WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has declared an end to the U.S. war in Iraq and announced that all American troops will leave the country by the end of this year.
Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, responded by saying in a statement that the pullout will contribute to a new strategic relationship that benefits both countries.
"Today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year," Obama said in the surprise announcement from the White House. "After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
The declaration ended a months-long debate over whether several thousand U.S. troops would remain in Iraq beyond 2011 as a training force and deterrence against interference by Iran or other foreign forces.
The Iraqi government has played hardball with Washington on the matter, and talks fell apart over Baghdad's refusal to continue granting U.S. troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
In his brief remarks -- after which he took no questions from reporters -- Obama said the United States has kept its promise to Iraq, which he described as "self-reliant."
But by and large, he kept his focus on how the war's end will affect the United States, saying it will allow more focus on building up the ailing domestic economy and reunite thousands of military members with their families.
"Over the next two months our troops in Iraq -- tens of thousands of them -- will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home," Obama said. "The last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops."
He added that a decade of war has left the United States with a "need to build, and the nation that we will build is our own -- an America that sees its economic strength restored just as we've restored our leadership around the globe."
Just under 40,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from a high of 165,000.
In 2002, when he was still a U.S. senator from Illinois, Obama delivered what has now become a famous speech
against the proposed American invasion of Iraq.
In it, he declared that he didn't "oppose war in all circumstances," but added, "What I do oppose is a dumb war."
During the 2008 campaign for president, Obama positioned himself as the antiwar candidate, repeatedly emphasizing that he had voted in the Senate against the 2003 invasion. After he took office in 2009, he accelerated the end of the conflict, and in August 2010, Obama declared the U.S. combat mission over.
More than 4,400 American military members have been killed since the start of the war. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths stands at around 103,000, according to the Iraq Body Count
Obama's White House announcement on October 21 came after a private video conference with Maliki. In his statement, Obama offered assurances that the two leaders agreed on the U.S. decision.
Iraq's leadership has long been split on whether it wanted U.S. forces to stay beyond a 2008 agreement negotiated under former President George W. Bush to withdraw U.S. troops by 2011.
"This ushers a new phase in the relationship between the two countries which had hitherto rested on a military-security basis," Prime Minister Maliki said on October 22. "It will be governed by the strategic framework agreement, which rather than the military and security aspect, will focus on scientific, trade, economic, agricultural, and other relations on the basis of equitability and sovereignty."
U.S. officials made several offers this year to keep a small force in the country, and Iraqi leaders acknowledged they could use continued assistance. But the two sides couldn't agree on the issue of legal protection for U.S. troops.
Indeed, the chief of staff of the Iraqi army, Babakar Zebari, was quoted as saying after the U.S. announcement that he wants some U.S. and NATO trainers to stay past the end of 2011 to help train Iraqi soldiers on how to use weapons that Iraq has purchased from the United States and European countries.
But both national leaders stand to benefit from the latest withdrawal decision. Maliki has restored Iraqi sovereignty, and Obama -- who faces a tough reelection bid just over a year from now -- hopes to demonstrate that he kept his 2008 campaign promise to end the war.
written by Heather Maher with RFE/RL and additional agency reports