By Sam Youngman - 10/21/11 07:49 PM EDT
President Obama announced Friday that the U.S. will complete its drawdown of troops by the end of the year, concluding the war in Iraq after almost nine years.
Obama, who sprang to national prominence with his condemnation of the war begun by his predecessor, declared in the White House briefing room that "after nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
The president spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier Friday, and Obama said the two leaders are in "full agreement about how to move forward."
"This will be a strong and enduring partnership," Obama said.
Obama's announcement that all troops will return by year's end fulfills a campaign promise and begins to close the book on one of the longest U.S. military conflicts in history.
National Security Council aide Denis McDonough said about 3,000 to 4,000 security contractors would stay in Iraq, but that all troops, beyond the standard deployment of Marines that usually guard U.S. embassies, would be gone by the end of the year.
Obama said he would guarantee that the troops in Iraq would be "home for the holidays."
When asked if this was the "Mission: Accomplished" moment, McDonough said: "I'll let you check your thesaurus."
Republicans suggested Obama's decision could haunt the U.S., and Mitt Romney, a frontrunner in the GOP presidential contest, hit Obama for what he said was either a "naked political calculation" or the result of inept negotiations.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a toughly-worded statement in which for 2008 standard-bearer for the GOP said that while he respected Obama's decision, it marked a "harmful and sad setback" for the U.S.
McCain said the decision would be viewed as a strategic victory for Iran, which he said had worked to ensure a full withdrawal of U.S. troops. "It is a consequential failure of both the Obama administration—which has been more focused on withdrawing from Iraq than succeeding in Iraq since it came into office—as well as the Iraqi government."
McCain and Romney both said the decision put the success of the last nine years at risk.
The U.S. had been negotiating with Iraqi officials over leaving some troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year to help with the transition.
In the end, the U.S. and Iraq could not agree on the terms for those troops, with Iraqi officials cold to the idea of immunity for soldiers remaining in their country.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama had made the right decision to withdraw troops given the failure to reach a deal with Iraq.
“I was prepared to support a continued presence of U.S. trainers in Iraq beyond the end of this year. But in light of Iraq’s refusal to eliminate the possibility that U.S. troops would face prosecutions in Iraqi courts, President Obama has made the right decision," Levin said.
"While the United States will continue to have an important relationship with Iraq, that nation’s fate rests with its own people and its government, as it should," Levin said.
Obama's victory in the 2008 Democratic primary was built in no small part on his opposition to the Iraq war. The anti-war movement latched on to Obama, favoring the upstart against Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had voted to authorize the war.
But Obama disappointed those liberal supporters once in office by increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Obama argued the Bush administration had taken its focus off the Afghanistan fight and finding Osama bin laden.
The president emphasized in his comments Friday that troops are also drawing down in Afghanistan, saying that when he took office there were more than 180,000 troops deployed in both wars. By the end of the year, Obama said, that number will be halved.
He also said troops would continue to return home under his watch.
"And make no mistake, it will continue to go down," Obama said, declaring that "the tide of war is receding."
MoveOn.org, in a statement that did not mention Obama, praised the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but said troops from Afghanistan should join them at home.
While the Bush administration agreed to a deal with Iraq's government to pull the remaining U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011, it had been somewhat unclear whether this timeframe would be followed.
Obama said that he and the Iraqi government will "continue discussions" on how to continue training and equipping Iraqi forces.
The initial reaction from lawmakers to Obama's decision was mixed.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. and Iraq can be proud of all that has been achieved since 2003, the year the war began. but he expressed concern that the full withdrawal will make the road to recovery in Iraq tougher.
"Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity," McKeon said. "These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq."
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hailed the leadership of both Obama and President Bush in ending "a violent terrorist insurgency that threatened the Iraqi people, and provided an opportunity for the Iraqi government to build the capacity needed to effectively meet the needs of the country.
He said he was "concerned" a full withdrawal could jeopardize gains, but hopeful the U.S. and Iraq could work together to guarantee that a free and democratic Iraq remains a stable partner of the U.S. in the Middle East.
Obama closed his comments on Friday by summing up other foreign policy successes, including Thursday's news from Libya, and saying that America is leaving Iraq from "a position of strength."
Now, Obama said, the task for our veterans will be enlisting them in rebuilding the U.S. economy.
"After a decade of war, the nation that we need to build — and the nation we will build — is our own," Obama said.
Obama's announcement doesn't mean there won't still be a U.S. presence in Iraq.
The U.S. has an embassy and two consulates in the country, and the State Department has long been scheduled to take over the lead role for the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Foggy Bottom officials have been quietly building what some lawmakers have called a "private security force" that will be charged with keeping American diplomats and U.S. facilities safe once military troops are withdrawn.
While the White House put the likely number of private security contractors who will be in Iraq come Jan. 1 at 4,000 to 5,000, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Wednesday that she understands that 14,000 of the 17,000 State Department personnel that will be in Iraq after the military withdrawal could be private contractors.
John T. Bennett contributed to this story.
This story was posted at 12:38 p.m. and last updated at 3:49 p.m.