US combat troops to leave Iraq by end of month

 

THE US would meet its deadline of ending combat operations in Iraq at the end of this month, President Barack Obama said yesterday in a speech in which he also promised to prevail over the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama sought to boost his standing as a war president in the address a week after a huge leak of military documents sparked a debate over US strategy in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Iraq remains in political deadlock, five months after elections for a new government. “As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end and I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end – and that is exactly what we are doing – as promised, on schedule,” Mr Obama told disabled veterans in a speech in Atlanta, Georgia.

By month’s end, US forces in Iraq are scheduled to be cut to just 50,000, down from a peak of more than 140,000. But, although the US mission will officially shift from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces, Mr Obama acknowledged that “we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq”.

Iraq’s failure to agree a new governing coalition, despite prodding from the US, is an increasing source of concern, as are reports of rising violence.

While Mr Obama boasted in his speech that “violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years”, the Iraqi government said at the weekend that more than 500 civilians had been killed in attacks in July – the highest level for two years. But, the US military said the number of deaths was much lower.

Many US officials argue that pushing back this month’s deadline would provide no long-term solution.

However, some signal that plans to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by the end of next year could be superseded by a bilateral agreement with a new government in Baghdad.

Mr Obama yesterday cast a more positive light on the Iraq war than he had in previous speeches, notably in an address 12 months ago, when he labelled the conflict a “war of choice” compared with the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan.

But he also emphasised Afghanistan as his strategic priority, insisting despite recent criticism that “we are making progress and we’re focused on goals that are clear and achievable”.

Last month’s total of 66 US troop deaths in Afghanistan marked a new record, while civilian casualties also rose.

“If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack,” Mr Obama said.

“And as president of the US, I refuse to let that happen.”

Still, some of Mr Obama’s officials appear divided over Afghanistan strategy.

At the weekend, Robert Gates, secretary of defence, said he hoped reductions of US troops scheduled to begin next July would initially be of “fairly limited numbers”.

However, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said she hoped next summer’s drawdown would be more than just a couple of thousand troops.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010)