CAMP LEJEUNE, NC (AP) - Declaring "I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end," President Barack Obama on Friday moved to fulfill the defining promise of his campaign, announcing that all U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn by September 2010.
But in the same speech to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he revealed that the vast majority of those involved in the pullout will not leave this year. He also said that tens of thousands of U.S. personnel will remain behind afterward.
"The most important decisions that have to be made about Iraq's future must now be made by Iraqis," Obama told hundreds of Marines and officers at the sprawling base, which is deploying thousands of troops to the U.S.'s other war front, in 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 suggests that although Obama's promised 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 under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism.
With most Americans telling pollsters they believe the war was a mistake and more than 4,250 Americans killed there, the Aug. 31, 2010 end date for Iraq war combat operations is slower than Obama had promised voters as a candidate. The timetable he pledged then would have seen combat end in May 2010.
Regardless, it is a hastened exit, something Obama called a necessity, both for the future of Iraq and to allow the U.S. to refocus its attention more firmly on Afghanistan.
"America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities: 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 said.
"Every nation and every group must know, whether you wish America good or ill, that the end of the war in Iraq will enable a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East," he said.
"This does not lessen our commitment. We are going to be enhancing that commitment to bring about a better day in that region, and that era has just begun."
Obama applauded the military for its role in an improved situation in Iraq, where violence is down significantly in Baghdad and most of Iraq and U.S. military deaths plunged. He also acknowledged that many problems remain in the country and said "there will be difficult days ahead."
Those include violence that will remain "a part of life," political instability and fundamental unresolved questions, a large displaced and destitute citizenry, tepid support for Iraq's fragile government in the neighborhood 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."