President’s plan to end war in Iraq turns tables

 In Iraq

By Mark Johnson, Ryan Teague Beckwith and Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers
February 28, 2009
The Associated Press

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — President Obama said Friday that U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, but his plan to leave up to 50,000 U.S. troops there through 2011 angered many congressional Democrats, while Republicans cheered.

Coming from a president who campaigned heavily on his opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion, Obama’s decision to leave behind such a large force after the troop reductions surprised supporters who shared his criticism of the war.

“I am deeply troubled by the suggestion that a force of 50,000 troops could remain in Iraq,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. “This is unacceptable.”

Said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.: “I question whether such a large force is needed to combat any al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq or whether it will contribute to stability in the region.”

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s reaction: “You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war. You can’t be in and out at the same time.”

Some anti-war groups also were alarmed.

“There is no need for a residual force or permanent bases in Iraq,” said Paul Martin, executive director of Peace Action.

But the plan also drew support from surprising quarters. Obama repeatedly squared off during the presidential campaign with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who considered the proposed withdrawal an irresponsible retreat. After a briefing on Obama’s plan, McCain praised the decision to keep 50,000 troops in Iraq.

“We are finally on a path to success,” he said. “Let us have no crisis of confidence now.”

McCain said he worries, however, about pressure on Obama from Democrats urging a faster withdrawal of the 142,000 troops now in the country.

“The administration should … not succumb to pressures, political or otherwise, to make deeper or faster cuts in our force levels,” the senator said.

The Senate and House Republican leaders — Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio — also praised the policy.

Obama traveled to Camp Lejeune to announce his Iraq policy to a gym full of 2,700 Marines in camouflage uniforms. Some 8,000 Marines at the base near Jacksonville, N.C., will ship out this spring to Afghanistan, where Obama is escalating the U.S. presence.

After nearly six years, the president said, it’s time to end the Iraq war.

“We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars,” he said. “America’s men and women in uniform have fought block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future. Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it.”

Obama’s timetable is a bit longer than his campaign promise to leave within 16 months. He said he made the decision at the advice of military commanders.

Although U.S. units no longer will lead combat patrols in Iraqi cities after August 2010, they will continue to encounter violence, and sometimes may instigate confrontations. Soldiers and Marines serving as advisers to Iraqi units are likely to accompany them on raids and other missions. In addition, some U.S. units will continue to conduct counterterrorism missions against militants aligned with al-Qaida in Iraq or Shiite militia groups.

U.S. troops also will protect civilian reconstruction teams and other development efforts and could be required to fend off attackers. Troops are needed for the huge logistical task of removing military equipment from seven years of war and turning compounds over to the Iraqi military.

The pace of the drawdown will be left to commanders and determined by events on the ground and politics in Washington, D.C. Commanders will be watching to ensure that they have enough troops to maintain gains they have made and to safeguard national elections in December.

En route to Camp Lejeune, Obama called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former President George W. Bush to tell each about his timetable. The Bush administration already had agreed to withdraw all troops by Dec. 31, 2011, under a pact with Iraq.

Democratic leaders in Congress were less overtly hostile to the residual U.S. force than some of their members, but they, too, seemed to suggest that they would press Obama to leave a smaller force behind.

“We must responsibly end the war in Iraq to make America more secure, and must keep in Iraq only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday.

He said Thursday he didn’t like the idea of keeping up to 50,000 troops in Iraq.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left open the door to pulling more troops out of Iraq faster.

“As President Obama’s Iraq policy is implemented,” she said, “the remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible.”

Details from the Los Angeles Times are included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

Congressional Comments:

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: “You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war. You can’t be in and out at the same time.”

Sen. John McCain: “We are finally on a path to success.”

Obama’s exit strategy for Iraq

All U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, but as many as 50,000 of the 142,000 military personnel now in the country will remain there until the end of 2011. Their mission: to train, equip and advise Iraqi forces, help protect withdrawing American forces and work on counterterrorism. The pace of the drawdown will be left to commanders and determined by events on the ground and politics in Washington, D.C.

Related developments

Army says attack caused crash: The military said enemy fire caused two Army helicopters to collide in Iraq last month, killing four U.S. pilots. The Defense Department initially had said the crashes of the two aircraft Jan. 26 near Kirkuk didn’t appear to have been caused by an attack. The Army said evidence revealed that the Kiowa Warrior helicopters, each with a two-man crew, had collided while trying to evade enemy fire. The investigation continues.

U.S. soldier killed: The military said a U.S. soldier died Thursday while on a combat patrol in Baghdad. No details were provided. The death increased the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq to at least 4,252 since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Taliban force: Afghanistan’s interior minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, said Friday in Washington, D.C., that 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban may be fighting inside his country, and the insurgent group is operating across about 17 provinces.

Officer convicted: First Lt. Michael Behenna of Edmond, Okla., who shot and killed an Iraqi detainee last May during an interrogation, was convicted of murder Friday night by a military jury at Fort Campbell, Ky. The panel of seven officers also found him guilty of assault but acquitted him of making a false statement.

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