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Obama says most troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by 2010

Reporting from Washington - President Barack Obama announced today that he will pull the majority of U.S. military forces from Iraq by August 2010, fulfilling his campaign pledge to wind down the Iraq War -- but leaving a substantial residual force behind.

After about 100,000 combat troops depart by August 2010, the remaining force of between 35,000 and 50,000 troops will be charged with advising Iraqi units, protecting civilian advisors and officials and conducting counter-terrorism missions. That force will exit the country by the end of 2011.

Ironically, the announcement drew praise from Obama's election opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and criticism from his Democratic allies in Congress who think the remaining force will be too large.

Obama said the U.S. would not be able to achieve a perfect peace in Iraq, but the time had come to shift the burden of protecting the nation to its own government.

"The United States will pursue a new strategy to end the war in Iraq through a transition to full Iraqi responsibility," Obama said in an appearance at a Marine base, Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina today. "This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

- Click here to see photos of President Obama and the troops

Although Obama has been a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, opposing it from the beginning, today he took pains to praise the military's performance.

"For the men and women of America's armed forces -- and for your families -- this war has been one of the most extraordinary chapters of service in the history of our nation," Obama said. "You have endured tour after tour after tour of duty. You have known the dangers of combat and the lonely distance of loved ones. You have fought against tyranny and disorder."

Obama praised the military for reducing violence, he said, but Iraq is not yet secure, and falling oil revenues, poverty and political disagreements could yet threaten stability. Yet navigating those challenges will be largely left to Iraq.

"The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq's future is now its own responsibility," the president told his Marine audience. "The long-term success of the Iraqi nation will depend upon decisions made by Iraq's leaders and the fortitude of the Iraqi people."

With the exception of limited counter-terrorism operations, combat operations would cease after August of next year, officials said, the remaining force to be renamed an advisory force. They said a larger force is needed to help with the massive logistical task of removing the materiel of seven years of war and turning over compounds to the Iraqi military.

Administration officials said they would leave the timing of the precise withdrawals to Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Odierno is likely to withdraw only limited amounts of U.S. forces before the Iraqi national elections later this year, waiting until 2010 to withdraw the bulk of American forces.

"There was a focus on the elections," said a senior administration official. "Gen. Odierno thought it important to have a substantial force on the ground to get through the election."

The stage for the president's announcement today at Camp Lejeune represents a shifting military stance for the U.S.: While the military draws down forces in Iraq, it will be increasing its deployment in Afghanistan, and about 8,000 Marines will deploy to Afghanistan from Camp Lejeune this spring.

The August 2010 deadline represents a compromise between Obama's pledge on the campaign trail to withdraw forces over 16 months and the military's preference for a 23-month drawdown.

Officials said the current plan takes into account risk factors such as flaring violence, renewed sectarian strife and tensions over the elections. Senior administration officials said they believe the military will have enough forces to deal with such contingencies without reversing the drawdown and sending more forces into Iraq.

The White House briefed lawmakers on Thursday on the plan. Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the remaining force was larger than expected. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she wanted to hear more about the White House justifications for maintaining such a large force.

Some Democrats have worried that such a large residual force will pave the way for a long-term military presence in Iraq, akin to the U.S. bases in South Korea or Germany.

The senior administration official said that part of the mission of the residual force will be shutting down U.S. operations and removing the remainder of U.S. equipment.

"The path is not towards any sort of a Korea model," said a senior administration official. "The path is towards reducing in a fairly substantial way."

The current "status of forces agreement" between the United States and Iraq mandates that all American troops must be out of the country by the end of 2011. Obama said he planned to continue draw downs after August 2010 -- and pledged to meet the agreement with Iraq.

"We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility," Obama said. "And we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned."

- Click here to see photos of President Obama and the troops


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