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With U.S. Mission Ending, Iraq Struggles to Assemble Comprehensive Government

August 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The president boasted of progress in Iraq today, as the American combat effort, if not the diplomatic one, winds down. Mr. Obama spoke to a Disabled Veterans Convention in Atlanta.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.

GWEN IFILL: And today, addressing the Disabled American Veterans, President Obama declared, the American-led war is nearing its end.

BARACK OBAMA: Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility. And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule.

GWEN IFILL: The American force in Iraq has already shrunk by 90,000 over the last year-and-a-half. And it’s on track to drop to 50,000 by month’s end. All American troops are scheduled to leave at the end of next year.

BARACK OBAMA: And during this period, our forces will have a focused mission: supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts.

Now, these are dangerous tasks. There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress. And the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: More than 4,400 American troops have died in Iraq in seven-and-a-half years of fighting, with thousands more wounded. But so far this year, 43 Americans have been killed, fewer than last month alone in Afghanistan.

At least 100,000 Iraqis have died in the war — some estimates are much higher — in what at times has been brutal sectarian strife. But the president pointed to major improvements in recent years.

BARACK OBAMA: Today, even as terrorists try to derail Iraq’s progress, because of the sacrifices of our troops and their Iraqi partners, violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans point out that, because Mr. Obama opposed the U.S. surge in Iraq, he deserves scant credit for any success.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL(R-KY), Minority Leader: But thanks to the vision and the determination of General Petraeus, General McChrystal and Ambassador Crocker, the counterinsurgency strategy was allowed to take root and to succeed.

GWEN IFILL: But the violence is far from ended. Today, a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 12. And the Iraqi government says there were more than 500 civilian deaths in July, a record for the year. The U.S. military disputes that figure.

As the American commitment shrinks, Iraq’s political impasse continues. The March election was the first planned and run by Iraqis, and it produced record turnout. But, in the five months since, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been able to form a governing coalition among his Shiite partners.

A main opponent is Ayad Allawi, the Shiite former prime minister who created a secular cross-sectarian bloc that garnered more votes than Maliki. At a recent meeting in Damascus, Syria, Allawi sought support from the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who once waged open war against U.S. forces.

MUQTADA AL-SADR, muslim cleric (through translator): There were old disagreements. I forget them in order to make the political process move forward. And I hope that, in the future, there wouldn’t be any disagreements with Allawi or with anyone else.

GWEN IFILL: Despite visits from Vice President Biden and a host of other top American officials, there seems no end in sight for the deadlock. That has raised fears of renewed sectarian bloodletting, just as the American combat presence fades.