Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:06 am (KSA) 21:06 pm (GMT)

Iraq independent with end to US combat role: PM

Some US troops returning home after finishing their mission in Iraq
Some US troops returning home after finishing their mission in Iraq

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Tuesday Iraq had gained independence with the end of U.S. combat operations and that its security forces would now deal with all threats, whether domestic or from abroad.

"Iraq today is sovereign and independent," Maliki told Iraqis in a televised address to mark the U.S. military's transition into a force that assists and advises rather than leads the fight against a Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi'ite militia.

"Our security forces will take the lead in ensuring security and safeguarding the country and removing all threats that the country has to weather, internally or externally," Maliki said.

Obama's speech

 Iraq today is sovereign and independent. Our security forces will take the lead in ensuring security and safeguarding the country and removing all threats that the country has to weather, internally or externally 
Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, will mark a promise kept in a speech later Tuesday, declaring the end of America's combat mission in Iraq, seven years after an invasion he opposed, and wagering the wobbly Baghdad government can hold together against a still-dangerous insurgency.

Speaking from the Oval Office, Obama will address Americans in a nationally televised speech at 8 pm (midnight GMT). Before that he will go to a military base in Texas to meet with soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq.

The size of the U.S. force in Iraq has dropped below a symbolic threshold of 50,000 troops. Starting Monday, their mission will be to "advise and support" the Iraqi army.

Under a timetable set by Obama when he took office, all U.S. troops are supposed to be out by the end of 2011, although officials have said a small residual military presence is likely to remain indefinitely.

Iraqi officials, worried about a surge in attacks and a five-month-old political impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government, have expressed concern that the U.S. military may be moving to the exits too quickly.

Security in Iraq

Just last week, 53 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by a dozen coordinated car bombings in 10 cities and towns across the country, the latest in a rash of attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Iraq's top army officer told AFP earlier this month that he feared worsening security problems after the Americans leave, and said they should stay until the Iraqi military is fully ready -- in 2020.

But the White House has insisted that the Iraqis are capable of providing for their own security now, and the top U.S. general said only a "complete failure" of the local security forces could lead to a resumption of U.S. combat operations.

Obama assured Americans in an interview on NBC television Sunday that the timing was right for a drawdown.

"What you've seen is lower and lower levels of violence. The Iraqi security forces are functioning at least as well if not better than any of us had anticipated," Obama said.

Alluding to the Iraqi's failure to form a new government, Obama said the political difficulties were "natural in a fledgling democracy. But we are confident that that will get done."

War in Afghanistan

During his speech, only the second of his presidency to use the solemn setting of the Oval Office, Obama is expected to raise the other major theater of U.S. military operations: Afghanistan, where the president chose to escalate, tripling the number of U.S. troops since the start of his mandate.

Insurgent violence there has intensified as the United States has pivoted from Iraq.

Though a vehement critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he was a state legislator in Illinois, Obama argues the war in Afghanistan is justified because the Taliban's al-Qaeda allies pose a threat to the security of the United States.

In recent days, the White House has produced a blitz of pronouncements honoring veterans of the Iraq war, the families and loved ones of the more than 4,000 who died and the nearly 32,000 who were wounded.

On Monday, Obama traveled to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to visit the wounded.

Then, before sitting down to speak from behind his desk in the White House Oval Office Tuesday night, Obama will travel to Fort Bliss in Texas to thank warriors at a base that provided much of the heavy armor and thousands of troops who served multiple tours in Iraq.

Tuesday's speech will also give Obama an opportunity to pay homage to U.S. soldiers. More than a million have been deployed in Iraq since 2003 and some 4,400 lost their lives there.

He has consistently drawn a distinction between the political decision to invade and the performance of U.S. troops on the ground.

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