JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama and the prime minister of Iraq held a final summit today before the last American troops withdraw from Iraq. The Dec. 31 deadline comes after nearly 4,500 American deaths in a war that began in 2003.
For weeks, U.S. troops have been packing up and pulling out of Iraq, shifting the focus to what comes next in the country they’re leaving behind. That question topped today’s agenda, as President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met at the White House.
At a joint news conference, the president promised strong support.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You will not stand alone. You have a strong and enduring partner in the United States of America.
So make no mistake. Our strong presence in the Middle East endures and the United States will never waver in defense of our allies, our partners or our interests.
This is the shared vision that Prime Minister Maliki and I reaffirmed today.
JEFFREY BROWN: Some 6,000 U.S. troops are left in Iraq as the nearly nine-year-long war comes to an end. That’s down from a high of 170,000, back in 2007.
But Maliki acknowledged today that, even after the last American leaves, Baghdad will still need U.S. assistance.
NOURI AL-MALIKI, Iraqi prime minister (through translator): Iraq now has become reliant completely on its own security apparatus and internal security, but it remains a need of cooperation with the United States of America in the security issues and information and combating terrorism, and in the area of training, and the area of equipping which is needed by the Iraqi army. And we have started that.
JEFFREY BROWN: In addition, Maliki said, Iraq needs help boosting its economy, repairing infrastructure, and reforming its education system. The U.S. also has a keen interest in Iraq’s foreign policy toward two key neighbors.
On Syria, the Obama administration has called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down over his government’s violent crackdown on the opposition. Iraq has yet to advocate any strong action against Assad.
BARACK OBAMA: Even if there are tactical disagreements between Iraq and the United States at this point in how to deal with Syria, I have absolutely no doubt that these decisions are being made based on what Prime Minister Maliki believes is best for Iraq.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president likewise played down concerns that Iran’s influence over Iraq is growing.
BARACK OBAMA: His interest is maintaining Iraqi sovereignty and preventing meddling by anybody inside of Iraq. And I believe him.
JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, in Iraq today, a sign of the times: U.S. troops handed over another major base to Iraqi forces, this one located south of Baghdad in Hillah.
LT. COL. JASON HAYES, U.S. Army: I am happy for the Iraqi people, that they are able to secure themselves and are looking at their best interests. I am also very happy that we are upholding the security agreement and leaving on time.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the current schedule calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the holidays. But the U.S. will still maintain a sizable diplomatic presence. Some 16,000 people work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest American mission in the world.