Obama speaks with vets on Iraq drawdown

By Michael D. Shear and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; 12:03 PM

President Obama said Monday he is keeping his promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of this month, but he warned that American sacrifice in that country must continue as a "transitional force" remains until the end of next year.

In a speech to the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta, Obama recalled that as a presidential candidate in 2008, "I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end." He said, "I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, American combat missions in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing -- as promised and on schedule."

Obama said the 50,000-strong transitional force that remains in Iraq after the end of the month will change the U.S. mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterinsurgency operations and providing security for U.S. civilian efforts.

But he cautioned that "these are dangerous tasks, and the hard truth is that we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq."

While U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, Obama said, they will continue to face challenges in Afghanistan, where 30,000 U.S. reinforcements are nearly all in place and ready to begin an offensive against the radical Islamist Taliban movement.

At the start of the last presidential campaign, there was one overriding issue on the minds of voters: the Iraq war.

Obama's early opposition to the U.S. invasion, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's refusal to say her defense of it was wrong, animated the Democratic contest then, and for much of the rest of the campaign. Among Republicans, too, the Iraq war dominated the debate, nearly killing John McCain's nomination hopes.

But the economic crisis of late 2008, and the improving security situation in Iraq, pushed George W. Bush's war to the back burner as Obama took office. In the 18 months since, Iraq has rarely made headlines.

Now, even as Obama struggles with the war in Afghanistan, his administration is quietly approaching a milestone in the other war America is waging.

"Already, we have closed or turned over to Iraq hundreds of bases," Obama said. "We're moving out millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations that we've seen in decades."

The speech is intended to help Obama check off another of the major promises he made during the campaign, and shortly after becoming commander in chief. Barely a month after he took office, he told a military audience at Camp Lejeune: "Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

White House officials are very wary of echoing Bush's pronouncement of: "mission accomplished," especially given the ongoing political turmoil and potential for violence in Iraq. Instead, in his speech, Obama reminded Americans that thousands of troops will remain in the country as a transitional force and will likely face danger.

By the end of August, more than 90,000 troops will have returned home since February of 2009, when there were 144,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The 50,000 who remain will train Iraqi troops, conduct anti-terrorist raids and help protect U.S. civilian and military operations.

In addition, over the last year, the military has moved out millions of pieces of equipment that had been in Iraq to support the combat missions, according to White House officials. The Defense Department has also closed 236 bases in the country.

Obama's reminder that he has made good on his promise could help Democrats revive some of the enthusiasm for the president and his Capitol Hill allies as they approach midterm elections this fall. Liberal anger over the Iraq war helped fuel the Obama movement that swept him into office.

But any enthusiasm over the drawdown is dampened by the realization that many of those troops have merely been shifted from one war theater to another. Even as Obama has drawn down in Iraq, he has ramped up the fighting in Afghanistan.

The effect of that was obvious last week, when the House of Representatives voted for $37 billion in additional funding for Obama's wars. Of the 114 lawmakers who voted against allocating the money, 102 were Democrats, highlighting the party's deep unease about the ongoing fighting.

Another automobile victory lap

After touring factories that make General Motors and Chrysler cars last week, the president will travel to Chicago on Thursday to take his message of success to the third of the Big Three automakers.

At a Ford plant, Obama will repeat what he said on Friday -- that the doubters and naysayers were wrong when they opposed his administration's decision to bail out the auto industry last year.

Given polls which show the bank bailout was highly unpopular, the "b-word" is typically verboten in the White House. But aides believe the president's decision to rescue the car companies is a different matter.

Senior White House officials held several on-the-record briefings with reporters last week in advance of the president's trip to Detroit in the hopes of getting as much press as possible.

It largely worked, as major newspapers (including this one) and cable television programs all ran stories previewing the president's remarks -- and then stories after he made them.

The story may have run its course, however. It's hard to imagine news organizations devoting a lot of time to a repeat of Friday's news when the president appears at the Ford plant in the Windy City.

Then again, the networks do love their reruns.

Getting out of Dodge

No president is really ever off the clock. And August is as good a time as any for the commander-in-chief to be out of town, with many voters and media types on vacation and Congress beginning a weeks-long recess of its own.

If all goes according to plan, Obama might spend less time in Washington this August than any month since he took office. According to his public schedule, Obama is slated to be in town just 10 out of 31 days.

The rest of the time, he will be in Atlanta (today), Chicago (Thursday), Texas, the gulf, Wisconsin, California, Ohio, Florida and Martha's Vineyard.

About half that time is vacation. The rest is a ramp-up of the presidential fundraising machine, which aides promise will be a more regular feature of Obama's schedule as we get closer to the fall election.

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