WASHINGTON -President Barack Obama, placing his imprint on the war in Iraq, announced a timetable yesterday for a drastic reduction in troops, but failed to satisfy war critics who objected to his plans to leave behind a substantial "transitional force."
Obama, who has opposed the war from its start, outlined his vision for leaving Iraq on stable footing in a region where Washington will be an active player, even holding talks with Iran and Syria. But he pointedly said that Iraq's leaders are responsible for ensuring the country's peace and guiding its future.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said, adding later: "We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country."
The troop plan met with both support and opposition from surprising quarters. During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly squared off with his main rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who considered the proposed withdrawal to be an irresponsible retreat. But after being briefed on Obama's timetable, McCain praised the decision, saying he believed the plan would "lead to success."
However, Democrats, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, expressed concern that the transitional force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops who will remain after August 2010 was too large.
The units staying behind would advise Iraqis, protect civilians and conduct counter-terrorism missions, administration officials said. But Democrats consider the force sketched out by Obama to be too large and sought more information on what the units would do.
Obama announced his troop plan before an audience of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The timeline represents a compromise between Obama's campaign promise of a 16-month withdrawal and military commanders' preference for a 23-month wind-down.
Although the new plan aligned fairly closely with his campaign promises, Obama's rhetoric stood in sharp contrast with the speeches he delivered as candidate.
At Camp Lejeune, Obama praised the military's performance, saying the conflict in Iraq "has been one of the most extraordinary chapters of service in the history of our nation."
Obama was applauded by Marines as he recounted the military's successes in Iraq, including toppling Saddam Hussein and helping establish a new government. But in an interview later on PBS, Obama drew a distinction between military success and the strategy of the Bush administration.
"I don't think we can rightly say the strategy cooked up by our civilian leadership, with respect to either going in the first place or how the war was managed, was a success," Obama said.
Perhaps seeking to blunt Democratic criticism of the plans for a transitional force, Obama emphasized that under current security agreements with Iraq, the United States would have all of its troops out of the country by the end of 2011.
Senior administration officials emphasized that there were no plans for any sort of long-term presence, akin to the U.S. garrisons in Germany and South Korea.
"The path is not towards any sort of a Korea model," said a senior administration official, who spoke about internal planning on condition of anonymity. "The path is towards reducing it in a fairly substantial way."
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking to reporters after the announcement, said that the U.S. should be ready to provide continuing help after 2011 if the Iraqis request it.
"My own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training, helping them with their new equipment, and providing perhaps intelligence support," Gates said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who spoke with Obama after the speech, said that his security forces are ready to protect the country. In a rare example of agreement with al-Maliki, and with a U.S. initiative, the camp of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also welcomed Obama's words.
But Sunni lawmakers are not as enthusiastic about the departure of American forces, who are seen as a buffer against Shiite persecution. Rasheed Azzawi, a national lawmaker from the main Sunni bloc in parliament, said it remained to be seen whether Iraqi security forces would be able to control the situation by the time America's combat mission ends.
There are about 142,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
The military announced yesterday that a soldier was killed during a patrol in Baghdad on Thursday, bringing the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003 to at least 4,252.
After August 2010, while the U.S. might no longer lead combat patrols in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities, U.S. troops will still confront violence.
Soldiers and Marines who are serving as advisers to Iraqi military units will likely accompany them on raids and other missions. In addition, some units will continue to conduct counter-terrorism missions against militants aligned with al-Qaida in Iraq or Shiite militia groups.
The transitional force of up to 50,000 troops will conduct those missions, as well as protecting provincial reconstruction teams and other civilian development efforts.
Administration officials also said the troops would be needed to help with the large logistical task of removing the materiel of seven years of war and turning over compounds to the Iraqi military.
Some anti-war groups, including Washington-based Peace Action, echoed Democratic lawmakers' concerns about the large transition force. Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, said the draw-down could have been done more quickly.
In the PBS interview, Obama said his proposal closely mirrored his campaign promises, including keeping a "residual force, a transition force" to advise Iraq military and protect U.S. personnel.
During the campaign, Obama's military advisers had said the transition force could include up to 55,000 troops.
President Barack Obama announced his timetable to remove U.S. combat troops in Iraq. The units staying behind would advise Iraqis, protect civilians and conduct counter-terrorism missions, administration officials said.
Current troop level: 142,000 U.S. forces
Planned level after August 2010: 35,000 to 50,000
Current troop level: 38,000 U.S. forces
Planned increase: 17,000 troops later this year
Source: Los Angeles Times