-Qaeda 'Still Plotting'
Wrapping things up in Iraq may not deliver the electoral bounty the White House may be hoping for. Weighing even more heavily on Americans' minds is Afghanistan, which at almost nine years is the longest U.S. war in history. A majority of Americans see no end in sight to the fighting and nearly six in 10 oppose it.
Despite the war's unpopularity, Obama spoke forcefully about the need to stick with the fight and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for Al-Qaeda.
"As we speak, Al-Qaeda continues to plot against us and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense."
But he also said that -- as in Iraq -- the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan would not be open ended. Troops will only be in place "for a limited time," he said, "to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future." He added, "Make no mistake: This transition will begin -- because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."
His focus now, Obama said, would be on what he called his "central responsibility" as president -- the fragile state of the U.S. economy.
Americans, he added, could honor the sacrifice that U.S. troops had made overseas by "working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for -- the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and for reach it."