The 19-month timetable marks a historic juncture in an unpopular war that has proven enormously costly to America and defined the presidency of George W. Bush. It has been a huge drain on the Treasury, cost the lives of some 4,250 U.S. soldiers and severely damaged Americas standing in the world.
The president will announce that the current combat mission in Iraq will end on August 31, 2010. At that point, the remaining forces in Iraq will undertake a new mission, a more limited mission, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.Obama is due to make the announcement at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, from where 8,000 Marines are to be deployed as part of a troop buildup in Afghanistan to arrest the deteriorating security situation there.
For many war-weary Americans, however, the Iraq war, a major issue in last years presidential campaign, has been dramatically overshadowed by a deep recession that has left many battling to make ends meet and millions jobless.
Some 35,000 to 50,000 of the 142,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will remain to train and equip the Iraqi forces, protect civilian reconstruction projects and conduct limited counterterrorism operations, the official said.
As U.S. troops draw down, Washington will put more focus on a regional diplomatic strategy and greater efforts to encourage Iraqs leaders to strengthen a fragile political stability to prevent a resurgence of the sectarian bloodshed that erupted in 2006 and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.By the end of 2011, the aim is to have zero U.S. troops in Iraq, in line with a military pact signed between the two countries, the official said. Asked whether the drawdown was irrevocable, another official said Obama reserved the right to revisit any plans if it was in the U.S. national interest.
But with Obama planning to ramp up the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and banking on using the Iraq troop reduction to help slash a ballooning $1.3 trillion deficit, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said once the drawdown began it would be a one-way movement.
The issue now is slow calendar-based versus fast-calendar based, he said.
The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 after the Bush administration accused Saddam of hiding weapons of mass destruction. None were ever found and U.S. troops quickly found themselves bogged down first in a bloody insurgency and then in civil strife between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Violence has since sharply declined.
Obama, who took office on January 20, pledged in his campaign for the White House to end the war responsibly and pull combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months. On his first full day in office ordered military commanders to come up with a plan to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq.Administration officials stressed that the 19-month timetable was not a political decision and was in fact the recommendation by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and other military leaders.
In making these sets of decisions, the president and his national security team consulted deeply with national security team and considered a range of risks and a range of options, said one official.
The top U.S. general in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, had been especially concerned that he have sufficient troops for Iraqs national elections, due in December, he said.The pacing of the drawdown will be left up to commanders on the ground. They will speed up or slow it down according to what they need, the official said.
It is very important to look at this (the timetable) as a goal with a lot of options. Everything depends on the political stability. There are a lot of uncertainties, said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.
Iraqi defense officials said a 19-month timetable was a faster drawdown than they would have liked but that it was acceptable if Iraqs security forces, still lacking much military hardware, could equip themselves in time.