September 1, 2010 / 1:47 AM / 9 years ago

SNAP ANALYSIS-Obama treads carefully in Iraq speech

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Using the gravity of the Oval Office as a backdrop, President Barack Obama said in a 17-minute televised address to war-weary Americans on Tuesday that it was "time to turn the page" on the unpopular Iraq war.

* Obama declared the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq but the reality is that there are still 50,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way there. Combat units may have been relabeled "advisory and assistance" brigades but they are still heavily armed and may be called upon by the Iraqi government to help in counter-insurgency operations in the still volatile country.

* Even as he trumpeted the success of the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, Obama tried again to assuage Americans’ growing doubts about the war in Afghanistan, emphasizing that U.S. forces would be there only for a "limited time" and that they would begin to come home next summer. U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan have soared this summer as violence has worsened.

* Obama’s declaration of what he called "this historic moment" was largely ceremonial. Little will change on the ground as Iraqi security forces have been taking the lead in combat operations for months.

* His announcement fulfilled his 2008 election campaign promise to end combat operations in Iraq but it is too early to say how it will play with voters in the Nov. 2 congressional elections. Opinion polls show Americans are preoccupied with stubbornly high unemployment and record government deficits.

* Mindful that the economy is issue No. 1 for recession-weary Americans, Obama stressed that winding down the costly war would enable the government to focus more resources on its "most urgent task" — boosting hiring and economic growth.

A top Obama aide said earlier that savings from ending the war in Iraq could be redirected toward the economy. The White House had previously suggested the money saved would go toward helping to cut the deficit, which it aims to halve by 2013.

Economists say it is too early to say which path Obama will eventually choose but they point out that any savings will be over the longer term and will not have any immediate effect.

* Obama played down the persistent violence that still plagues Iraq, stressing it had fallen to near record lows since the war began in 2003. But bombings and assassinations have killed hundreds of Iraqis over the summer while political parties remain deadlocked on the formation of a new government, some six months after elections in March.

* The Oval Office address capped a month-long effort by the Obama administration to refocus public attention on the war in Iraq, now largely ignored by Americans more concerned about the stumbling economy. After a drumbeat of discouraging economic news over the summer, the U.S. drawdown from Iraq has, ironically, been a good news story for the administration.

* The speech was widely seen as being targeted, at least in part, at the left-wing, anti-war base of the Democratic Party that has become increasingly disenchanted with Obama ahead of the November elections in which Democrats are widely expected to struggle to keep control of Congress.

* Obama repeated his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq on schedule by the end of 2011. But many Iraq experts, as well as former senior U.S. diplomats and military officials who served there, doubt he can fulfill that pledge, given the fragility of Iraq’s democracy and the external and internal threats it still faces.

* As expected, Obama chose his words carefully and avoided the "Mission Accomplished" moment that came to haunt President George W. Bush. Bush was ridiculed after boldly declaring the end of major combat in Iraq in 2003. More than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis went on to die in the years of insurgent and sectarian violence that followed.

* In an election year, it was perhaps inevitable that Obama would lay some of the blame for the war and the state of the economy on his predecessor. He said that during the past decade — meaning Bush’s two terms — that a trillion dollars had been spent on war and this "has short-changed investments in our own people."

* The speech is likely to reignite debate over how much credit Obama should get for the troop drawdown. He has angered Republicans for failing to acknowledge that the troop build-up ordered by Bush in 2007 helped to create the conditions for U.S. forces to begin withdrawing. As a senator, Obama opposed the troop "surge."

* The speech was notable if only for the fact that Obama speaks rarely about the Iraq war, which as a senator he opposed as a costly misadventure and distraction from the war in Afghanistan. Obama is often portrayed as a reluctant war-time leader who views the Iraq war as an unwelcome distraction from more pressing issues at home and abroad. (Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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