Barack Obama announced on Friday he would withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010 but said up to 50,000 troops would remain to support the Iraqi government until 2011.
The 18-month timetable marks a historic juncture in a war that has been enormously costly to the United States 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 damaged America's standing in the world.
Obama said he would pursue "principled and sustained" engagement with all Middle Eastern nations including Iran and Syria.
"I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months. Let me say this as plainly as I can: by Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said in a speech at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
Remaining troops to train Iraqi forces
Obama said 35,000 to 50,000 troops would remain to train and equip the Iraqi forces, protect civilian reconstruction projects and conduct limited counterterrorism operations.
"Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned," he said.
Obama's decision to leave a sizable force to bolster stability was welcomed by congressional Republicans, including former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, while some Democrats were concerned too many troops would remain in Iraq.
Obama said Iraq had weathered "horrific" sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007 but that violence had now been substantially reduced, while the capabilities of Iraq's security forces, rebuilt after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, had improved.
"But let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq's future remain unresolved ... Declining oil revenues will put an added strain on a government that has had difficulty delivering basic services," he said.
Major campaign promise
His announcement fulfills a major campaign promise that Obama made last year as he concentrates on beefing up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which he has called the central front in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
"As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq. We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government," said Obama, who took office last month.
"There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed," he said.
Obama named veteran diplomat Christopher Hill as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
From his time in the Peace Corps, to his work in Kosovo and Korea, Ambassador Hill has been tested, and he has shown the pragmatism and skill that we need right now."
Obama earlier telephoned Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and former President George W. Bush to brief them on his announcement, the White House said.
Obama's visit to Camp Lejeune comes at the end of a week in which he focused on rebuilding the U.S. economy and unveiled a huge $3.55 trillion budget blueprint for fiscal 2010.
For many war-weary Americans, the Iraq conflict has been overshadowed by a deep recession that has left many struggling to make ends meet and millions jobless.