WASHINGTON Feb 27 – US President Barack Obama is to announce his long-awaited plan for withdrawing US troops from Iraq when he visits a military base in North Carolina on Friday, his spokesman said.
Obama, an early opponent of the war, ordered US military commanders to work out how to withdraw most US combat troops as soon as he took office in January, and is expected to reveal the details of his plan at midday.
Ahead of the announcement, some prominent Democrats criticised the president’s plan, saying that the 50,000 or so troops to be left in the country after the withdrawal leave too large a garrison.
US media citing unnamed congressional officials said Obama intends to pull US combat troops out of Iraq by August 2010.
Obama told congressional leaders about his decision in a late Thursday meeting at the White House, CNN and the New York Times reported. Both cited congressional sources.
Obama also reportedly told the top legislators at the meeting that he plans to keep between 35,000 and 50,000 US support troops in Iraq.
The plan would pull combat troops out of Iraq 19 months after the president took office, slightly longer than the 16 months Obama promised while on the campaign trail in 2008.
There are some 142,000 US troops currently stationed in Iraq.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed with the Iraqi government last year, Washington agreed to pull its troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, a leading Republican lawmaker said Obama had assured him that he had a "Plan B" in place and would "revisit" the arrangement if the security situation on the ground in Iraq were to worsen.
"He assured me that he will revisit his plan if the situation on the ground deteriorates and violence increases," John McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
"Iraq faces significant challenges in 2009, including the national parliamentary election in December. Our commanders must have the flexibility they need in order to respond to these challenges, and President Obama assured me that there is a ‘Plan B,’" said McHugh.
The lawmaker also indicated broad support for what the statement from his office described as "the presidents plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by August 2010."
Obama’s pledge came during talks on Thursday at the White House that also included Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said McHugh.
Earlier on Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs gave few details about Obama’s announcement except to say: "I know the president will lay out a strategy tomorrow that will begin to draw down."
Officials previously had said that the president was leaning towards a 19-month timetable for pulling out most US combat troops, rather than the 16-month deadline that he advocated during the election campaign.
Gibbs said the plan the president will announce would permit withdrawal to take place responsibly and would place more of the burden to govern on the Iraqis, while protecting the 142,000 US troops currently stationed in Iraq.
Military officers have presented Obama – an opponent of the 2003 US-led war in Iraq – with three options for withdrawal: pulling out in 16, 19 or 23 months, officials said.
An official told AFP on Wednesday that the US president apparently had agreed to a slightly slower pace for drawing down American troops.
"It appears he’s leaning to the 19-month option," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think that’s the way it’s going."
But he added that there was still "no final decision."
But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday that the figure was not fixed, and is open to adjustment.
"I would say that whatever number the president approves, as of the date he approves, is a way station, because if there is no new agreement, under the (Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, with Iraq) that number has to be zero at the end of 2011.
"I think it needs to be seen … as a way station rather than as a steady state," he said.
Under the SOFA signed with the Iraqi government last year, Washington agreed to pull its combat troops by the end of 2011.