UPDATED OCT. 21, 2:38 P.M. EDT
WASHINGTON — By New Year’s Day, the Iraq War will be over.
President Barack Obama announced Friday that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, marking an official end to the controversial eight-year war that killed almost 4,500 U.S. troops and divided the American public.
“The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year,” Obama said in a White House address. “Our troops are finally coming home.”
Currently, about 40,000 U.S. servicemembers remain in Iraq. Obama said all will leave the country in coming weeks.
The announcement came shortly after Obama held a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Obama said the two countries will remain strong allies, but now with a “normal relationship between two sovereign nations.”
At the start of the war in March 2003, military planners and members of President George W. Bush’s administration initially predicted that war could be over in a matter of months. Instead, it stands today as the third longest war in American history, behind only Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even though U.S. forces quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military forces at the start of the conflict, the country quickly descended into sectarian violence, complicating the mission.
So far, the Iraq War has cost the United States more than $800 billion in operations costs alone. In addition to the troops killed there, more than 32,000 have been wounded, and outside analysts predict their rehabilitation bills and lifetime benefits will push the war’s total cost for taxpayers to more than $3 trillion.
The war also became the focus of numerous protests across America almost from the day it began. Bush won re-election in 2004 despite widespread public opposition to the conflict, but Democrats wrested control of the House and Senate from Republicans just two years later in large part because of that dissatisfaction.
U.S. forces ended their combat mission in Iraq last summer, shifting to a training and support mission, and have been steadily drawing down since then. At the height of the war in 2006, about 170,000 U.S. servicemembers were stationed there.
In February 2009, just weeks after taking office, Obama announced plans to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by December 2011, calling it a “responsible” end to the conflict.
But as that date neared, the U.S. and Iraq began negotiations aimed at keeping a small number of American servicemembers in the country to assist with training Iraqi military and police. In August, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Stars and Stripes that he believed U.S. forces would stay into 2012, saying that the Iraqi government was on the verge of agreeing to keep some trainers and security personnel in the country.
Reports that all troops would leave the country this year surfaced over the weekend, but Pentagon officials insisted that no final decisions had been made.
The Associated Press reported that a sticking point for keeping troops there past the deadline was the Iraqi parliament’s refusal to give U.S. troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, a privilege they have enjoyed since the new government was formed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Iraq veteran, said he strongly disagreed with the withdrawal.
“I feel all we have worked for, fought for, and sacrificed for is very much in jeopardy by today’s announcement,” he said in a statement. “I fear this decision has set in motion events that will come back to haunt our country.”
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., released a statement shortly after the announcement, expressing concern that a full withdrawal was premature.
Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity,” he said. “These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq.”
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. – whose presidential campaign against Bush in 2004 centered largely on getting the United States out of the war – called Friday’s announcement the right decision.
“The United States is fulfilling our agreement with an Iraqi government that wants to shape its own future,” he said in a statement. “We are creating a new partnership that shifts from a clear military focus to a new relationship that is more expansive, hinging on increased diplomatic, economic and cultural relations.
“American troops in Iraq will be coming home, having served with honor and enormous skill.”
On Friday, Obama said that he and al-Maliki were in “full agreement” on the decision to remove all of the troops.
“The last American soldiers 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 their support for our troops,” Obama said.
Pentagon officials did not offer immediate comment on Obama’s announcement. Panetta was en route to the Pacific for meetings with officials in Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.
More than 1.5 million U.S. troops served in Iraq since the war began.
“Our troops in Iraq,” he said, “will definitely be home for the holidays.”