WASHINGTON — Declaring the combat mission in Iraq over after more than seven years, President Obama also sought to use the milestone Tuesday night to buy patience from voters on the economy, and patience from fellow Democrats on the war in Afghanistan.
"Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it's time to turn the page," Obama said in his 18-minute address, just his second delivered from the Oval Office at the White House.
Before his speech Tuesday, Obama flew to the Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas, where thousands of U.S. soldiers deployed to and returned from combat in Iraq.
At Fort Bliss, Obama told soldiers that "what I'd like to do is just to come around and shake all of your hands personally, to say thank you to all of you, to say thank you for a job well done, and to know that you are welcome home with open arms from every corner of this country. People could not be prouder of you, and we are grateful."
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Obama also met with Gold Star families.
In his speech, turning his attention to the issue dominant in the American public mind two months before November's elections, Obama suggested that the transition will allow him and the embattled Democratic majority in Congress to focus more on the struggling U.S. economy.
Restoring the economy and jobs for millions of Americans is "our most urgent task," Obama said, and "in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president."
Words on Afghanistan
At the same time, Obama hoped to use the transition in Iraq to round up enough goodwill from fellow Democrats who've cooled to the U.S. war in Afghanistan to maintain funding and troop levels there through next summer or beyond.
However, he said that "as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there." He said that al-Qaida's leadership is still anchored in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and that "we must never lose sight of what's at stake."
Just as the end of the combat mission in Iraq marks a milestone for the nation, it's also a bookend for Obama, who opposed the pre-emptive war from the start and campaigned on that opposition but has had to oversee the war as commander-in-chief for a year and a half.
Obama said the U.S. has paid "a huge price" since President George W. Bush's invasion in 2003. To date, the Iraq war has cost more than 4,400 U.S. lives and roughly $750 billion.
Obama said that he had spoken with Bush earlier in the day and that while his disagreement with Bush over the Iraq war is "well known," there was no doubt about Bush's support of the troops and love of country.
Even as he spoke hopefully of winding down one war, Obama faces Americans' waning patience and support for continuing the war in Afghanistan that began in 2001 and remains the central battlefield in the U.S. fight against al-Qaida.
He said the pace of troop reductions in Afghanistan would depend on conditions on the ground but insisted that the transition to a drawdown would begin there next July as promised.
50,000 troops remain
Despite the transition to Iraqi security forces, roughly 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq for counterterrorism, training and protection of U.S. personnel. They are to stay through the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqis.
Obama didn't say Tuesday night what he would do if the Iraqi government asks some American soldiers to stay as an insurance policy.
Obama also didn't dwell on the deep problems still facing Iraq, acknowledging only that "many challenges remain" and urging Iraqi leaders to form a government nearly six months after national elections.
In fact, the conflicts that led to Iraq's 2004-07 civil war remain, with deep-seated suspicions among Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, and tense territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds. Violence is far below its record highs, but has been creeping up again as the country drifts without a government. Iraqis complain daily about a lack of security and basic services such as electricity.
Obama said he expected insurgent attacks to continue in Iraq and acknowledged that the elections six months ago have yet to yield an agreement on a government, but skimmed over these challenges, predicting that "terrorists will fail" because "Iraqis are a proud people."