A "substantial" number of the roughly 100,000 U.S. combat troops to be pulled out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, will remain in the war zone until at least December to ensure national elections there go smoothly, senior Obama administration officials say.
That pacing suggests that although Obama’s promised withdrawal will start soon, it will be backloaded, with larger numbers of troops returning later in the 18-month time frame.
Obama was to announce his strategy Friday at the sprawling Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where thousands of Marines are soon heading to another war front, Afghanistan.
The administration now considers Aug. 31, 2010, as the end date for Iraq war operations.
That timetable is slower than Obama had promised voters, but still hastens the U.S. exit.
Even with the drawdown, a sizable U.S. force of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will stay in Iraq under a new mission of training, civilian protection and counterterrorism.
The potential size of that remaining force doesn’t please leaders of Obama’s own Democratic Party, who had envisioned a fuller withdrawal. Obama personally briefed House and Senate members of both parties about his intentions behind closed doors Thursday.
Still, war critics are ready to hear Obama’s public words. They see his much-anticipated announcement as the beginning of the end of a long, costly conflict.
The last of the U.S. troops will be in Iraq no later than Dec. 31, 2011. That’s the deadline set under an agreement the two countries sealed during George W. Bush’s presidency. Obama has no plans to extend that date or pursue any permanent troop presence in Iraq.
Administration officials spoke about Obama’s Iraq decision under condition of anonymity to discuss details of the strategy ahead of the announcement.
The Iraq war helped fuel Obama’s presidential bid. Most Americans think the war was a mistake. More than 4,250 U.S. military members have died in the war.
From the Jan. 20 start of his presidency to his deadline for ending the combat mission, Obama has settled on a 19-month withdrawal. He had promised a faster pace of 16 months during his campaign but also said he would confer with military commanders on a responsible exit.
Officials said Thursday that the timetable Obama ultimately selected was the recommendation of all the key principals — including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The timeline was settled on as the one that would best manage security risks without jeopardizing the gains of recent months.
With 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama plans to withdraw most of them; the total comes to roughly 92,000 to 107,000, based on administration projections.
Officials said Obama would not set a more specific schedule, such as how many troops will exit per month because he wants to give his commanders in Iraq flexibility. "They’ll either speed it up or slow it down, depending on what they need," said one official.
Yet the officials made clear Obama wants to keep a strong security presence in Iraq through a series of elections in 2009, capped by national elections tentatively set for December. That important, final election date could slip into 2010, which is perhaps why Obama’s timetable for withdrawing combat troops has slipped by a few months, too.
One official said Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Baghdad, wants a "substantial force on the ground in Iraq to ensure that the elections come off."
Another official said Odierno wanted flexibility around the elections. "The president found that very compelling," the official said.
Obama has maintained that getting out of Iraq is in the security interest of the United States. He planned to emphasize in his comments on Friday, however, that the U.S. has no plans to withdraw from its interests in the region and will intensify its diplomatic efforts.
The senior administration officials sought to describe Obama’s decision-making process as one that was not driven by his political promise to end the war. They said he consulted extensively with his military team while interagency government teams reviewed the options.
Obama made the final decision on Thursday, officials said.
The U.S. forces that will remain in Iraq starting Sept. 1, 2010, will have three missions: training and advising Iraqi security forces; providing protection and support for U.S. and other civilians working on missions in the country; and targeted counterterrorism.
Obama had promised all along to keep a residual force in Iraq.
"When they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I had anticipated," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said before the briefing at the White House. Among others there was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has also expressed concern about the troop levels.
Violence is down significantly in Baghdad and most of Iraq, although many areas remain unstable. U.S. military deaths in Iraq plunged by two-thirds in 2008 from the previous year, a reflection of the improving security after a troop buildup in 2007.