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President Marks End of Active Fighting in Iraq

August 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: This was the day President Obama set some time ago for ending American combat operations in Iraq.He will mark his vow in an address to the nation this evening.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was March of 2003 when U.S. troops invaded Iraq and the long war began.Tonight, after seven-and-a-half years, the president is set to say the U.S. role in active fighting is over.

Ahead of his prime-time Oval Office address, Mr. Obama traveled to the Army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, today.Over the years, 200,000 troops have deployed from there to Iraq.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:I’m going to make a speech to the nation tonight.It’s not going to be a victory lap.It’s not going to be self-congratulatory.

But the fact of the matter is that, because of the extraordinary service that all of you have done and so many people here at Fort Bliss have done, Iraq has an opportunity to create a better future for itself, and America is more secure.

KWAME HOLMAN: During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to have U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.While that target slipped by a few months, White House officials still view today’s announcement as a promise kept.

In response, Republicans focused on the troop surge that President Bush ordered in 2007 and candidate Obama opposed.House Republican Leader John Boehner told the American Legion convention in Milwaukee, Mr. Obama must put progress ahead of pullouts.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Minority Leader:Using campaign promises as yardsticks to measure success in Iraq and Afghanistan runs the risk of triggering artificial victory laps and premature withdrawal dates unconnected to conditions on the ground.

KWAME HOLMAN: At that same convention, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also pointed to progress in Iraq, but he counseled caution.

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES:I’m not saying that all is or necessarily will be well in Iraq.The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government.Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life.Al-Qaida in Iraq is beaten, but not gone.This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, there’s been a new spike in attacks since the Iraqi elections ended with no clear winner last March.

But Vice President Biden met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad today and said, things are much safer.And, in a televised address, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said, the end to U.S. combat operations is a key step to restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraqi prime minister (through translator):I assure you that the Iraqi security troops are capable and qualified to shoulder the responsibility, and the cowardly terrorist acts that targeted civilians and state institutions are but a desperate attempt by al-Qaida and remains of the former regime.

KWAME HOLMAN: In all, some 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq in an advisory role.That’s down from 140,000 when President Obama took office and a peak of 165,000 when 2007.The current agreement between the U.S. and Iraq calls for all American troops to leave by the end of next year.Secretary Gates said today it’s important to remember all those who have served, especially the more than 4,400 killed and the thousands wounded.

ROBERT GATES: The courage of these men and women, their determination, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families, along with the service and sacrifice of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition possible.And we must never forget.


KWAME HOLMAN: The president is expected to offer his own tribute in his address at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.