CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - President Barack Obama drew a firm finish line in the Iraq war Friday, six years after the invasion he opposed and six weeks into his presidency. Obama said he will withdraw combat forces within 18 months. "Let me say this as plainly as I can," he said. "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
Yet in the same speech before Marines and military leadership, he said the vast majority of those involved in the pullout will not leave this year. Obama also said tens of thousands of U.S. personnel will remain behind to train and advise Iraqis.
"We have forged hard-earned progress, we are leaving Iraq to its people, and we have begun the work of ending this war," he said.
Obama was moving to fulfill in large measure the defining promise of his presidential campaign - to end combat operations within 16 months of taking office. He's doing it in 19 months instead.
The president said the U.S. cannot "let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals." That was a declaration not of mission accomplished, but of mission accomplished as best as America could - this in the face of Obama's growing commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan, the other war he inherited.
"The most important decisions that have to be made about Iraq's future must now be made by Iraqis," the president said at the sprawling Camp Lejeune, N.C., base, which is about to deploy thousands of troops to Afghanistan.
Senior Obama administration officials had said earlier that of the roughly 100,000 U.S. combat troops to be pulled out of Iraq over the next 18 months, most will remain in the war zone through at least the end of this year to ensure national elections there go smoothly.
The pace of withdrawal means that although the pullout will start soon, it will be backloaded, with most troops returning in the last few months of the time frame.
And even after the drawdown, a sizable U.S. force of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will stay in Iraq longer under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism.
In any case, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. That's the deadline set under an agreement the two countries sealed near the end of Bush's presidency. Obama has no plans to extend that date or pursue any permanent troop presence in Iraq.
More than 4,250 Americans have been killed in Iraq, a costly, unpopular enterprise at home that Obama criticized when support for the invasion was strong and few other politicians dared stand against it.
Despite the extra months he's taking to achieve a withdrawal at the advice of military commanders, it is a hastier exit than envisaged under his predecessor, George W. Bush, whom Obama called Friday before giving his speech.
"America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities," Obama told the crowd. "We face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan; of relieving the burden on our military; and of rebuilding our struggling economy and these are challenges that we will meet."
He applauded the armed forces for successes in Iraq, where U.S. deaths and violence in many parts of the country are significantly down.
Yet he acknowledged violence will remain "a part of life" and daunting problems include political instability, displaced citizens, lack of support for Iraq's government in the neighborhoods and the stress of declining oil revenues.
But, the president said the U.S. cannot continue to try to solve all Iraq's problems.
"We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries," he said. "We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars."
Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican presidential rival, endorsed Obama's plan in a striking closing of ranks between opponents who argued forcefully over Iraq's course in the campaign.
Some of Obama's fellow Democrats seemed cooler in response. Not all were pleased with leaving the bulk of troops in place this year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday called Obama's plan "sound and measured" but suggested it wasn't a done deal.
"I look forward to further discussing this plan with the president," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the announcement good news because it means an end to the war. At the same time, she said the troops left behind must have "clearly defined" missions "so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that ground commanders in Iraq believe the plan poses only a moderate risk to security, said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio also approved. "I believe he has outlined a responsible approach that retains maximum flexibility to reconsider troop levels and to respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant," he said.
Obama responded to his congressional critics in an interview to be broadcast Friday on PBS' "The Newshour," saying that maybe they weren't paying attention to his comments during two years of campaigning for the presidency.
"Everything that I said I would do during the campaign I am now doing," Obama said. "Obviously because of consultation with commanders on the ground, something I also said we would do, there are some modifications to the plan. But this is basically the thrust that I have been talking about for several years and I think it is a responsible solution."
Officials said Thursday that the timetable Obama ultimately selected was the recommendation of all the principal advisers. It was chosen as the one that would best manage security risks without jeopardizing the gains of recent months.
With 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama plans to withdraw most of them - 92,000 to 107,000, based on administration projections.
Administration officials said Obama would not set a more specific schedule, such as how many troops will exit per month, because he wants to give his commanders in Iraq flexibility.
He said during the campaign he would withdraw two brigades a month. At the height of his Democratic primary contest with Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said he would remove troops by the end of this year, before reverting to a 16-month pledge.
Obama wants to keep a strong security presence in Iraq through a series of elections in 2009, capped by national elections tentatively set for December. That important, final election date could slip into 2010, which is perhaps why Obama's timetable for withdrawing combat troops has slipped by a few months, too.
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.
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