‘Time to turn the page’ as Obama ends Iraq combat

President Barack Obama has declared an end to US combat in Iraq, calling on its people to chart their own destiny as Americans turn to combating Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and rebuilding their own battered nation. In a major address Tuesday, Obama called on his country to steel itself for more bloodshed in Afghanistan, billing the fight there as “essential” to protecting the US homeland from the festering threat from Al-Qaeda. Obama’s 18-minute primetime address was meant to mark a symbolic moment in US disengagement from Iraq, but avoided talk of victory or defeat as political uncertainty and violence cloud a nation the United States invaded in 2003. Speaking from the Oval Office, a man who anchored his presidential campaign on opposing the war spoke of his “awe” at the sacrifices of US troops, and used statesmanlike appeal to heal domestic divides opened by the conflict. “Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” Obama said, seated in the same spot where former president George W. Bush unleashed the US war machine more than seven years ago. Amid political tumult at home, Obama attempted to refocus Americans on the need to repair the ravaged US economy, as a slowing recovery sours his popularity and augurs heavy losses for Democrats in November’s congressional polls. He argued that Americans had met their “responsibility” in Iraq and now needed to “turn the page” and “rebuild our nation here at home.” “At this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad,” he added. Republican critics acidly noted Obama had opposed the “surge” strategy that helped him meet his pledge of bringing US combat troops home. House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner charged that Obama and other senior Democrats who opposed the 2007 military escalation sought to “claim credit” for the results. Obama has pulled nearly 100,000 soldiers out, even as he escalated the war in Afghanistan. But with 50,000 American troops remaining in Iraq on a training and counter-terrorism mission until the end of the next year, Obama warned that though US combat was ending, violence in Iraq would not. “Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife,” he said, but asserted that Iraqis would not allow “terrorists” to thwart their destiny. In an email to supporters clearly aimed at his anti-war base, Obama pointed to the heavy US toll — more than 4,400 troops killed and over 34,260 wounded — and “vast resources” spent on the war amid a battering recession. Brutal sectarian violence left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead. “Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest — it is in our own,” he wrote. “We have met our responsibility.” In his address, Obama called on Iraq’s factions to “move forward with a sense of urgency” to end the long deadlock over forming a government after March’s inconclusive elections. Turning to Afghanistan, Obama admitted that many Americans were asking “tough questions” about the Afghan war as it grinds into a 10th year with bloodshed rising and no end in sight. “As we speak, Al-Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he warned. But he seemed to temper his earlier insistence that US forces would begin withdrawing from the country next year, speaking instead of a less clear “transition” to “Afghanistan responsibility.” “Troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground,” Obama said, in language apparently less robust than his insistence in December 2009 that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” White House officials insisted however, that the policy, which opened Obama up to criticism from political opponents and some in the military, had not changed. Obama also sought to heal fierce political divisions whipped up over the Iraq war, including by his own intense critiques of the war leadership under Bush, who he called on Tuesday. “It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt president Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country, and commitment to our security,” he said. “There were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it.”