By Anne E. Kornblut and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 28, 2009
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., Feb. 27 -- President Obama called on Iraqis to take control of their own destiny when American forces withdraw, mapping out plans on Friday for a dramatic reduction of U.S. troops by the end of August 2010.
In a speech to service members received with a mixture of cheers and muted applause, Obama declared that an end to the combat mission in Iraq is on the horizon. "Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said.
The time frame is longer than Obama promised during his presidential bid, and Obama pledged to "proceed cautiously" and to closely consult military commanders, but under his plan, roughly 100,000 troops would exit Iraq by mid-2010. Another 35,000 to 50,000 would remain to help provide security and training -- and, most importantly, counterterrorism operations and advisory missions, which military officials note may include combat.
Obama sought to emphasize diplomacy, announcing that Christopher Hill will be his new ambassador to Iraq, and to cast the move as a "transition to Iraqi responsibility" rather than an American withdrawal. And the president, just six weeks into his administration, spoke directly to the Iraqi public, citing a "bond forged by shared bloodshed and countless friendships among our people" as a reason to trust his sincerity in promising to continue helping the country rebuild.
With some Democrats expressing dismay at the extended timetable and Republicans scrambling to claim credit for an earlier military "surge" that laid the groundwork for an eventual withdrawal, Obama aides sought to minimize the political discussion surrounding his announcement. Obama called former president George W. Bush to brief him about the decision, a move that White House advisers said was a show of respect for a predecessor whose legacy is closely tied to the outcome in Iraq.
At the same time, Obama sought to cast his decision as a broader one that looks beyond Iraq, arguing that he would pursue a shift that does not deal with individual countries in the region in isolation -- and one that refocuses attention on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the prevention of development of an Iranian nuclear weapons system and an enduring peace between Israel and Arab nations.
Obama acknowledged that the troop withdrawal would take two months longer than he once promised as a candidate, but he emphasized the need for a balance between swiftness and responsible action.
"As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we've made and to protect our troops," Obama said. "These consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months."
He continued: "There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments, but our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed. After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its security forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country."
In Washington, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Obama's plan a "reasonable one." Once a fierce critic of Obama's draw-down plan, McCain, Obama's general-election opponent in 2008, said that after meeting with the president at the White House on Thursday night as part of a group of lawmakers who were briefed, he was "cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success."
Still, in a Senate floor speech, McCain said the plan was "not without risk" given that the steps made in Iraq "remain fragile." Democrats have been wary of the plan, demanding that Obama both hasten the process and leave behind a smaller U.S. military footprint.
In addition to calling Bush, Obama also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to brief him on the troop withdrawal plan and to request his acceptance of the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Obama, who has no military background of his own, has sought to strike a balance, both as a candidate and as president, between opposing the Iraqi occupation and supporting members of the armed forces. He praised service members repeatedly, and those sections of his speech drew some of the greatest applause from thousands of the men and women in fatigues who gathered in the Goettge Memorial Field House.
"You make up a fraction of the American population, but in an age when so many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly, you did the opposite -- you volunteered to bear the heaviest burden. And for you and for your families, the war does not end when you come home," Obama said.
When he promised to raise military pay, a large cheer erupted from the crowd -- much more so than when he declared that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would be over by September 2010. "I figured that'd be an applause line," Obama said.
In interviews after the speech, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that while major combat units will leave Iraq, the remaining forces may be involved in combat as required, especially in fighting terrorism. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that certain operations -- such as the ones now underway in Mosul -- would no longer involve U.S. forces in leading roles.
Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, said in a conference call that the president would retain some flexibility over the timing of troop withdrawals but that there was no reason to anticipate a delay. And he said the importance of an exact time frame was to signal to all parties involved that a new phase was beginning. "The date provides a way of delineating when one mission in Iraq ends and a completely new, different one begins," Gates said.
Asked whether an upswing in violence in Iraq might require Obama to send back more troops, Gates said it was a "pretty hypothetical" question and that the planners had taken such considerations into account.
Gates said Friday that the timetable would provide adequate U.S. security forces there during critical elections this year, and he said that was the main concern of U.S. military commanders. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had earlier favored a slower withdrawal.
Among commanders, particularly Odierno, "the real concern was how do we get through this year and all of the elections," Gates said.
"The extra two months or so was considered to be important" to provide an adequate force to secure the elections, Gates said. The goal is to consolidate the remaining forces into "a few places where both civilians and military would be" so that the military could protect the civilians remaining in Iraq, he said. That residual force will have to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 unless Iraq requests otherwise.