By Sam Youngman - 09/01/10 12:33 AM EDT
President Obama officially declared an end to Operation Iraqi Freedom Tuesday night, saying the time has come to “turn the page” on a war that has lasted almost eight years.
“Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” Obama said. “Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.”
The president, who won the Democratic nomination for president largely on his opposition to the Iraq war, used his address to make the case that the end of combat operations is in the best interests of both the U.S. and Iraq, saying that the United States “has paid a huge price” for Iraq to take responsibility for its own security and governance.
“We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” Obama said.
“We have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people — a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page."
Obama said he is “awed” by the sacrifices made by U.S. troops and their families, and hailed former President George W. Bush’s support for the troops even as he acknowledged the deep national divisions over the war.
Obama called Bush earlier on Tuesday to discuss the historic moment, and in his address he noted it is “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,” said Obama, who added that it was also time to turn the page on the political fight over Iraq.
“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.”
Obama did not mention the “surge” of new troops Bush sent to Iraq in 2007, a strategy Republicans credit with turning around the war. Obama and most Democrats opposed the policy at the time.
The president also blamed the Iraq war for worsening the country’s economy, a theme he used in the 2008 presidential campaign.
While the U.S. fought in Iraq, “we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity,” he said.
“We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas,” Obama said. “This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle-class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.”
The speech comes about two months before a midterm election expected to be dominated by the economy and jobs. Democrats are worried about losing the House, which would deliver a blow to Obama's presidency, and have urged the president to focus on the economy.
The president's remarks pledged a renewed focus on the middle-class job market, education, energy policy and entrepreneurialism, saying that the economy must be his “central responsibility” as president.
Republicans had criticized Obama before the speech, which they continued after his address concluded.
“Our success in Iraq has everything to do with the hard work of our men and women in uniform, the Iraqi people, and President Bush’s resolve," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a statement. "It has nothing to do with President Obama’s campaign promise to carry out the previous administration’s plan for returning US troops from Iraq.”
While Obama pledged a similar exit in Afghanistan in the coming years, he warned that Americans “must never lose sight of what's at stake” in a country where terrorists hatched the plan to attack the U.S. in 2001.
“But make no mistake: this transition will begin — because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's,” Obama said.
The end of combat operations in Iraq fulfills one of Obama's top campaign promises, though largely under the terms negotiated by Bush.
Obama visited troops at Fort Bliss, Texas, earlier Tuesday, but traveled back to Washington in the afternoon to prepare for the address — just his second from the Oval Office.
Obama was effusive in his praise for U.S. troops Tuesday night.
“Those Americans gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries,” Obama said. “Along with nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq, they fought in a faraway place for people they never knew. They stared into the darkest of human creations — war — and helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace.”
He also asked Iraq's leaders to move forward politically “with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative and accountable to the Iraqi people.”
“And when that government is in place, there should be no doubt: the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States,” Obama said. “Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.”
The president said that, moving forward, the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq will be “based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.”
“Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission,” Obama said. “Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife. But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals.”