CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - President Barack Obama drew a firm finish line for the Iraq war Friday, six years after the invasion he opposed and six weeks into his presidency. Obama said he will withdraw combat forces within 18 months.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can," he said. "By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
Yet in the same speech before Marines and military leadership, he said the vast majority of those involved in the pullout will not leave this year. Obama said tens of thousands of U.S. personnel will remain behind to train and advise Iraqis.
"We have forged hard-earned progress. We are leaving Iraq to its people, and we have begun the work of ending this war," he said.
Obama was moving to fulfill in large measure the defining promise of his presidential campaign - to end combat operations within 16 months of taking office. He's doing it in 19 months instead.
The president said the United States cannot "let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals."
"The most important decisions that have to be made about Iraq's future must now be made by Iraqis," the president said at the sprawling Camp Lejeune, N.C., base, which is about to send thousands of troops to Afghanistan.
Senior Obama administration officials had said earlier that of the roughly 100,000 U.S. combat troops to be pulled out of Iraq over the next 18 months, most will remain in the war zone through at least the end of this year to ensure national elections there go smoothly.
The pace of withdrawal means that although the pullout will start soon, it will be backloaded, with most troops returning in the last few months of the time frame.
And even after the drawdown, a U.S. force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will stay in Iraq longer under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism.
In any case, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. That's the deadline set under an agreement the two countries sealed near the end of George W. Bush's presidency.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio approved of the timetable. "I believe he has outlined a responsible approach that retains maximum flexibility to reconsider troop levels and to respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant," he said.
But some of Obama's fellow Democrats seemed cooler. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday called Obama's plan "sound and measured" but suggested it wasn't a done deal. "I look forward to further discussing this plan with the president," he said.
Obama applauded the armed forces for its successes in Iraq, where U.S. deaths and violence in many parts of the country are down significantly. He never credited Bush's buildup of troops in 2007 as contributing to those improvements.
To the military members, Obama said: "We will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life. That is your achievement. That is the prospect that you have made possible."
Drawing down troops in Iraq President Obama announced that roughly 100,000 U.S. troops will be pulled out of Iraq during the next 18 months. Troops, last day of the month, as of Friday IRAQ 2003 MARCH, 90,000 2008 Highest, 166,300 '09 142,000 AUG. 31, 2010 50,000* AFGHANISTAN 2003 March, 9.500 '08 Highest 51,700 '09 38,000 *After the drawdown, 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will stay in Iraq under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism. SOURCE: Department of Defense WAR CASUALTIES
Since the start of the Iraq conflict in March 2003:
U.S. military personnel have died there and an additional 31,089 have been wounded, according to Pentagon data.