By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 11:45 PM
Saying it is "time to turn the page" on one of the most divisive chapters in American history, President Obama declared the U.S. war in Iraq over Tuesday night, telling the nation that he was fulfilling his campaign pledge to stop a war he had opposed from the start.
"Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended," Obama said in his second prime-time address from the Oval Office. He heralded his belief "that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization."
In his speech, the president sought to unshackle the nation from a military invasion, begun by his predecessor, that was supposed to swiftly depose a dictator, seize hidden weapons of mass destruction and leave behind a democratic government.
Instead, it dragged on for more than seven years as U.S. troops battled a growing insurgency. The war became a recruiting tool and training ground for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Obama noted the "huge price" the United States paid during the long, wrenching conflict. Over the course of the war, 1.5 million troops served in Iraq, many of them returning for multiple tours. More than 4,400 died, and 32,000 were wounded.
The demands of the war stretched the limits of American military readiness, and its $740 billion cost far outpaced the original estimates.
After making the case in his remarks for withdrawing combat troops, Obama quickly pivoted to his other priorities. He said resources could now shift to the war in Afghanistan and to boosting the economy, which he labeled "our most urgent task."
Before his speech, Obama called former president George W. Bush, whose legacy is largely defined by the invasion and its controversial underpinnings. Aides would not say what the two presidents discussed, or whether Obama gave Bush credit for his decision, as sectarian divisions exploded and the war dragged on, to order the 2007 troop surge that led to a reduction in violence.
In his remarks, Obama invoked Bush, noting that his predecessor sat behind the same desk in announcing the war seven years earlier. He said much had "changed since that night."
Obama used the moment to draw a lesson of bipartisanship. "It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security," he said. ". . . The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, and to learn from our experience as we confront the many challenges ahead. And no challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al-Qaeda."A divided America
It was the contested grounds for the 2003 invasion that made it the most polarizing conflict since Vietnam. The Bush administration insisted that Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, had stockpiled a lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that he posed a threat to the United States and its allies. But those claims were based on questionable intelligence, and no such weapons were ever found. The bitter national argument over whether Bush had misled the country into war divided Americans and strained the country's relationship with the world - ultimately setting the stage for Obama to ascend to the presidency.
Obama, who traveled to Fort Bliss earlier Tuesday to meet with veterans, paid tribute to the military, saying he is "awed by their sacrifice."
The sacrifice is likely to continue: Though combat units have left Iraq, 50,000 troops remain as advisers and are almost sure to suffer further casualties.
The speech came at a seemingly arbitrary moment, on a deadline set by Obama himself and unrelated to any progress on the ground in Iraq, where a government has not been formed and deadly violence shatters daily life. While the war removed a dictator, it left civil society in tatters; electricity is still sporadic, even in Baghdad.
Obama, who has long contrasted the Iraq war he opposed with the Afghanistan invasion he supported, linked the two once more. "Because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense" in Afghanistan and elsewhere against al-Qaeda, he said.
Obama also linked the ending of the war to the U.S. economy, his most pressing problem two months before midterm elections in which the Democratic Party expects to suffer. "Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy," Obama said. "We must jump-start industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil. We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs. This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."An unsettled Iraq
Obama spoke against a backdrop of uncertainty in Iraq over whether the government and its security forces can keep the country from becoming further destabilized. Nearly six months after national elections, Iraqi politicians have been unable to settle on a new government. Insurgents, meanwhile, have managed to pull off spectacular attacks, including one in August that left more than 60 Iraqi army applicants dead. Instead of cheering the American drawdown, Iraqis have been apprehensive, fearing a return to conditions from the worst days of the war.
Further challenges are on the horizon: Under the status-of-forces agreement signed by Bush and the Iraqis, all remaining U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011. The Obama administration has left itself little room to alter those plans, saying that it would require a request from the Iraqis to leave troops behind and that no such request has been made.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," Obama said. "This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq's security forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done. We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.