By Ian Swanson - 09/01/10 10:00 AM EDT
The war was a major factor in two presidential elections and contributed to the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006.
“Nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than in the war in Iraq,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a fierce opponent of the war, said during election-night comments in 2006, when she learned she would become the first female Speaker in history.
On Tuesday night, Obama ushered in a shift in U.S. operations in Iraq, initially begun more than seven years ago — well before he was a force on the national political scene.
Saying, during an Oval Office address, that it was time to “turn the page,” Obama announced the end of the U.S. combat mission.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” said Obama. “This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office.”
As U.S. troops transition to a supporting role in Iraq, Obama is now focused on the U.S. economy — and on an escalating conflict in Afghanistan, which he said was the forgotten war during the presidency of George W. Bush. The president has sent additional soldiers to Afghanistan, but now faces a self-imposed deadline of next year to begin withdrawing them from an increasingly unpopular war whose winnability is in question.
Obama framed the end of the Iraq war as a way to create a path to victory in Afghanistan.
“Because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense,” Obama said Tuesday night.
In Iraq, 4,419 U.S. soldiers have died since the conflict began in March 2003, according to the Defense Department. As many as 100,000 Iraqis have also probably died in the fighting, though precise estimates of civilian casualties are difficult to calculate.
The Iraq war sprang out of the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush, in his first State of the Union address, warned of an “Axis of Evil” that threatened the U.S.
“America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security,” warned Bush, who argued Iraq was concealing a weapons of mass destruction program. Democrats for years criticized the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, for suggesting a link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Congress voted to authorize the war in October 2002, a vote that many Democrats would find themselves defending.
Initially, the war boosted Bush’s popularity. He ended 2003 with an approval rating of 63 percent, and marked the end of major combat operations in the country by landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, where the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner was displayed.
Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election, and watched Iraq’s citizens go to the polls in January 2005.
Fighting in Iraq intensified later that year, however, and the U.S. public soured on the conflict.
In 2006, sectarian warfare flared throughout Iraq, culminating in the bombing of the al-Askari nosque in Samarra, one of the most sacred sites for Shi’ite Muslims.
The fighting led Bush to send a “surge” of additional troops to Iraq in 2007 at the request of Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces. Most Democrats, including Obama, criticized the strategy, questioning whether it would bring security to Iraq.
Since then, Iraq has stabilized enough to allow Obama to withdraw some 90,000 troops and make good on a campaign pledge to “end the war.” Still, nearly 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in the country to support Iraqi forces. They are scheduled to leave at the end of next year.
Democrats and Republicans continue to argue over the merits of the surge. In the days preceding Obama’s address, Republicans called on the president to give credit to Bush for putting the surge strategy in place at great political risk. Obama didn’t directly mention the surge in his address.
But he called his predecessor on Tuesday, and hailed the former president’s support for the troops.
“I am mindful that the Iraq war has been a contentious issue at home. Here, too, it is time to turn the page,” Obama said.
“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. 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."