“After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over, Obama said, “The coming months will be a season of homecomings. Our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.”
President Barack Obama announced today that virtually all US troops will come home from Iraq by the end of the year, at which point he can declare an end to America’s long and costly war in that Middle Eastern nation.
Of the 39,000 troops in Iraq, about 150, a negligible force, will remain to assist in arms sales, a US official told CNN. The rest will be out of Iraq by December 31.
The president said he was making good on his 2008 campaign pledge to end a war that has divided the nation since it began in 2003 and claimed more than 4,400 American lives. It also came after talks that might have allowed a continued major military presence broke down amid disputes as to whether US troops would be immune to prosecution by Iraqi authorities.
Beyond the human cost, the price tag for US military activity in Iraq has been steep as well. The Defense Department estimated that its operations there over the past decade have cost more than US$700 billion.
Obama spoke with Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki in a video conference Friday, after which he said both nations were comfortable with the decision on how to move forward.
The new partnership with Iraq will be “strong and enduring,” Obama said.
“The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their head held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops,” Obama said.
Paul Rieckhoff – an ex-Army soldier who heads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first and largest such organization for these veterans, according to its website – cheered Friday’s announcement as “really good news for the troops serving overseas.”
“It’s a really poignant time, especially for the veterans community,” Rieckhoff told CNN, “Many of us gave large parts of our lives, some gave all in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.”
A current Status of Force Agreement had called for US forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. But lengthy negotiations had given rise to an expectation that American troops – roughly 40,000 of which are in Iraq – would remain on Iraqi soil into next year.
These talks, however, broke down over the prickly issue of legal immunity for US troops in Iraq, a senior US military official with direct knowledge of the discussions told CNN this month.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top brass have repeatedly said any deal to keep US troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline would require a guarantee of legal protection for American soldiers.
But the Iraqis refused to agree to that, opening up the prospect of Americans being tried in Iraqi courts and subjected to Iraqi punishment.
The negotiations were strained following WikiLeaks’ release of a diplomatic cable that alleged Iraqi civilians, including children, were killed in a 2006 raid by American troops rather than in an airstrike as the US military initially reported.
US troops have already started the drawdown. For instance, a brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas, that was originally scheduled to be among the last to leave Iraq was being pulled out of the country months ahead of its planned departure, military officials told CNN last week.
That said, officials said the drastic pullback of troops does not mean an end to the US government’s presence in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner described Friday’s development as the start of “a new chapter in our relationship” with Iraq – while acknowledging the challenges of the change.
“You can’t flip a switch and go from a military operation to a civilian operation; there has to be a transition and we’re working on that transition,” he said, “But we believe we’re ready.”
Toner added that the US government has been preparing all along for the year-end deadline, including addressing the “security needs” of nonmilitary US personnel who will remain in Iraq.
That includes about 1,700 diplomats, law enforcement officers and various economic, agriculture and other professionals and experts who will be in Iraq into 2012, according to the State Department. In addition, 5,000 security contractors will protect the US diplomats and another 4,500 contractors will serve other roles, such as helping provide food and medical services, until they can be done locally.
Toner said the US and Iraqi governments are still talking about security and other matters, though he stressed any such discussions should not change the basic decision announced Friday.
“We continue to talk about the post-December 31 arrangement (and) security relationship,” Toner said, “At the same time, we are very committed to meeting the December 31 deadline.”
CNN’s Chris Lawrence contributed to this report.