The United States will withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, officially ending the long, divisive war that began in March 2003, President Barack Obama announced Friday.
"After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," Obama said in the White House briefing room. The last U.S. soldiers will leave by Dec. 31, Obama said, "with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."
Obama cast the announcement as fulfillment of his 2008 campaign pledge to end the war in Iraq. It cost the lives of more than 4,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, with more than 30,000 U.S. troops wounded. It also cost U.S. taxpayers around $800 billion so far.
Obama emphasized that he's also winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which he said is becoming more stable. "The tide of war is receding," Obama said. "Even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we're beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
Framing the announcement that way is likely to help Obama politically, especially with his somewhat disenchanted Democratic base, as he begins his re-election campaign. But in fact, complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was not what U.S. military leaders wanted, nor is it what Obama had been seeking.
Rather, both the Pentagon and Obama wanted to station a residual U.S. military force in Iraq indefinitely to help stabilize the troubled nation, train its troops — and deter neighboring Iran from meddling.
But Iraq's government refused to grant any remaining U.S. troops immunity from prosecution for crimes, a stand the Pentagon considered a deal-breaker. So Obama chose complete withdrawal, even though analysts believe it poses some risk to U.S. strategic interests.
The White House on Friday sought to play down concerns that there will be no residual U.S. forces. Advisers said they're confident that Iraq can begin to stand on its own. There's "no question this is a success," said the president's deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough.
"What the president preferred was for the best relationship for the United States and Iraq going forward," McDonough said. "That relationship is a normal relationship that's based on a diplomatic lead, a civilian presence in the lead, but also will have important security components. We feel like we got exactly what we needed to protect our interests, and the Iraqis feel the same way."
But Obama said he told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — whom he has invited to the White House in December for transition talks — that the United States will continue to talk about helping Iraq train and equip its security forces.
"There will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq, and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant," Obama said. "Just as Iraqis have persevered through war, I'm confident that they can build a future worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization."
The United States will staff its embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra and Erbil, and Obama said that with "diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead," the United States would continue to help Iraq stabilize.
On Oct. 4, Iraqi political leaders, who are still gridlocked on critical security issues 19 months after national elections, reached a rare accord: to request residual U.S. forces, but to deny them the immunity the United States had demanded.
The main reason, according to parliamentarians, was a lack of confidence by Iraqis in the U.S. military justice system, which they said had failed to deliver punishments proportionate to crimes that they said left deep wounds in the Iraqi national psyche.
Best known was the torture of Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison north of Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. That led to the punishment of 11 soldiers and the demotion of a Reserve brigadier general.
Iraqis took notice in August when Reserve Spec. Charles Graner was released from military prison after serving six years of a 10-year sentence for inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse on Iraqi detainees. No top U.S. officer was punished.
And in 2005, U.S. Marines were charged with killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children. Nearly all charges were dropped.
While Obama said the troops will be home by Christmas, they are likely to return 10 days before, according to the military drawdown plan, two officials told McClatchy Newspapers. The military is planning a formal ceremony to mark the end of the war in mid December, when nearly all troops will be out, except for those guarding the U.S. Embassy and consulates.