Obama, who inherited the war from president George W Bush and is fighting another in Afghanistan, said he had fulfilled a 2008 campaign promise to end US combat operations in Iraq and declared the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for their security.
“Now, it is time to turn the page,” Obama said in an Oval Office address, speaking from the same desk Bush had used to declare the 2003 start of the war.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Iraqis their country “today is sovereign and independent”.
But many Iraqis, who have seen at least 100 000 of their countrymen killed since the 2003 invasion, are apprehensive as US military might is scaled down, with violence continuing and efforts to form a new government stalemated six months after an inconclusive vote.
The United States has spent almost a trillion dollars and more than 4 400 US soldiers have been killed since the war began. A recent CBS News poll found 72% of Americans now believe the war was not worth the loss of American lives.
The impasse in Iraq has raised tensions as politicians squabble over power and insurgents carry out attacks aimed at undermining faith in domestic security forces.
Obama called on Iraqi leaders to move ahead with a “sense of urgency” to form an inclusive government.
“Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not,” he said.
The president, who opposed the war and the troop surge launched by Bush in 2007, said he spoke to Bush earlier in the day by phone. He stopped short of praising Bush, as Republicans have demanded, for the surge that helped turn the tide in the war.
“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security,” Obama said.
Republican Senator John McCain told Reuters afterward that Obama should have thanked Bush.
“I appreciate him mentioning George Bush’s name, but he gave him no credit for the surge. If it hadn’t been for the surge, we never would’ve succeeded. It’s too bad he couldn’t admit that he was wrong, because if he had his way, we would’ve lost in Iraq,” said McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari warned Iraq’s neighbours against interfering as the remaining 50 000 US troops in Iraq are withdrawn by an end of the 2011 deadline set out in a bilateral security pact.
“We have warned all of them there wouldn’t be any vacuum, and if there would be a vacuum, the only people who will fill that vacuum are the Iraqis themselves,” he said.
Obama sought to tie the end of the combat mission in Iraq with his efforts to bring down a stubbornly high 9,5% jobless rate that is endangering Democratic Party rule in Washington in the November 2 congressional elections. Americans are looking to Obama for leadership on boosting the US economy and some analysts were questioning his foreign policy focus this week — Iraq and the Middle East peace talks — at a time of fears of a double-dip recession.
In the same sober tone he used to discuss the war, Obama sought to allay those fears.
“Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” Obama 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.”
In an apparent jab at Bush, Obama said that over the past 10 years the United States had not done what is necessary to shore up its economy.
“We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits,” he said. –– Reuters.