In a rare Oval Office address on Tuesday evening local time, US President Barack Obama officially marked the end of US combat operations in Iraq and said the most urgent task facing Americans now was to "restore our economy".
More than seven years after his predecessor announced the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in an Oval Office address, US President Barack Obama pronounced the end of the US combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday night in a televised Oval Office speech – only his second since taking office.
Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.
US President Barack Obama
"Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," declared Obama in a prime-time speech to the nation.
With those words, Obama delivered on his 2008 presidential campaign promise to bring an end to one of the murkiest chapters in recent US history.
"Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility,” said Obama. “Now, it is time to turn the page."
But while the combat troop withdrawal made the Sept. 1, 2010 deadline imposed by Obama last year, nearly 50,000 US troops will remain in Iraq. Their mission in Iraq has been labelled “stability operations” which include non-combat advisory and training missions. But they still represent a formidable and heavily-armed force and the White House has acknowledged that the remaining troops might face “some combat”.
'Awed' by the sacrifices of US troops
Using the occasion to acknowledge the contributions of US troops over the past seven years, Obama said he was “awed” by the sacrifices of the soldiers and of their families.
“The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people,” said Obama. “We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home.”
More than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and nearly 30,000 US soldiers have been wounded over the past seven years. The Iraqi death toll has been far higher. Experts estimate that the Iraq war price tag amounts to $2,500 for every person in the US, a figure far higher than anyone expected when Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003.
The high human and economic cost comes at a time of stubbornly high unemployment rates and slow economic growth, a prime domestic concern as the country prepares for the November mid-term elections.
Amid widespread fears that the ruling Democratic Party could face a series of dramatic defeats at every level of government, the US president declared that the nation’s “most urgent task” now was to “put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.”
With the formal end of combat operations in Iraq completed, all eyes are now on the end of 2011 deadline, when all US troops are set to leave Iraq under the Status of Forces Agreement signed by former US President George Bush.
Obama mentions Bush, avoids ‘mission accomplished’ theme
In the lead-up to Obama’s much-awaited Oval Office address, there was intense speculation over whether Obama would mention Bush, who launched the war in 2003 with the stated aim of destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Republican politicians such as Senator John McCain and House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner had criticised Obama for taking credit for a drawdown that was made possible due to the successes of the troop “surge” strategy approved by Bush in 2007.
While Obama refrained from crediting Bush for the surge, he did mention his predecessor and acknowledged their disagreements over Iraq.
“This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush,” said Obama referring to a telephone call he made as he was en route to the Fort Bliss base in Texas. “It's well-known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security.”
The measured acknowledgement was in sharp contrast with Obama’s fiery 2002 anti-war address, when the then popular Illinois senator declared that he did not “oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war,” he added.
Tuesday night’s address steered clear of the “mission accomplished” theme that was to dog Bush following his infamous May 2003 speech, when the former US president declared an end to the combat phase of the war without anticipating the immense problems still facing the mission in Iraq.
Freeing resources for the war in Afghanistan
Earlier on Tuesday, Obama addressed a small gathering of US troops at Fort Bliss, where he noted that while the combat mission was over, there was “still a lot of work to do”. He also warned troops of a “tough slog” ahead in the war in Afghanistan.
In his Oval Office speech, Obama noted that the drawdown in Iraq would enable US troops to “apply the resources necessary to go on the offensive” in Afghanistan. “As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said. “We will disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as base for terrorists.”
But he also noted that the ultimate responsibility for security in Afghanistan resided with the Afghan people. “As was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves.”
Maliki says Iraqi security forces 'capable and qualified'
While Iraq is far less violent than in the early years of the war, a recent increase in attacks has raised concerns about Iraqi security forces' ability to fight insurgents.
In a televised address to the nation hours earlier on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Iraqis that the security forces were "capable and qualified to shoulder the responsibility".
But nearly six months after the March 7 parliamentary elections, Iraq's political leaders have yet to form a government since the elections resulted in no outright winner, creating a political impasse that threatens to further destabilise the country.
Maliki’s speech came as US Vice President Joe Biden made an announced visit to Iraq to oversee the change-of-command ceremony that will take place on Wednesday. The event will mark the official debut of “Operation New Dawn” and the end of America’s preeminence in Iraq.
Date created : 2010-09-01