President Barack Obama on Monday pledged that Washington would remain a strong partner for Iraq as U.S. troops exit by year-end, and played down the risk this departure creates a power vacuum Iran can exploit.
“After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq ends this month,” Obama said after meeting with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki at the White House.
“In coming days, the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with honor, and with their heads held high,” he added, although he said “history will judge” the decision by his predecessor president George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
The withdrawal of almost all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31 has created uncertainty at a time the region remains roiled by the Arab Spring, and amid fear Syrian instability could spread sectarian strife into neighboring Iraq.
But Obama told a press conference with Maliki Washington remains a strong Middle East presence.
“As we end this war and as Iraq faces its future, the Iraqi people must know that you will not stand alone. You have a strong and enduring partner in the United States of America.”
Fulfilling a vow to Americans weary of the nearly nine year old war as he campaigns for re-election in 2012, Obama’s order for the troops to leave came after a deal to keep thousands of U.S. trainers on the ground failed on the issue of immunity from prosecution in Iraq.
Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion in 2003, based on claims of weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda ties that turned out not to exist.
Obama and Maliki later visited Arlington National Cemetery for fallen American service members, and jointly laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns as the U.S. and Iraqi national anthems were played.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis also died in a war, insurgency and sectarian violence that left Iraq with the stirrings of a democratic political system but facing challenges from neighbor Iran.
Obama added “it was time to begin a new chapter in the history between our countries. A normal relationship between sovereign nations. An equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Republicans criticize the president for not pushing harder to have some forces stay, amid concern about a power vacuum in the country that may be exploited by Iran, and as violence in neighboring Syria fans fear of regional sectarian strife.
The departure of U.S. troops also raises questions about the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace in a country still scarred by a bitter 2006-2007 civil war in which thousands died in sectarian and ethnic fighting.
Violence has diminished significantly since then but tension between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds continues to restrain economic and political progress. Those divisions could be inflamed with no U.S. forces left to play the role of intermediary.
Tehran has also sought to exert influence over Iraq’s majority fellow Shiites since the United States toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Maliki casts himself as a nationalist who will not bend to any outside power and Obama said he took him at his word:
“I believe him. And he has shown himself to be willing to make very tough decisions in the interests of Iraqi nationalism, even if they cause problems with his neighbor.”
The president and First Lady Michelle will travel to Fort Bragg, North Carolina on Wednesday to thank troops returning home from Iraq, keeping the spotlight on national security although U.S. voters say their main concern is the economy.
Alongside the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, the closure of the Iraq war and drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan are seen by the White House as key Obama accomplishments that he can flourish before voters in the elections in November next year.
U.S. voters are focused on the country’s fragile economic recovery and high unemployment, rather than foreign policy, and ending the war may provide some financial relief at a time of tight budgets back home.
The cost to the U.S. taxpayer for the Iraq war in military spending alone is over $700 billion, with troop forces peaking during Bush’s 2007-surge above 170,000 troops in the 2007 surge. As of Sunday there were 6,000 left and nearly all will be gone the end of the year.