By Scott Wilson and Aaron Blake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; A08
President Obama began a month-long effort Monday to remind an American electorate fatigued by war that the U.S. military effort in Iraq is about to enter its end game.
In a speech to the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta, the president said that beginning next month, the more than seven-year-old conflict will change from a primarily military enterprise to a diplomatic one.
Obama campaigned on winding down the Iraq war, and he used his remarks to veterans, a significant portion of whom did not support him in the election, to remind voters that he is carrying out those plans largely on schedule.
"The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," the president told the group, which received his speech politely and with occasional applause. "But make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."
White House officials said Obama's speech will be followed in the weeks ahead by remarks from Vice President Biden and other senior administration officials about the drawdown. Although Obama opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, his administration says his management of the war represents one of his most important foreign policy successes.
The U.S. combat mission in Iraq will officially conclude at the end of the month, a milestone that comes after a steady troop pullout since Obama took office.
About 50,000 U.S. forces are scheduled to remain in Iraq after the combat mission is done. That means that by the end of August, about 94,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines will have left Iraq since Obama's inauguration.
The departure timetable -- originally negotiated with the Iraqi government by the George W. Bush administration -- calls for all U.S. troops to leave by the end of next year.
But Iraq remains a fragile nation, and its political leadership has warned of a potential power vacuum as U.S. forces withdraw.
Iraqi politicians have not agreed on a new coalition government nearly five months after national elections, and periodic attacks against fledgling Iraqi institutions and troops remain a threat to security.
"Obviously, we're doing what we can to help facilitate them along," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters traveling with the president. "But when you consider that last time it took them six months to put together the government, the fact that there's a stable transitional government in place right now is a sign that this process is working."
White House officials billed Obama's remarks to the veterans group as a significant Iraq policy address, but a relatively small part of the roughly 20-minute speech was devoted to the subject. The president spoke most passionately about veterans benefits and received the most applause when he did.
When he talked about Iraq, Obama stressed that he is overseeing the successful end of the war, even as he builds up the combat capability of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
He said the remaining U.S. forces in Iraq will focus on training Iraqi troops while U.S. diplomats work with Iraqi leaders on political and governance issues. Already an intensive effort is underway to move millions of pieces of military equipment out of Iraq, a process Obama called "one of the largest logistics operations that we've seen in decades."
Iraq has been a deeply unpopular war among the Democratic base, and Obama's commitment to continue with the withdrawal could help excite party voters this fall. But he went against his party last year in escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, a surge of about 30,000 troops that he intends to begin bringing home next summer.
The president warned the audience Monday that "we will continue to face huge challenges in Afghanistan."
"But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable," he added.
Although Obama acknowledged that "our nation has had vigorous debates" about the Iraq war, he said the time has come to support the more than 1 million U.S. troops who have served there. He promised to speed up benefits to veterans and improve care for a wide range of combat-related injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I want to say to anyone who is struggling: Do not suffer in silence," he said. "It's not a sign of weakness to reach out for support; it is a sign of strength. Your country needs you. And we are here to help you stand tall again."
Leighton Foreman, a retired Marine master sergeant who served in Afghanistan, said after the speech that "we'll always have a hand in Iraq, I'm sure."
"We definitely should be partners, as you are in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as we helped them in the past," he said. "But Afghanistan definitely needs to be addressed. It's not getting any easier."
Joe Borbas, a retired Army staff sergeant who served in Vietnam, said Obama should have devoted more of his speech to Afghanistan, a war now in its ninth year that polls find most Americans do not believe is worth fighting.
"I do agree our time has come [in Iraq], but what's being underplayed is Afghanistan," Borbas said. "That's the next big one. It could be messy. I think it got underplayed a little bit."
Blake reported from Atlanta.