Obama affirms Iraq timeline

U.S. troops will number 50,000 by month’s end

ATLANTA – Marking a long-sought milestone in a much-maligned war, President Barack Obama affirmed Monday that American combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of August – “as promised and on schedule” – as the U.S. moves toward a supporting role in a country still struggling with violence and a fractured government.

“Make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing – from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats,” Obama said in a speech before a group of disabled veterans.

The president gave assurances that U.S. forces in Iraq will drop to 50,000 by the end of the month – a reduction of 94,000 troops since he took office 18 months ago. The remaining troops will form a transitional force until a final U.S. withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011, he said.

Obama used the upcoming milestone to highlight what he sees as both a bright spot on his foreign policy agenda and a campaign promise close to fulfillment.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to bring a swift and orderly end to a war he said he would not have waged, though the departure has not been as quick as he had initially promised. Shortly after taking office, the president revised a 16-month withdrawal timeframe and set the Aug. 31 deadline.

Still, for a White House beleaguered on other fronts – from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to increasing violence in Afghanistan – Iraq is seen as a success story the administration intends to tell. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials will emphasize progress in Iraq in a series of speeches in the coming weeks, the White House said. On Monday, Obama addressed a convention of the Disabled American Veterans before speaking at a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

The speech served as a sort of pivot for the president as he tries to regain Congress’ confidence that the American-led mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. Last week, 102 Democrats in the House voted against a $59 billion appropriation for both wars, 70 more than opposed a war spending bill a year ago.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan – 33,000 when Obama took office – will have nearly tripled to 96,000 by September. But a White House fact sheet also highlighted a different number: By the end of August, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have dropped from 177,000 to 146,000.

On Monday, the president restated his case for the stepped-up presence in Afghanistan.

“If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attacks,” he told the veterans. “As president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen.”

The president expressed confidence in the Afghan government’s anti-corruption efforts and the U.S. campaign to target key al-Qaida leaders. The government of Pakistan, which has been accused of shielding anti-U.S. elements, has begun to target extremists, he said.

“Because in this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for al-Qaida and their extremist allies,” he said.

There is no consensus on what impact the withdrawal will have on security in the region.

It comes at a time of deepening political uncertainty in Iraq, fueling fears of a resurgence of violence once the U.S. combat troops leave. Negotiations on the formation of a new government are stalled over the question of who should be the prime minister, and few now expect progress until at least September.

Many Iraqis who might otherwise have welcomed the drawdown as a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty are instead apprehensive, with political tensions rising between the country’s divided factions and the insurgency not yet defeated.

“Iraqis had hoped they would have a strong independent government by now, but no one expected it to drag on this long,” said Basma Khatib, a women’s rights activist. “It’s a big mess and things might get a lot worse if we don’t have a government soon.”

Both the U.S. military and Iraqi government point out that violence isn’t immediately on the rise, though they disagree on the details. According to a revised figure released by the Ministry of Health on Monday, 335 Iraqis died in violence in July, a figure consistent with monthly death tolls earlier in the year.

The U.S. military had disputed an earlier government tally of 535 deaths in July, which would have marked a sharp increase, saying that according to its records 216 Iraqis died violently in July, in addition to one U.S. soldier. The U.S. military rarely releases casualty figures, and when it does, they are consistently lower than Iraqi ones.

U.S. officials point out that the withdrawal will make little practical difference on the ground. Iraqi troops have been responsible for security in most of the country’s hot spots since U.S. troops withdrew from the cities in June 2009, and troop levels have already fallen to 65,000. It is rare these days to see a U.S. military vehicle on the streets – and even the withdrawal is taking place stealthily, at night.

Although violence has fallen sharply since 2006 and 2007, the peak years of the sectarian killings that raged across Baghdad and elsewhere, there has been no discernible decline over the past year, suggesting Iraqi forces have made little progress in eliminating what remains of the insurgency.

On Monday, three members of a family died in the town of Garma, west of Baghdad, when insurgents blew up the home of a local policeman, a growing trend in the western province of Anbar that was once an insurgent stronghold. Separate attacks in Baghdad, including one targeting police, killed five more and wounded 15, while attacks in the northern city of Mosul killed four.

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