WASHINGTON — In a decision promptly denounced by Republicans, President Barack Obama announced here Friday that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the Christmas holidays in late December.
"Today I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays," Obama told reporters at the White House. "…After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
He stressed that Washington will host Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, with whom he had spoken earlier in the day, in December to flesh out what he called "a strong and enduring partnership" that will include continued training and supply of Iraq's military and security forces.
At the same time, he went on, Washington intends to establish "a normal relationship between sovereign nations, an equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
"After all, there will be some difficult days ahead," he added, "and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant."
Obama's announcement provoked negative reactions from those who have championed the war and had hoped that Washington could establish a more-permanent military foothold in Iraq.
"Today marks a harmful and sad setback for the United States in the world," Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate who was defeated by Obama. "I respectfully disagree with the president: this decision will be viewed as a strategic victory for our enemies in the Middle East, especially the Iranian regime, which has worked relentlessly to ensure a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq."
The current frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination, Gov. Mitt Romney, also assailed the decision, insisting that the military commanders on the ground were opposed to a total withdrawal.
"President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women," said Romney, whose foreign policy advisers consist mainly of neo-conservatives who led the charge for the 2003 invasion.
"The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government," he said.
Washington currently has less than 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from an all-time high of 170,000 in late 2007 when sectarian violence had moved the country to the edge of all-out civil war.
In 2008, former President George W. Bush and Maliki signed an agreement to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, but it had long been assumed that a new accord would be negotiated that would permit a significant number of U.S. troops — and possibly a couple of U.S. military bases — to remain in the country after that deadline.
To the great frustration of top Pentagon officials, however, the political impasse between Maliki and the main opposition coalition headed by Ayad Allawi, as well as widespread antipathy, particularly among the majority Shi'a population, toward the U.S. occupation, made it very difficult to gain support for any Iraqi leader seen as eager to extend Washington's military presence.
Indeed, despite unusually blunt remarks by Pentagon chief Leon Panetta and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, during high-profile visits to Baghdad this summer, Maliki was only able to line up sufficient support within his cabinet to begin talks on an extension in August. Moreover, that authority came with the condition that any remaining U.S. troops be confined to "training" activities.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, reportedly recommended that the administration press Baghdad to accept as many as 18,000 U.S. troops to remain after the Dec. 31 deadline, but, believing that Maliki's government was unlikely to go along, the administration proposed 3,000 to 5,000 "trainers" instead.
That proposal, however, was coupled with a non-negotiable demand: that all U.S. troops be given immunity from criminal prosecution in Iraq. That condition was rejected by the Maliki government, essentially forcing Washington to adhere to the withdrawal schedule set out in the 2008 agreement.
In his remarks Friday, Obama did not refer to these negotiations, but instead stressed that he and Maliki "are in full agreement about how to move forward." When they meet here in December, he said, "we will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces …just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world."
He also depicted the decision as part of a "larger transition" in Washington's international relations.
"The tide of war is receding," he said, noting that the drawdown from Iraq has permitted Washington to "refocus our fight against Al-Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership." He also referenced the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan and the "definitive end of the (Moammar) Gaddafi regime in Libya" with the Libyan leader's death Thursday.
"So to sum up, the United States is moving forward from a position of strength," he declared, adding that "after a decade of war, the nation that we need to build …is our own."
The announcement was hailed by Democrats, many of whom had supported an accelerated withdrawal, and other analysts who had long opposed the Iraq war, in which more than 4,000 U.S. service personnel and well over 100,000 Iraqis were killed. The direct costs to the U.S. Treasury of the war are currently estimated at more than 800 billion dollars.
"This war was one of the worst strategic errors in American history, and, despite the Pentagon's desire to stay, it was the right call to have a full withdrawal," said Steve Clemons, director of the American Security Project at the New America Foundation.
"Many of the Republican leaders, including Romney and McCain, are criticising this move reflexively and seem to have little concern for what the Iraqis themselves want to do in their own country."
But Fred Kagan of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), warned that "this retreat will have great costs for the United States."
Kagan, an architect of the 2007-08 "Surge" of U.S. forces into Iraq, complained that it "squanders the enormous opportunity to forge an alliance with Iraq" and "dramatically increases the likelihood that the new and unstable Iraqi democratic experiment … will fail."
Moreover, he argued, "the withdrawal of American military protection from a state helpless to defend itself on its own effectively throws Iraq into the arms of Iran, however, the Iraqis feel about the matter."
But Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and president emeritus of the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), said the actions of the Bush administration, including the original decision to invade, were more responsible for that result.
Calling the war "the greatest and most expensive strategic blunder in American history," Freeman said it, among many other negative effects, "turned Iraq into a political ally of Iran and destroyed any prospect for a balance in the Persian Gulf region.
"It accomplished none of its objectives," he told IPS. "American taxpayers will be paying for it for decades to come. In the end, the only victory it gave the United States was that, thanks to the 'surge,' the U.S. armed forces were able to withdraw in good order rather than in military disgrace."
White House officials, meanwhile, insisted they are hardly abandoning Iraq, noting that some 16,000 U.S. civilians will working for the U.S. embassy and its consulates in Erbil and Basraand will be protected by between 4,000 and 5,000 private security contractors. They also expect to maintain around 150 U.S. military trainers in the country.