'US troops to leave Iraq'
PRESIDENT Barack Obama declared on Friday an end to the Iraq war, one of the longest and most divisive conflicts in US history. He said all US troops would be withdrawn from the country by the end of 2011.
Obama's statement ended months of wrangling over whether the US would maintain a force in Iraq beyond 2011. He never mentioned the tense and ultimately fruitless negotiations with Iraq over whether to keep several thousand US forces in Iraq as a training force and a hedge against meddling from Iran or other outside forces.
Instead, Obama spoke of a promise kept, a new day for a self-reliant Iraq, and a focus on building up the economy of the United States instead of a land far away.
"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 nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
Obama spoke after a private video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and he offered assurances that the two leaders agreed on the decision.
The US military presence in Iraq stands at about 40,000. All US troops are to exit the country under a deal struck between the countries in 2008 when George W. Bush was president.
Obama, an opponent of the war from the start, took office and accelerated the end of the conflict. In August 2010, he declared the US combat mission over.
"Over the next two months our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home," Obama said. "The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops.
More than 4,400 American military members have been killed since the US and its allies invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Two US officials had told The Associated Press last week that the United States would not keep troops in Iraq past the year-end withdrawal deadline, except for some active-duty soldiers attached to the US Embassy.
In recent months, Washington had been discussing with Iraqi leaders the possibility of several thousand American troops remaining to continue training Iraqi security forces.
Throughout the discussions, Iraqi leaders adamantly have refused to give US troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, and the Americans have refused to stay without it.
Moreover, Iraq's leaders have been split on whether it wanted American forces to stay.
When the 2008 agreement requiring all US forces to leave Iraq was passed, many US officials assumed it would inevitably be renegotiated so that American forces could stay longer.
The US said repeatedly this year it would entertain an offer from the Iraqis to have a small force stay behind, and the Iraqis said they would like American military help. But as the year wore on and the number of American troops that Washington was suggesting could stay behind dropped, it became increasingly clear that a US troop presence was not a sure thing.
The issue of legal protection for the Americans was the deal-breaker.
Pulling troops out by the end of this year allows both al-Maliki and Obama to claim victory.
Obama kept a campaign promise to end the war, and al-Maliki will have ended the American presence in Iraq and restored Iraqi sovereignty.
He used the war statement to turn the attention once again back to the economy, the domestic concern that is expected to determine whether he wins re-election next year.
"After a decade of war the nation that we need to build and the nation that we will build is our own, an America that sees its economic strength restored just as we've restored our leadership around the globe."