WASHINGTON — The United States will withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, officially ending the long, divisive war that began in March 2003, President Barack Obama announced Friday.
"After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," Obama said in the White House briefing room. The last U.S. soldiers will leave by Dec. 31, Obama said, "with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."
Obama cast the announcement as fulfillment of his 2008 campaign pledge to end the war in Iraq. It cost the lives of more than 4,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, with more than 30,000 U.S. troops wounded. It also cost U.S. taxpayers around $800 billion so far.
Obama emphasized that he's also winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which he said is becoming more stable. "The tide of war is receding," Obama said. "Even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we're beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
Framing the announcement that way is likely to help Obama politically, especially with his somewhat disenchanted Democratic base, as he begins his re-election campaign. But in fact, complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was not what U.S. military leaders wanted, nor is it what Obama had been seeking.
Rather, both the Pentagon and Obama wanted to station a residual U.S. military force in Iraq indefinitely to help stabilize the troubled nation, train its troops — and deter neighboring Iran from meddling.
But Iraq's government refused to grant any remaining U.S. troops immunity from prosecution for crimes, a stand the Pentagon considered a deal-breaker. So Obama chose complete withdrawal, even though analysts believe it poses some risk to U.S. strategic interests.
The White House on Friday sought to play down concerns that there will be no residual U.S. forces. Advisers said they're confident that Iraq can begin to stand on its own. There's "no question this is a success," said the president's deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough.
"What the president preferred was for the best relationship for the United States and Iraq going forward," McDonough said. "That relationship is a normal relationship that's based on a diplomatic lead, a civilian presence in the lead, but also will have important security components. We feel like we got exactly what we needed to protect our interests, and the Iraqis feel the same way."
But Obama said he told Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki — whom he has invited to the White House in December for transition talks — that the U.S. will continue to talk about helping Iraq train and equip its security forces.
"There will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq, and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant," Obama said. "Just as Iraqis have persevered through war, I'm confident that they can build a future worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization."
The U.S. will staff its embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra and Erbil, and Obama said that with "diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead," the U.S. would continue to help Iraq stabilize.
Most Democrats lauded Obama's decision, while some Republicans were critical, saying a troop exit could jeopardize any gains made in the country.
"I hope I am wrong and the president is right, but I fear this decision has set in motion events that will come back to haunt our country," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading congressional voice on military affairs.
And Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, warned on CNN that "there is a renewed risk of greater violence and renewed Iran penetration in southern Iraq, and a possible return to sectarian conflict."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also had harsh words for Obama, saying his "astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women."
He questioned whether the decision was "the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government."
However, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that while he was concerned that withdrawal could jeopardize gains, "I'm hopeful that both countries will work together to guarantee that a free and democratic Iraq remains a strong and stable partner for the United States in the Middle East."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a leading member of the Congressional Out of Iraq Caucus, said that the U.S. "never should have invaded Iraq in the first place." But he applauded Obama for "following through on his promise to end the conflict."
Yet Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a longtime war critic, said the U.S. "fails to acknowledge that we will simply be replacing one U.S. occupation with another."
He said the State Department would still maintain a "massive presence" in Iraq, along with "heavily armed private security contractors," whom he argued would "continue to foment instability and violence in Iraq and the region."
"We need to get out now, not just trade uniforms and personnel," Kucinich said. "It is reasonable to ask whether the people of Iraq will notice any change."
David Mack, a Middle East Institute scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, called the decision "inevitable," given the pushback against the war in both countries.
Mack noted that there are strategists in both Washington and Baghdad "who can make a very strong case for keeping forces in Iraq after 2011," but that domestic politics in both countries makes it unlikely.
"The reality is, the vast majority of the American public is sick and tired of sending their sons and daughters into a mission that, as they see it, involves keeping Iraqis from killing one another," Mack said.
The big continuing worry, he added, is a meddlesome Iran.
Among Democrats, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he was prepared to support keeping U.S. trainers in Iraq after 2011, but he called Obama's decision correct "in light of Iraq's refusal to eliminate the possibility that U.S. troops would face prosecutions in Iraqi courts."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., was more unequivocal, saying the U.S. was fulfilling its agreement with an Iraqi government "that wants to shape its own future."
Maliki's media adviser, Ali Al Moussawi, told Iraqi television that Maliki and Obama agreed that a 2008 agreement, which covers cooperation across a range of fields, would be activated.
"We hope to have a long strategic relationship with the United States that will encompass many challenges," he said.
Top Iraqi politicians hinted strongly last spring that they wanted U.S. troops to stay, with one government spokesman suggesting between 10,000 and 15,000. But as politicians debated over the summer, it became clear that the national parliament would not accept the principal U.S. condition for stationing forces in Iraq — or anywhere: A grant of immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for alleged crimes committed while on duty.
On Oct. 4, Iraqi political leaders, who are still gridlocked on critical security issues 19 months after national elections, reached a rare accord: To request residual U.S. forces, but to deny them the immunity the U.S. had demanded.
The main reason, according to parliamentarians, was a lack of confidence by Iraqis in the U.S. military justice system, which they said had failed to deliver punishments proportionate to crimes that they said left deep wounds in the Iraqi national psyche.
Best known was the torture of Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison north of Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. That led to the punishment of 11 soldiers and the demotion of a Reserve brigadier general.
Iraqis took notice in August when Reserve Spec. Charles Graner was released from military prison after serving six years of a 10-year sentence for inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse on Iraqi detainees. No top U.S. officer was punished.
And in 2005, U.S. Marines were charged with killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children. Nearly all charges were dropped.
While Obama said the troops will be home by Christmas, they are likely to return 10 days before ,according to the military drawdown plan, two officials told McClatchy. The military is planning a formal ceremony to mark the end of the war in mid-December, when nearly all troops will be out, except for those guarding the U.S. Embassy and consulates.
At the Pentagon, troops and officials received the news with a mix of emotions. At the height of the war, it was difficult to find a soldier not wearing a bracelet carrying the name of a comrade killed in Iraq; the 4,400-plus dead was always personal to them.
(Nancy Youssef and David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed. Clark reported from Washington, Gutman from Iraq. Special correspondents Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi also contributed from Iraq.)
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