Obama addresses nation, declares 'Operation Iraqi Freedom is over'

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 31, 2010

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama declared the official end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday night, despite plans to leave 50,000 U.S. troops stationed there for now and questions surrounding the stability in the years to come.

“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” he said. “This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. ... That is what we have done.

“We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.”

The Oval Office address — only the second one Obama has delivered from that chamber — followed a day of ceremonies and speeches designed to mark the official end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. Obama visited with troops at Fort Bliss in Texas and called former President George W. Bush to mark the occasion. Vice President Joe Biden and other top U.S. dignitaries traveled to Baghdad for a formal change of mission ceremony on Wednesday.

But instead of celebration and declarations of victory, administration officials spent much of Tuesday trying to avoid a repeat of Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” gaffe in May 2003, when he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

During his trip to Fort Bliss, home to 51 of the 4,416 U.S. servicemembers killed in Iraq since 2003, Obama told troops there that his Tuesday night speech was not “a victory lap,” adding that “there’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed that sentiment in a speech before the American Legion on Tuesday morning, noting that 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq will continue to work alongside Iraqi security forces and will still face peril in their continuing mission there.

“This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished,” he said. “We still have a job to do and responsibilities there.”

Both men framed the changing mission in Iraq against the larger challenge of the ongoing terrorist threat overseas, particularly in Afghanistan. Gates said that because of the drawdown in Iraq “for the first time in nine years, we now have the resources — troops and equipment, military and civilian — needed for [the Afghanistan] fight.”

Obama said the end of the Iraq combat mission “comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans,” weary after a decade of war. He noted the buildup in U.S. forces there since the start of the year, noting that the goal is to provide the same time and security for the Afghan government to succeed as the 2007 Iraq “surge” did.

“Because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense” in Afghanistan, he said.

“But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves,” he said. “That’s why we are training Afghan security forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility.”

Before the president’s speech on Tuesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, criticized Democrats for taking credit for progress in Iraq during Obama’s presidency, and warned that those same lawmakers — and Obama — are too quickly looking for a speedy exit from Afghanistan and a full withdrawal from Iraq.

“The hard truth is that Iraq will continue to remain a target for those who hope to destroy freedom and democracy,” he said. “The people of that nation — and this nation — deserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened.”

But Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, before the speech called Obama’s approach to the end of the Iraq combat mission “sober and pragmatic.” The security turnover is a significant milestone, he said, but administration officials privately said they did not want to give the impression of celebrating before all of the troops return home.

“That lesson has been learned already,” he said, referring to the Bush speech in May 2003.

Obama did acknowledge the “courage and resolve” of troops who served in Iraq, praising their work to secure and rebuild the country.

“As commander in chief, I am proud of their service,” he said. “Like all Americans, I am awed by their sacrifice, and by the sacrifices of their families.”

National Security Network Senior Adviser Paul Eaton, a retired Army general, said overlooked in Tuesday’s focus on U.S. success and failure in Iraq has been the remarkable progress of Iraqi security forces in recent years. Before 2007 the force was in shambles, but for the last year Iraqi police and soldiers have largely been leading security missions with only partial support from American fighters.

But the Iraqi government is still in disarray, undercutting one of the major justifications for sending more troops into Iraq during the 2007 “surge.” Political infighting in the parliament has stalled the formation of a coalition government since March, and lawmakers have met in session only once since then.

White House officials did not release any details of Obama’s phone conversation with Bush, but Obama praised the former president’s commitment to the military in his speech.

“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset,” Obama said. “Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.”

shanel@stripes.osd.mil