Addressing soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, Obama stopped short of declaring victory in Iraq but called the winding down of the conflict “an extraordinary achievement.”
“Iraq is not a perfect place but we are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country with a representative government elected by its people,” he said.
“This is an extraordinary achievement and today we remember everything you did to make it possible. Years from now your legacy will endure in the freedom of our children and our grandchildren.”
“It is harder to end a war than to begin one,” he told about 3,000 soldiers gathered in an airplane hangar as they punctuated his speech with cheers and hollers.
Despite lingering questions about whether the United States should have invaded the Middle Eastern country, the last American troops “will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high,” Obama said.
Mr Obama described the uniformed young men and women before him as part of the “9/11 generation”, as he attempted to carve an honourable niche for them in the story of America.
Michelle Obama, speaking just before her husband, injected a hint of campaign rhetoric by crediting the president for winding down the war. “He’s kept his promise to responsibly bring you home from Iraq,” she told the Fort Bragg soldiers.
As of this week, there were about 5,500 U.S. troops left in Iraq, down from more than 170,000 at the height of the war that Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush started in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
At a ceremony in Baghdad today, the colours that American troops have fought under for nearly nine years will be lowered as the last of the forces that numbered 170,000 at their peak continue to trundle south across the border into Kuwait.
“I could not be prouder of you, America could not be prouder of you. You have earned your place in history because you sacrificed so much for people you have never met,” he said.
Unlike empires of old, the United States did not invade other states for “territory or resources”, he said, “we do it because it is right”.
“There can be no stronger statement of our commitment to self-determination than our decision to leave Iraq,” he continued.
Some 4,500 American troops and at least 60,000 Iraqis died in the Iraq war, which Obama has said would cost more than $1 trillion all told – a significant contributor to Washington’s current fiscal strains.
Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama for the presidency in 2008, said Obama should have convinced Baghdad to allow a small number of American troops to stay in Iraq beyond this year to help assist Iraqi security forces maintain the peace.
“It was a sad case of political expediency triumphing over military necessity, both in Baghdad and Washington,” he said, calling Obama’s decision to end talks about keeping some U.S. forces in Iraq represented “a failure of leadership.”
Hundreds of people in the former insurgent bastion of Fallujah set alight US and Israeli flags in a protest to mark Mr Obama’s speech.
“We are proud to have driven the occupier out of Iraq, at the cost of enormous sacrifice,” said Khalid al-Alwa, the local leader of the Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim grouping.
“Those who destroyed Iraq paid the price because the people here held them accountable.”
Leaving Iraq fulfills a pledge that helped Obama win the presidency in 2008 and allows the White House to focus more on Afghanistan as well as economic worries at home, where the high jobless rate will be a major concern for voters next year.
Critics have accused Obama of ignoring warnings from U.S. and Iraqi military commanders about the dangers of a full departure by the end of this year, the timetable that Bush’s advisers had laid out and the current president stuck to.
Republican contenders for the 2012 presidential race and some policy experts have said Iraq’s security forces are ill-equipped to keep order in the oil-producing country and have warned new insurgent violence or upheaval could embolden Iraq’s neighbor and long-time foe Iran. [via The Telegraph and Reuters]