WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama declared an end to the seven-year U.S. combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday and told war-weary Americans “our central mission as a people” is to restore the sagging U.S. economy.
Obama, who inherited the war from President George W. Bush and is fighting another in Afghanistan, said he had fulfilled a 2008 campaign promise to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Iraqis their country “today is sovereign and independent” but many are apprehensive as U.S. military might is scaled down, especially in the midst of continuing violence and a stalemate in efforts to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election.
After seven years of bloodshed that has brought sacrifice from Americans and Iraqis and consumed vast resources from tight budgets, Obama said: “Now, it is time to turn the page.”
“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” he said in excerpts of a televised speech he was to deliver from the Oval Office at 8 p.m. EDT/1 a.m. British time.
Obama hailed the removal of all but 50,000 U.S. troops, who will have a training and advisory role, saying: “This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office.”
Almost a trillion dollars have been spent and more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the 2003 invasion. A recent CBS News poll found 72 percent of Americans now believe the war was not worth the loss of American lives.
The impasse in Iraq has raised tensions as politicians squabble over power and insurgents carry out attacks aimed at undermining faith in domestic security forces.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari warned Iraq’s neighbours against interfering as U.S. troops withdraw by an end-2011 deadline set out in a bilateral security pact.
“We have warned all of them there wouldn’t be any vacuum, and if there would be a vacuum, the only people who will fill that vacuum are the Iraqis themselves,” he said.
Obama sought to tie the end of the combat mission in Iraq with his efforts to bring down a 9.5 percent jobless rate that is endangering Democratic rule in Washington in the November 2 congressional elections.
Americans are looking to Obama for leadership on boosting the U.S. economy and some analysts were questioning his foreign policy focus this week — Iraq and the Middle East — at a time of fears of a double-dip recession.
“Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” Obama said. “This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”
Obama visited the U.S. Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas, earlier on Tuesday to celebrate the milestone but stressed his Oval Office speech should not be seen as a “victory lap.”
“It’s not going to be self-congratulatory. There’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us,” Obama said.
The White House wanted to avoid any comparisons between Obama’s speech and the May 2003 speech by Bush when he declared major combat operations over in Iraq in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, only to see violence skyrocket in the months and years afterward.
Obama, who opposed the war from the start, telephoned Bush from Air Force One and they spoke for a few minutes about Iraq, the White House said without giving details.
Republicans were waiting to hear whether Obama would give credit to Bush for launching a U.S. troop surge in 2007 that they and many military commanders credit for helping to turn around the war.
“Though most Democrats still cannot bear to admit it, the war in Iraq is ending successfully because the surge worked. In 2007, President George W. Bush finally adopted a strategy and a team in Iraq that could win,” Republican Senator John McCain wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Bush launched the war over suspicions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found.
With tensions festering over Iraq’s inconclusive election, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Baghdad not just to mark the end of combat operations but also to press for talks.
“Notwithstanding what the national press says about increased violence, the truth is things are very much different. Things are much safer,” Biden told Maliki.
But there were plenty of fears about Iraq from the U.S. side. A senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters he was more worried about the lack of political reconciliation than the threat from Iran or al Qaeda in Iraq.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that “al Qaeda in Iraq is beaten but not gone.”
“This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished,” he said.
The roughly 50,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq are moving into an advisory role in which they will train and support Iraq’s army and police. Obama has promised to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
The effective change on the ground will not be huge because the U.S. military has already been switching the focus towards training and support over the past year.
Iraqi forces have been taking the lead since a bilateral security pact came into force in 2009. U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities in June last year.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull; Editing by John O'Callaghan