Obama set to end Iraq combat operations by Aug 2010
WASHINGTON Feb 26 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will announce plans to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010, fulfilling a campaign pledge to wind down an unpopular war that divided Americans, a U.S. Congressional aide said on Thursday.
Obama is expected to make the announcement on Friday at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity after Obama briefed lawmakers at the White House, said between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq would remain to train and equip Iraqi forces and conduct limited counter-terrorism operations.
The almost six-year-old conflict overshadowed the presidency of Republican George W. Bush and helped Democrats retake Congress and the White House.
The withdrawal timetable marks a historic juncture in the war. Obama's decision also fits with his intention to shift the United States' military focus to Afghanistan from Iraq and to cut the U.S. budget deficit, partly by reducing war costs.
Some Democrats have raised questions about the size and mission of the residual force Obama plans to leave in Iraq.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "the thinking all along had been that any force left after we stopped combat operations would be focused on the counterterrorism mission, on training, advising, assistance, and that sort of thing."
Gates declined to confirm the president's plans, but told reporters on Thursday that whatever Obama decided would be "a way station" since all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 under an agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command that oversees military operations in the Middle East, had favored a 23-month withdrawal timeline for combat troops, according to one U.S. official.
Both commanders have cautioned that Iraq remains fragile and dramatic security gains achieved over the past year and a half could be reversed if U.S. forces withdraw too quickly.
As a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to pull combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months. He has made clear his military priority is Afghanistan and he issued orders last week for 17,000 extra U.S. troops to deploy there.
There are now about 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and some 38,000 in Afghanistan. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Anthony Boadle)
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