“Because after a decade of war, the nation that we 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,” he said.
The plan conforms with the agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 — something that many of Obama’s Republican rivals failed to note in statements criticizing the complete withdrawal.
Among them was Mitt Romney, a front-runner for the nomination who has staked out a hawkish foreign policy position. In a statement, Romney said that the “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.”
Obama administration officials and Maliki’s government have focused on how many U.S. troops should stay to continue training Iraqi national forces and monitoring potential flash points, such as the boundary between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq.
“Our forces are good, but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone,” Col. Salam Khaled of the 6th Brigade of the Iraqi army said Friday. “The loyalty of forces is not to their homeland. The loyalty is to the political parties and to the sects.”
Administration officials said Iraqi forces are indeed prepared to preserve the nation’s stability.
“One assessment after another about the Iraqi security forces came back saying these guys are ready, these guys are capable, these guys are proven,” Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters.
Obama’s announcement came as Turkey engaged in counteroffensive strikes against Kurdish rebels in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The action is supported by NATO and the United States.
In the case of the Kurdish region, the U.S. troop withdrawal could be positive “because [the Americans] are helping Turkey in the aggression,” independent Iraqi lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, who is from the region, said in a phone interview. “So maybe it’s better for them not to be around.”
In a statement this week, factional leader Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who strongly opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq, said that there must first be a complete withdrawal and that training would be allowed “only if a new agreement has been concluded once the withdrawal is completed and the oppressed Iraqi people are financially compensated.”
Earlier this year, as concerns mounted over ongoing insurgent strikes and Iranian influence in Iraq, the administration made clear its willingness to continue tasks such as training, air defense, intelligence and reconnaissance, and joint counterterrorism missions.
Throughout the summer, the White House urged the Iraqis to come up with a list of tasks they would like U.S. forces to continue and informally spoke of leaving between 3,000 and 10,000 troops behind.
Ultimately, minority Kurdish and Sunni leaders pressed for an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain. But Sadr and other opponents continued to oppose a deal, and the talks finally faltered on the immunity question.
“We will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces — again, just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world,” Obama said. “After all, there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq, and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant.”
Staff writer Dan Zak in Baghdad and special correspondent Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah contributed to this report.