President Barack Obama on Friday uttered the words that Americans have longed to hear for nearly nine painful years: "The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year." Obama announced that the last U.S. troops would leave Iraq by Dec. 31, fulfilling a campaign promise and relieving the awful burden that had fallen almost entirely on America's military families. Iraq faces an uncertain future. But this move marks a new phase in America's relationship with Iraq, its fight against terror, and its standing in the Muslim world.
Obama's announcement was not unexpected. The status of forces agreement between the two countries calls for the 39,000 remaining U.S. troops to leave by year's end, though the Obama administration had wanted to keep 3,000 to 5,000 troops in Iraq in a supporting role past 2011. But the two sides were unable to agree on immunity protections for the U.S. forces that would remain, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was also eager to demonstrate his country's ability to provide security on its own.
The security situation has vastly improved since the worst violence of 2006 and 2007. But the political paralysis in Iraq has created an opening in recent months for a return of sectarian violence. That Washington and Baghdad could not agree on a residual force of U.S. troops for training and counterinsurgency operations shows the weakness of Iraq's central government in controlling the ethnic militias and influencing public opinion.
Obama was clear-eyed Friday about the uncertainty ahead, even as he spoke of a "strong and enduring partnership" with Iraq. And he moved the story forward with the reminder that winding down this misguided war will enable America to focus on al-Qaida and other terror groups and begin the long, expensive job of nation-building at home.
Obama's sober remarks at the White House set the right tone for announcing the end to a war that has killed more than 4,400 American military members since the allies invaded in 2003. And he brought a sense of unity to the sharp divisions over the war by proclaiming that "the last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high." The nation has always supported its troops; the debate was over the decision to send them to Iraq. Obama went some way Friday toward ending this conflict on terms that begin to heal the rift in the nation. That is where the focus needs to be as our troops come home and take their place in this great nation.