CAMP LEJEUNE, Feb 28 – President Barack Obama has ordered an end to US combat in Iraq within 18 months, after the war poisoned domestic politics and claimed a heavy toll in blood, dollars and lost US prestige.,
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010 our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said on Friday, laying out a new war strategy at a US Marines base in North Carolina.
But angering liberal backers, Obama said up to 50,000 US troops, compared to the current 142,000-strong force, would remain in Iraq under a new mission until the end of 2011, nearly nine years after his predecessor George W. Bush ordered an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
The announcement, politely received by an audience of Marines, fulfilled Obama ‘s pledge to pull troops out of a conflict that has killed over 4,250 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
"I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011," Obama said, adding that the force remaining after 2010 would number between 35,000 and 50,000 troops.
The president, an early opponent of the Iraq war, briefed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Bush on the new plan by telephone, shortly before making his speech, the White House said.
Ending the unpopular war would mark a new era of US diplomacy in the Middle East, Obama said, that would include "principled and sustained engagement" with Iran and Syria.
The president also formally announced the appointment of veteran diplomatic troubleshooter Christopher Hill, most recently in charge of six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, as the new ambassador to Iraq.
In a pragmatic tone that contrasted with the ambitious hopes for Iraq often voiced during the Bush administration, Obama acknowledged: "We cannot rid Iraq of every single individual who opposes America or sympathises with our adversaries.
"We cannot police Iraq’s streets indefinitely, until they are completely safe, nor can we stay until Iraq’s union is perfect."
Several Democratic leaders expressed reservations at aspects of the plan, notably because of the size of the transitional force.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said the strategy was "sound and measured" but that the United States "must keep in Iraq only those forces necessary."
House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi said Obama’s decision was "good news" but said "missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused."
Liberal Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich faulted Obama’s formulation of ending "combat" operations while leaving a significant contingent of troops in Iraq.
"You can’t be in and out at the same time," he said.
But top Republicans, including defeated presidential candidate Senator John McCain, welcomed the move.
"I believe the president’s withdrawal plan is a reasonable one," McCain said, noting that Obama had shown a willingness to "revisit" the timetable depending on events on the ground in Iraq.
The timeline Obama laid out on Friday at Camp Lejeune will unfurl at a slightly slower pace than his promise to remove all US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months from his inauguration in January.
Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said Obama had decided to select the slower option on his advice and that of top uniformed military brass.
"It was a very thorough, deliberative process where a lot of different options and a lot of different analysis were examined," Gates told reporters.
In an interview late on Friday with PBS television, Obama said he had made clear that his Iraq withdrawal plan was subject to consultations with commanders.
"We were able to arrive at a very strong consensus that has the support of our military brass, the folks on the ground as well as our diplomats and our analysts. I think it is the right way to go," he said.
The transitional force will take on a new mission of training, equipping and advising Iraqi security forces, to protect US civilian personnel in Iraq, and to conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations on its own and in conjunction with the Iraqi forces, Obama said.
Speaking privately, officials refused to definitively rule out changes to the status of forces agreement, agreed with Iraq by the former Bush administration that could entail US troops remaining beyond 2011.
A senior US official said the US military commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno believed it was "very important to have adequate forces to get through a number of key events in 2009," especially mid-year regional elections and national elections scheduled for December.
Officials made it clear that fewer troops in Iraq would mean more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which Obama has said is a top priority.