WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama made it official Tuesday: Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the nation’s No. 1 priority is fixing the economy.
“Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility,” Obama said in excerpts released in advance of his nationally televised address later in the evening. “Now, it is time to turn the page.”
The last full U.S. combat brigade actually left Iraq two weeks ago, but Obama waited to mark the end of the combat mission until Tuesday, the deadline he’d announced in February. He did it without declaring victory, closing a divisive chapter of American history.
Obama’s address, scheduled for 8 p.m. ET, will be televised on NBC stations and msnbc TV and will be streamed live on msnbc.com.
Obama said in the excerpts, which were released in advance by the White House, that Iraq’s security was now in the hands of the Iraqis — for which he said “the United States has paid a huge price.” “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,” he said.
Now it is time to “put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” he said. “This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president.”
No ‘victory lap,’ Obama promises
Obama’s pledge to end the war helped catapult him into office. Now, as president, he is intent on reassuring Americans and the stretched U.S. military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq wasn’t in vain.
In remarks to soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, Obama indicated that he wouldn’t be repeating what has come to be considered one of the biggest mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who boarded an aircraft carrier in May 2003 to deliver a triumphant speech before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”
Seven years later, Obama was again declaring an end to the Iraq war, but he was doing it from the sober confines of the White House’s Oval Office.
Obama spoke with Bush earlier in the day; neither the White House nor aides to Bush would say what they talked about. But the president told soldiers at the Army base near El Paso that his speech was “not going to be a victory lap” and that it wouldn’t be “self-congratulatory.”
Partly, that’s because as many 50,000 troops will stay as late as the end of next year to help train Iraq’s forces and because he’s also sending more troops to Afghanistan, the base of the al-Qaida terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But it’s also because “there’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us,” he told the troops.
Iraq is in political turmoil, and its leaders have been unable to form a new government long after elections in March that left no clear winner. In Baghdad, Vice President Joe Biden pressed Iraqi leaders Tuesday to break the impasse.
The uncertainty has left an opening for insurgents to pound Iraqi security forces, hardly the conditions the United States envisioned for this deadline.
Cost of the war
Since the war began, more than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed and almost 32,000 more have been wounded. Many more Iraqis have been killed. The war is one of the longest in U.S. history, even as the one in Afghanistan continues after nine years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Tuesday that political paralysis and sectarian violence still clouded the country’s future.
“I am not saying all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,” Gates said, but he emphasized that overall violence was at its lowest level since the war began. In that light, Obama planned to say Tuesday night that the meandering economy was Job One, focusing on jobs, education and entrepreneurship.
“To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy,” he said. “We must jump-start industries that create jobs and end our dependence on foreign oil.”
And “we must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs,” he added.