By Margaret Talev and Warren P. Strobel McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Declaring the combat mission in Iraq over after more than seven years, President Barack Obama also sought to use the milestone Tuesday night to buy patience from voters on the economy, and patience from fellow Democrats on the war in Afghanistan.
“Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it’s time to turn the page,” Obama said in his 18-minute address, just his second delivered from the Oval Office at the White House. “Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.”
Turning his attention to the issue dominant in the American public mind two months before November’s elections, Obama suggested that the transition will allow him and the embattled Democratic majority in Congress to focus more on the struggling U.S. economy.
Restoring the economy and jobs for millions of Americans is “our most urgent task,” Obama said, and “in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”
At the same time, Obama hoped to use the transition in Iraq to round up enough goodwill from fellow Democrats who’ve cooled to the U.S. war in Afghanistan to maintain funding and troop levels there through next summer or beyond.
However, he said that “as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there.” He said that al-Qaida’s leadership is still anchored in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and that “we must never lose sight of what’s at stake.”
A bookend for Obama
Just as the end of the combat mission in Iraq marks a milestone for the nation, it’s also a bookend for Obama, who opposed the pre-emptive war from the start and campaigned on that opposition but has had to oversee the war as commander-in-chief for a year and a half.
Obama said the U.S. has paid “a huge price” since President George W. Bush’s invasion in 2003. To date, the war has cost more than 4,400 U.S. lives and about $750 billion.
Several Republicans had criticized Obama as hypocritical because he was among those who opposed the troop “surge” proposed by Gen. David Petraeus, which Bush insisted on in 2007. Without the surge to stabilize the situation in Iraq, they said, Obama wouldn’t be in a position to shift the mission.
U.S. troops’ roles
Despite the transition to Iraqi security forces, roughly 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq for counterterrorism, training and protection of U.S. personnel. They are to stay through the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqis.
Obama didn’t say Tuesday night what he would do if the Iraqi government asks some American soldiers to stay as an insurance policy.
Obama also didn’t dwell on the deep problems still facing Iraq, acknowledging only that “many challenges remain” and urging Iraqi leaders to form a government nearly six months after national elections.
In fact, conflicts remain, with deep-seated suspicions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and tense territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds. Violence is far below its record highs, but has been creeping up again as the country drifts without a government. Iraqis complain daily about a lack of security and basic services such as electricity.
Obama said he expected insurgent attacks to continue in Iraq and acknowledged that the elections six months ago have yet to yield an agreement on a government, but skimmed over these challenges, predicting that “terrorists will fail” because “Iraqis are a proud people.”
Republicans on Tuesday emphasized the possibility that Iraq may not be stable enough even by the end of next year.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Iraqis and Americans “deserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened.”
Boehner said that in recent months “we’ve often heard about ending the war in Iraq, but not much about winning the war in Iraq. If we honor what our men and women fought for, we cannot turn our backs now on what they have achieved.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama “could very well find himself negotiating a new security agreement next year.”