REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s announcement Friday that all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year signals an official close to one of the most divisive conflicts in the country’s history and to an era in which the U.S. sought to transform the Middle East with its military might.
The announcement that the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops would leave by Dec. 31 came after the White House and the Iraqi government failed to reach an agreement on keeping a small U.S. force behind as trainers. The talks foundered largely over Iraqi opposition to granting immunity from prosecution for Americans troops who would remain.
But the decision to proceed with complete withdrawal also reflected the White House’s own ambivalence about keeping forces in Iraq, which White House aides feared would be seen as a betrayal of Obama’s promise during his 2008 campaign for the presidency to end the conflict and withdraw American combat troops.
Obama alluded to that promise in announcing the decision at the White House on Friday.
“I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,” Obama said after a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
Declaring that the “tide of war is receding,” Obama and other administration officials sought to portray the move as a honorable completion of a long and difficult mission and part of a broader shift away from direct U.S. military involvement not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and Libya as well.
But leading Republicans denounced the White House failure to reach an agreement with Iraq on allowing a small contingent of U.S. troops to remain. They argued that keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq would help preserve still fragile security gains, prevent a resurgence of sectarian and ethnic violence, enable continued training of Iraqi forces, and serve as a deterrent to Iran, which has sought influence in Iraq by allegedly supplying weapons and training to Shiite militant groups.
Obama held out the possibility of further talks with Iraq on continuing U.S military assistance, noting that he had invited Maliki to Washington in December. And U.S. officials said a small contingent of U.S military personnel to oversee U.S. arms sales and limited training would remain in Iraq as a permanent part of the U.S diplomatic mission.
More than 4,000 U.S. contractors would also remain to provide security to the large American embassy in Baghdad and to consulates in the cities of Basra and Irbil, they said.
Security has improved dramatically in many parts of Iraq since the worst days of the insurgency. Iraq’s army and police have improved after years of U.S. assistance, but still need help with many tasks, including logistics, defending the country's borders and air power. Iraq recently reached a deal to buy 18 F-16 fighter jets to beef up its fledgling air force, but it will take years for those to be delivered and for Iraqis to be trained to fly them.
The Dec. 31 deadline for pulling out U.S. forces was negotiated by the Bush administration before it left office, and Obama embraced it after he was elected and never seemed swayed by Pentagon officials and hawkish members of Congress, who have called for a continued presence after the end of the year.
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was originally appointed by Bush, and senior military officers originally pushed Obama to seek Iraq’s backing for keeping more than 20,000 troops in Iraq, a number that was gradually reduced in months of talks between the Pentagon and the White House.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: President Obama pauses during a news conference in Washington on Friday to announce that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Bloomberg