U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of August, as he promised it would more than year ago.
In a speech to the Disabled American Veterans on August 2, Obama said: "Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility, and I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America's combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule."
It was the first of many speeches the White House says will take place this month in an attempt to draw attention to the U.S. transition in Iraq. With competitive Congressional elections looming this November, the Obama administration is keen to remind voters that the Democratic president has fulfilled a major pledge.
White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Obama to the speech in Atlanta, "The message is that when the president makes a commitment, he keeps it."
Transition Force Remaining
By the end of the month, the size of the U.S. force in Iraq will number just 50,000 troops, down from 144,000 when Obama took office in January 2009. The last U.S. soldier is due to leave at the end of 2011.
In his remarks, Obama painted a picture of a U.S. military operation that's winding down, noting that U.S. troops have closed or handed control to Iraqis "hundreds of bases" and moved out "millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations...in decades."
He said U.S. troops were leaving only after having "restor[ed] order and effectively defeat[ed] Al-Qaeda in Iraq on the battlefield." And he repeated the White House's assertion that the security situation is the best it's been in years.
"Violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it has been in years. And next month, we will change our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces," the president said.
But new numbers released jointly by the Iraqi ministries of Defense, Interior, and Health paint a much different picture. The overall level of violence has fallen significantly in the last two years but the government says Iraqi casualties have reached a two-year high: 532 in July alone, the highest since May 2008's 563 deaths.
The 50,000 U.S. troops who will remain in Iraq will now shift their focus toward wrapping up what will be a more than eight-year war operation by the time it ends in 2011.
"As agreed to with the Iraqi government, we will maintain a transitional force until we remove all our troops of Iraq by the end of next year," Obama said. "During this period, our forces will have a focused mission: supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counter-terrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts."
Those civilians are set to become more numerous as noncombat operations increase. Obama described the U.S. commitment in Iraq as "changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."
No Government Yet
One front Obama can't claim success on is Iraq's government, which hasn't formed a governing coalition or chosen a prime minister four months after elections. Some analysts attribute the recent uptick in civilian deaths to insurgents who are taking advantage of the political deadlock and lack of clear authority.
In his address to the audience of wounded veterans -- many of whom received their injuries in post-9/11 military operations -- Obama acknowledged that there is less good news out of Afghanistan, where he has sent an additional 30,000 troops to confront an increasingly resilient Taliban insurgency.
In July, casualties hit their highest point since start of the war almost nine years ago. The recent replacement of the war's commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, and the leak of thousands of classified military reports have added fuel to a growing debate in Congress and among the U.S. public over the United States' ability to win the upper hand.
Obama tried to reassure the public that the reality is not as bleak as some believe. "We will continue to face huge challenges in Afghanistan, but it is important that the American people know that we making progress and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable."
He reminded his listeners that Afghanistan was the home of the terrorists who planned the attacks of 9/11 and warned that if the country "were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, Al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack." Obama said he will "refuse to let that happen."
In Pakistan, where Washington uses teams of U.S. Special Forces to train Pakistani soldiers and pilotless drones to target terrorist leaders, Obama said Islamabad has "begun to take the fight to violent extremists within its borders," which he said has led to "major blows against Al-Qaeda and its leadership."