President Barack Obama Wednesday honored America’s “fighting and dying, bleeding and building” in Iraq, hailing the “extraordinary achievement” of a war he once branded “dumb.”
“Welcome home, welcome home,” Obama cried in an aircraft hangar in North Carolina, basking in the “Ooh Ahh” cheers and red berets of 82nd Airborne Division troops, part of the final U.S. exit from Iraq unfolding this month.
“We knew this day would come. We have known it for some time now. But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long,” Obama said, seeking to fuse the strands of conflict into a historic context.
“It is harder to end a war than to begin one,” said Obama, who made the responsible resolution of a conflict unleashed in the “shock and awe” U.S. aerial bombing of Baghdad in March 2003, his core political promise.
Against a backdrop of transport planes and army vehicles in mustard yellow desert livery on Fort Bragg base which sent off 202 soldiers to die in Iraq, Obama only obliquely referred to the political fury whipped up by the war.
“It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate,” he said, remembering he was a state senator and many of the bloodied veterans before him were in school when the war started.
“Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq – all the fighting and dying; bleeding and building; training and partnering – has led us to this moment of success,” the U.S. commander-in-chief said.
“We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” Obama added.
“We are building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.”
While Iraq is not “perfect,” Obama said, “this is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making.”
The “heavy cost”
Obama also remembered the “heavy cost” of the war launched to topple Saddam Hussein over his refusal to turn over suspected weapons of mass destruction stocks that were never found.
“Today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost a loved one, for they are all a part of our broader American family,” he said, adding it was important that U.S. leaders, analysts and generals learn the strategic lessons of the conflict.
The war killed 4,500 U.S. troops and at least 60,000 Iraqis. Obama said on Tuesday the war would cost more than $1 trillion all told.
But the U.S. president sought to draw lessons of national character from the war, and the heroism of U.S. troops.
“The one constant was your patriotism; your commitment to fulfill your mission; and your abiding commitment to one another,” he told the troops.
“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages ... you have lived through the fires of war ... you have done something profound with your lives.
“You will know that you answered when your country called; you served a cause greater than yourselves; and you helped forge a just and lasting peace with Iraq, and among all nations.”
Obama made his political career by opposing the war in Iraq. In late 2002, he said he was against “dumb wars” such as Iraq, and rode anti-war fervor to the White House by promising to bring troops home.
But the former Illinois state lawmaker always said he was not against all wars, and true to his word escalated the Afghan war after taking office. Tens of thousands of Americans are still at war there.
In Iraq, the final troops of a U.S. garrison that peaked at around 170,000 will leave within days, with limited fanfare.
Euphoria over their return is perhaps dimmed by America’s struggle against the worst recession in decades and a new presidential election season is grabbing news headlines.
Obama opened several days of remembrance by hosting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House on Monday and promised an “enduring” future relationship with Iraq.
Ending the Iraq war fulfills a promise that helped Obama win the presidency in 2008 and allows the White House to focus more on Afghanistan as well as economic worries at home, where the high jobless rate is a major concern for voters.
There are fears in Washington however that Iraq, despite years of training by U.S. forces, still lacks the capacity to defend its borders and could be unduly influenced by Washington’s foe Iran.
Some U.S. observers also fear a return to bloody sectarianism, doubt the strength of Iraq’s political structures, and feel Maliki, a Shiite, has entrenched his powerbase to the detriment of the country’s minorities.
As of this week, there were about 5,500 U.S. troops left in Iraq, down from more than 170,000 at the height of the war.