But he stressed Wednesday that those who fought, as well as their families, will always be remembered and honored for their service.
“So, as your commander in chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree — welcome home!” Obama said to the crowd of 3,000 as a giant American flag hung behind him at the 440th Structural Maintenance Hangar here.
The president’s speech capped a week of events leading to the milestone when the final U.S. troops cross the border out of Iraq by the end of the month. Obama tallied the costs of the extended battle that toppled the regime of President Saddam Hussein: More than 1.5 million U.S. troops served; 30,000 were wounded and 4,500 died, including 202 from Fort Bragg.
The effort was not in vain, Obama declared, despite security challenges that will persist after the U.S. departure. The president met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday at the White House to discuss postwar cooperation as Iran’s creeping influence in the Middle East worries U.S. policymakers.
“Of course, Iraq is not a perfect place,” Obama acknowledged Wednesday. “But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We are building a new partnership between our nations.”
Before addressing the troops, the Obamas met with the family of an infantryman from Fort Bragg who was killed Nov. 14 when a makeshift bomb hit his convoy in Iraq.
Obama’s appearance was also intended to boost his political standing as he ramps up his 2012 reelection effort.
Though the end of the war meets a timeline that was negotiated by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the White House has portrayed the milestone as a promise kept by the president. On March 19, 2008 — the fifth anniversary of the war — then-Sen. Obama of Illinois traveled to Fayetteville to give a campaign speech pledging to end the conflict; he capped that appearance with a game of pickup basketball with troops.
“The war in Iraq has done more to embolden America’s enemies than any strategic choice that we have made in decades,” Obama said then. “I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past.”
The president’s political opponents have criticized him for his decision to remove the troops after he and Maliki failed to agree in October on a pact to leave some U.S. forces in the country for training and security.