State News

Obama sets August 2010 as Iraq end date

Posted February 27, 2009 7:26 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:13 p.m. EDT

— President Barack Obama on Friday declared that the U.S. will end its combat mission in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and that all troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011.

That timetable is slower than Obama had promised voters during his presidential campaign last year, but still hastens the U.S. exit.

"We will not let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals," he told about 2,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune, many of whom will soon be headed to another war front in Afghanistan.

A substantial number of the roughly 100,000 U.S. combat troops to be pulled out of Iraq by August 2010 will remain in the war zone through at least the end of this year to ensure national elections there go smoothly, senior Obama administration officials say.

That pacing suggests that although Obama's promised withdrawal will start soon, it will be back-loaded, with larger numbers of troops returning later in the 18-month time frame.

Even with the draw-down, a sizable U.S. force of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will stay in Iraq under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism.

"As we carry out this draw-down, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq," Obama said. "We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government.

"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."

The potential size of that remaining force doesn't please leaders of Obama's own Democratic Party, who had envisioned a fuller withdrawal. Obama personally briefed House and Senate members of both parties about his intentions behind closed doors Thursday.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama, offered his support for the plan Friday.

"I think the plan is significantly different than the plan Obama had during the campaign," said McCain, referring to Obama's campaign pledge to pull combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, if possible.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers in the briefing that ground commanders in Iraq believe the plan poses only a moderate risk to security, McCain said.

The Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for complete withdrawal is the deadline set under an agreement the U.S. and Iraq sealed during George W. Bush's presidency. Obama has no plans to extend that date or pursue any permanent troop presence in Iraq.

The Iraq war helped fuel Obama's presidential bid. Most Americans think the war was a mistake. More than 4,250 U.S. military members have died in the war.

From the Jan. 20 start of his presidency to his deadline for ending the combat mission, Obama has settled on a 19-month withdrawal. He had promised the faster pace of 16 months during his campaign but also said he would confer with military commanders on a responsible exit.

Officials said Thursday that the timetable Obama ultimately selected was the recommendation of all the key principals, including Gates and Mullen. The time-line was settled on as the one that would best manage security risks without jeopardizing the gains of recent months.

With 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama plans to withdraw most of them; the total comes to roughly 92,000 to 107,000, based on administration projections.

Officials said Obama would not set a more specific schedule, such as how many troops will exit per month, because he wants to give his commanders in Iraq flexibility. "They'll either speed it up or slow it down, depending on what they need," one official said.

Yet the officials made clear Obama wants to keep a strong security presence in Iraq through a series of elections in 2009, capped by national elections tentatively set for December. That important, final election date could slip into 2010, which is perhaps why Obama's timetable for withdrawing combat troops has slipped by a few months, too.

One official said Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Baghdad, wants a "substantial force on the ground in Iraq to ensure that the elections come off."

Another official said Odierno wanted flexibility around the elections. "The president found that very compelling," the official said.

Obama has maintained that getting out of Iraq is in the security interest of the U.S., but he said Friday that the nation will remain engaged in the region.

"The future of Iraq is inseparable from the future of the broader Middle East, so we must work with our friends and partners to establish a new framework that advances Iraq's security and the region's," he said. "We can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation. We need a smarter, more sustainable and comprehensive approach. That is why we are renewing our diplomacy while relieving the burden on our military."

The U.S. forces that will remain in Iraq starting Sept. 1, 2010, will have three missions: training and advising Iraqi security forces; providing protection and support for U.S. and other civilians working on missions in the country; and targeted counterterrorism.

McCain, R-Ariz., said his understanding is that the troops left behind would still go on combat patrols alongside Iraqis as part of the advisory role.

"They'll still be in harm's way," he said. "There's no doubt about it."

Obama had said all along he would keep a residual force in Iraq.

"When they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said before the briefing at the White House. Among others there was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has also expressed concern about the troop levels.

President Obama’s declaration comes as the North Carolina National Guard’s 30th Brigade is in training to deploy to Iraq. They are scheduled to start hitting in the ground in Iraq in mid-April and are expected to be deployed for a year.

Gen. William Ingram Jr., the adjutant general of North Carolina’s National Guard, said Obama’s timetable won’t change the 30th Brigade’s mission, but it could alter some of its strategic plans.

“Likely the footprint will change while they are there and they may not be going to the place where they were originally designated to go,” Ingram said.

Ingram said North Carolina National Guard Troops heading to Iraq will play a key role in setting the conditions for troop withdrawal, ahead of the August 2010 deadline.

“They are actually conducting counter insurgency and stability operations on this tour of duty,” Ingram said.

Violence is down significantly in Baghdad and most of Iraq, although many areas remain unstable. U.S. military deaths in Iraq plunged by two-thirds in 2008 from the previous year, a reflection of the improving security after a troop buildup in 2007.

Obama acknowledged the sacrifices of military personnel and their families, many of whom have had to endure multiple deployments since the Iraq war began almost six years ago. He said he included money in the budget proposal he sent to Congress on Thursday for expanding recruitment and veterans health care, and he promised to raise military pay and push for a new GI Bill so those leaving the armed forces can receive the education and training necessary to build new lives.

"My strategy for ending the war in Iraq does not end with military plans or diplomatic agendas," he said. "It endures through our commitment to uphold our sacred trust with every man and woman who has served in Iraq."