President Barack Obama vowed on Monday to make good on his promise to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq by the end of August, despite a dangerous political deadlock in Baghdad and a recent surge in militant violence.
Speaking to the Disabled American Veterans group in Atlanta even as he struggles with waning public support for the war in Afghanistan, Obama sought to underscore his administration’s progress winding down the U.S. role in the unpopular Iraq war.
With congressional elections looming in November, it was a reminder to liberal Democrats and many independent voters whose opposition to the Iraq conflict helped sweep him into office that he was determined to bring the war to a “responsible end.”
“Shortly after taking office, I announced our new strategy for Iraq and for a transition to full Iraqi responsibility,” Obama said. “And I made it clear that by August 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing — as promised and on schedule.”
The U.S. military plans to reduce forces in Iraq to 50,000 troops by the end of the month, when they will formally move to a more advisory role supporting Iraq’s security forces.
Obama recommitted to “remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of next year.”
But he acknowledged that for now there will still be dangers. “The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq,” he said.
Obama’s speech came amid tensions and uncertainty in Iraq over the failure by major parties to agree on a new government five months after inconclusive parliamentary elections.
A sharp increase in deadly attacks in July has raised concern that insurgents are trying to exploit the political vacuum in Baghdad to sow sectarian strife.
Obama faces growing opposition at home to the war in Afghanistan, where he has increased U.S. troop levels to confront a Taliban resurgence and he sought to rally public support for his strategy there.
“We face huge challenges in Afghanistan,” he said. “But it’s important that the American people know that we are making progress and we’re focused on goals that are clear and achievable.”
Obama also stressed that Pakistan was beginning to take the fight to militants within its borders, pushing back against leaked Afghan war documents that questioned its commitment and fanned doubts about the war. “Major blows have been struck against al Qaeda and its leadership,” Obama said.
While Iraq has mostly faded from the headlines and has figured little in midterm congressional campaigns, Obama’s speech allowed him to put his stamp on a milestone in the U.S. withdrawal and show he is keeping his word to war-weary Americans.
His message of opposition to the Iraq war helped galvanize his support among Democrats and many moderate independents in his 2008 election run.
Underscoring the continuing security threat, Iraqi government figures released on Saturday showed the number of civilians killed by bomb blasts and other violence in Iraq nearly doubled in July, though violence has fallen sharply from its peak levels of a few years ago.
Political instability remains a concern. More than seven years after the United States ousted Saddam Hussein, negotiations in Iraq have failed to form a new government.
After a March parliamentary election meant to set it on a course toward normalcy after years of war, sanctions and insurgency, Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish political blocs have been unable to decide who should be prime minister, the major hurdle toward the formation of a ruling coalition.
The long delay has raised fears of a renewed insurgency. Sectarian violence exploded after Iraq’s 2005 parliamentary election, when politicians took more than five months to negotiate a new government.
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