President Barack Obama is calling attention to the end of the war in Iraq that will bring U.S. troops home for the holidays, staging a series of events even as his administration and Iraqis talk about the future U.S. role there and rising threats from neighbor Iran.
Obama, who sat for interviews with four local television stations around the country yesterday, told WISH-TV in Indianapolis that the next time he is in Indiana it may be to promote hiring for veterans returning to a tough economy.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of them who are going to be coming back this month because we’ve ended the war in Iraq as I promised,” he said.
Obama begins the next week with a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Dec. 12. He and first lady Michelle Obama will address troops Dec. 14 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Special Operations Command.
The Obamas wanted to speak to troops and their families on Dec. 14 “as we definitively end America’s war in Iraq this month,” the White House said in a statement yesterday.
Michelle Obama is scheduled on Dec. 16 to deliver donated gifts to the Marines’ Toys for Tots program. The first lady’s office also said in a statement yesterday that she had invited military families to be the first to view the White House holiday decorations this year, including a tree decorated by Gold Star families and the official White House Christmas tree that honors Blue Star families.
Obama, running for re-election next year, promised to end U.S. military involvement during his 2008 campaign. He has been criticized by Republican presidential challengers who say it’s too soon to end the mission and doing so could put U.S. gains at risk.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Obama’s decision an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition.” Romney questioned whether the decision came from “naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude.”
The agreement that kept troops in the country through the end of the year was negotiated in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Iraqi government declined to provide immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops to stay into next year.
“You don’t want, as a Democratic president, the charge that you somehow lost the war,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center in Washington. “In this partisan environment, every charge will be made and has been.”
The U.S. military is working to remove its remaining 8,000 military personnel and 5,000 contractors from Iraq as the year- end deadline nears. That is down from a peak of about 300,000 Americans in Iraq in 2007, including almost 170,000 uniformed personnel as well as civilians and contractors.
The number of American military bases in Iraq has plummeted to five from 505 at the peak, said Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, the deputy commander of American forces in the country. They have fewer than 1,000 truckloads of equipment left to remove before the final exit, he said.
Helmick told reporters at the Pentagon on Dec. 7 that violence in Iraq “is at an all-time low” since the invasion to less than 50 attacks per week compared with a peak of 1,600.
“We enabled and facilitated elections,” he said. “We’ve built a military.”
After the troop exit, the U.S. presence will consist mainly of the embassy in Baghdad and its affiliated consulates and other offices. About 16,000 personnel will serve under the embassy’s umbrella next year, according to State Department figures. About 1,700 of them will include diplomats and subject- matter experts in fields such as business and agriculture as well as law enforcement officers, while 5,000 will be security contractors to guard staff and facilities.
The U.S. military also will continue coordination with Iraq, such as port visits and joint exercises. Whether and how Iraq might enlist the U.S. in helping defend its air space will depend on what Iraqi officials decide, Helmick said. The U.S. has thousands of forces elsewhere in the region, including in neighboring Kuwait, as well as aircraft carriers off the coasts.
The war is ending as U.S. concerns about Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, and its nuclear program are mounting.
Attacks by Iranian-backed militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq and weak management and logistics in the police and army continue to undermine internal security. The country’s air defenses are mostly nonexistent, and command of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities remains weak.
The ‘Question Mark’
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Helmick said. “There is a question mark right now for external security. But for the internal security, we’ve done all we can do.”
The war also has had its impact on the American fighting men and women, who returned home scarred physically or with post-traumatic stress. A program called “Operation New Exit” aims to bring service members back to Iraq who were evacuated because of injuries, so they can leave formally and with dignity.
“From the U.S. viewpoint you want to have a presence that can counter Iran’s influence,” Cordesman said. “It isn’t now simply the future of Iraq, but the future of Syria. The issue is regional security. It is the Arab Winter.”
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama’s top military adviser, has said, while U.S. commanders favored leaving as many as 16,000 troops in Iraq, they wouldn’t consider that option without immunity. Panetta has said the U.S. will still have 40,000 American troops nearby in the Gulf region after the mission ends.
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