For months, U.S. and Iraqi officials had been negotiating the terms of an accord that would have kept several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq for special operations and training beyond the year-end deadline set by the George W. Bush administration.
But Obama and Maliki, who have never developed much personal chemistry, failed to reach agreement on the legal status of U.S. troops who would stay in Iraq beyond Dec. 31. As a result, only a contingent of fewer than 200 Marines assigned to help protect the large U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad will remain, along with a small number of other personnel to provide training related to new military sales and other tasks.
“The rest of our troops in Iraq will come home,” Obama said Friday at the White House, adding that they will “be home for the holidays.”
“After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” he said.
The negotiations foundered over the U.S. demand that American troops receive legal immunity for their actions, a request Maliki was ultimately unable to sell to the anti-U.S. elements of his governing coalition after a war that many Iraqis believe has permanently altered their country for the worse.
The departure of U.S. forces could pose security problems for the Iraqi government, still beset by sectarian and ethnic divisions. There are 39,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today, about 100,000 fewer than when Obama took office. About 16,000 U.S. diplomats and civilian contractors will remain posted in Iraq.
If sectarian strife or other violence should break out in Iraq once U.S. forces have left, Obama could be blamed for abandoning Iraq before it was ready to protect itself. Such criticism came quickly Friday from Republicans vying for the presidency next year.
But the result also allows for a more definitive conclusion to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, which has cost the United States nearly $1 trillion and more than 4,400 American lives. Obama, who separated himself from the crowded Democratic field in 2008 in part through his clear opposition to the Iraq war, will be able to tell voters as he confronts a difficult reelection campaign that he has overseen the promised end to the Iraq conflict.
Although foreign policy does not rank high in voters’ minds at a time of economic stress at home, Obama used his appearance Friday to showcase some of his accomplishments in winding down expensive wars and killing declared enemies.