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Obama Seeks to End Iraq Combat Mission in 2010

February 27, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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Speaking at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune Friday, President Barack Obama set a timetable to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2010, while leaving a transitional force in place. Kwame Holman reports on the president's speech and reactions on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama set out a timetable today to get almost all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by August of 2010. It was one of his major campaign issues, and he went before a military audience to explain his plans.

Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The war has lasted nearly six years and claimed the lives of 4,252 American troops; 142,000 Americans remain on the ground there.

But today at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the new commander-in-chief told 2,000 U.S. Marines it’s time to transition most U.S. forces out.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.

Here’s what we will not do: We will not let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.

We cannot rid Iraq of every single individual who opposes America or sympathizes with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq’s streets indefinitely until they are completely safe, nor can we stay until Iraq’s union is perfect.

We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.

Troop withdrawals set for 2010

KWAME HOLMAN: Under the president's plan, the bulk of the withdrawal would begin in 2010 and be complete by the end of the summer. And a residual force would stay through 2011.

BARACK OBAMA: We will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces, as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Washington, the plan was endorsed today by the president's Republican rival last November, John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: That's why I believe that the administration should aim to keep the full complement -- 50,000 -- as briefed by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, and not succumb to pressures, political or otherwise, to make deeper or faster cuts in our force levels. The president's plan as it was briefed yesterday is one that can keep us on the right path in Iraq.

Democrats respond to strategy

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid questioned the size of the transitional force, saying Thursday, "When they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated."

And today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "The remaining missions must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible."

Before and after arriving at Camp Lejeune, the president also briefed Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and former President Bush by telephone.

Under Mr. Bush, monthly American deaths in Iraq peaked at 137 in November 2004. Since the U.S. troop surge, casualties have fallen to 15 American deaths this month, including one reported today.

But even as the violence in Iraq abated, Afghanistan has become more dangerous for U.S. and international forces. A NATO soldier was killed in a bombing in the south today. And President Obama announced last week he'll send 17,000 more troops there this spring, including 8,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune.

BARACK OBAMA: We've also taken into account the simple reality that America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities. We face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan, of relieving the burden on our military and military families, of rebuilding our struggling economy. These are challenges that we must meet and will meet.

Support for troops, families

KWAME HOLMAN: As the Marines looked on, the president said one of those challenges also is to take care of them and their families.

BARACK OBAMA: You and your families have done your duty; now, a grateful nation must do ours. We will raise military pay and continue providing...I figured that'd be an applause line, Secretary Gates.

We're going to continue providing quality childcare, job-training for spouses, and expanded counseling and outreach to families that have known the separation and stress of war.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama opposed the Iraq war from the outset. However, he closed today with praise for the Marines and the rest of the U.S. military.

BARACK OBAMA: There will be more danger in the months ahead. We will face new tests and unforeseen trials. But thanks to the sacrifices of those who have served, we have forged hard-earned progress, we are leaving Iraq to its people, and we have begun the work of ending this war.

Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Semper Fi. Hurah.