Obama sets Iraq deadline, unveils new strategy

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., (Reuters) – President Barack  Obama said yesterday he would pull U.S. combat troops out of  Iraq in 18 months as he unveiled a new strategy that stressed  diplomacy and engagement with foes like Iran and Syria.

Winding down the Iraq war will allow Obama to boost troop  numbers in Afghanistan, which he has declared the central front  in the U.S. fight against terrorism. He hopes it will also help  him slash a ballooning $1.3 trillion budget deficit.
“We are leaving Iraq to its people, and we have begun the  work of ending this war,” Obama said, almost six years after  U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in a vain hunt for  weapons of mass destruction.

The 18-month timetable marks a historic juncture in a war  that has been enormously costly to the United States and  defined the presidency of George W. Bush. It has been a huge  drain on the Treasury, cost the lives of 4,250 U.S. soldiers  and damaged the United States’ standing in the world.

“I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat  brigades over the next 18 months. Let me say this as plainly as  I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will  end,” Obama said to scattered applause from an audience of  about 2,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Obama said 35,000 to 50,000 troops would stay to train and  equip the Iraqi forces, protect civilian reconstruction  projects and conduct limited counterterrorism operations.

He stressed he intended to remove all U.S. troops by the  end of 2011, in line with a deal signed with Iraq last year,  and in a direct address to the Iraqi people said the United  States “pursues no claim on your territory or your resources.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would favor a modest  U.S. military presence in Iraq even after the end of 2011 to  assist Iraqi security forces if requested by Baghdad.

“My own view would be that we should be prepared to have  some very modest-sized presence for training and helping them  with their new equipment and providing perhaps intelligence  support,” he told reporters.
Obama said Washington would pursue a regional diplomatic  strategy, help resettle millions of Iraqis displaced by  violence, and try to help Iraq’s leaders resolve divisive  political issues.

“The United States will pursue principled and sustained  engagement with all of the nations in the region, and that will  include Iran and Syria,” he said.

Washington has accused Iran and Syria of meddling in Iraq’s  internal affairs, a charge they deny. The Bush administration  pursued talks with Tehran on stabilizing Iraq but they petered  out in the midst of mutual accusations.
Obama said the U.S. troop drawdown sent a “clear signal  that Iraq’s future is now its own responsibility.”
“We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a  strain on our military, and will cost the American people  nearly a trillion dollars,” he said.

For many Americans, the Iraq war has been overshadowed by a  deep recession that has left many struggling to make ends meet  and millions jobless.

Obama’s decision to leave a sizable force to bolster  stability was welcomed by congressional Republicans, notably  former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, while some  Democrats were concerned too many troops would remain in Iraq.
“Overall it is a reasonable plan and one that can work and  I support it,” said McCain, who had argued Obama was naive on  national security and criticized his 16-month withdrawal plan.

In an effort to stem rising violence in Afghanistan, Obama  ordered 17,000 more troops, including Marines from Camp  Lejeune, to Afghanistan last week.

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