CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Even as President Barack Obama on Friday promised to end the combat mission in Iraq in 18 months, he and others — from his defense chief to powerful lawmakers — danced around some of the specifics about dates and troop numbers.
Six years after an invasion he opposed and six weeks in office, Obama drew a finish line for the Iraq war, setting a date for the end of the combat mission and vowing to follow that by pulling all troops out by the end of 2011 as per an existing accord with Iraq.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," he said in a speech at the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune. "As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq."
But even with the end of the combat mission, which would come nearly three months later than Obama pledged during his presidential campaign, a U.S. force numbering between 35,000 to 50,000 will stay behind in non-combat roles, with the final troops not slated to leave until Dec. 31, 2011.
"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," the president said.
McCain supportive; Reid hesitates
Obama and his national security team briefed lawmakers on the Iraq plan Thursday evening.
His decision to leave a sizable force was welcomed by some congressional Republicans, including former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, while some Democrats were concerned too many troops would remain in Iraq.
"I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success," McCain said Friday on the Senate floor.
"I think the plan is significantly different than the plan Obama had during the campaign," said McCain, referring to Obama’s campaign pledge to pull combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office if possible.
But Democratic congressional leaders — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — both questioned the need for residual forces as large as 50,000.
"I am happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president," Reid said Thursday night. "But when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated."
Pelosi on Friday issued a statement calling the plan "good news" but also noting a concern about troop numbers. "The remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible," she said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates added to the debate Friday, telling reporters after Obama's speech that he felt it would be a good idea to keep a small number of U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011 to train Iraqi forces, help with new equipment and perhaps perform intelligence operations.
Eye on Iraqi elections
Obama gave few details about the pace of the withdrawal, but administration sources said it will guided by the needs of Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top commander in Iraq. They said Odierno felt it was important to keep an adequate combat force in Iraq at least until national elections there in December.
One official said Odierno wants a "substantial force on the ground in Iraq to ensure that the elections come off." Another official said Odierno wanted flexibility around the elections. "The president found that very compelling," the official said.
The pace of withdrawal means that although Obama's promised pullout will start soon, it will be backloaded, with most troops returning in the last few months of the time frame.
Obama earlier telephoned Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and former President George W. Bush to brief them on his announcement, the White House said.
Video: Obama's timeline Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers in a briefing Thursday that ground commanders in Iraq believe the plan poses only a moderate risk to security, McCain said.
There were no assurances that the residual force would not be pulled into battle should Sunni Muslim insurgent holdouts or disaffected Shiite Muslims resume wide-scale fighting.
Depending on the number of forces left behind, the military will have withdrawn between 92,000 and 107,000 American fighting personnel from Iraq after the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
According to an AP count as of Thursday, at least 4,251 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003. Total Iraqi deaths are unknown but number in the tens of thousands and are perhaps above 100,000.
Obama said the U.S. force that remains after the combat mission is closed out will have a threefold mission:
- To train, equip and advise Iraq forces;
- To offer force protection for both U.S. military and civilian operations that will continue in the country;
- To engage in targeted counterterrorism missions either alone or in conjunction with Iraqi troops.
Senior administration officials said the plan was drawn up after a month of consultations with Gates, Mullen, Odierno and the military service chiefs.
Obama had promised the faster drawdown pace of 16 months during his campaign but also said he would confer with military commanders on a responsible exit.
Officials said Obama would not set a more specific schedule, such as how many troops will exit per month because he wants to give his commanders in Iraq flexibility. "They'll either speed it up or slow it down, depending on what they need," said one official.
17,000 more troops for Afghanistan
On a parallel track, Obama has ordered the dispatch of 17,000 more American forces to Afghanistan, to fight resurgent Taliban insurgents. As U.S. troops leave Iraq, that would free even more forces for deployment in Afghanistan.
An existing U.S.-Iraq agreement, negotiated under Bush, remains in force and calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
Gates has said that whatever Obama decided would be "a way station" since all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 under that agreement with Iraq.
"The thinking all along had been that any force left after we stopped combat operations would be focused on the counterterrorism mission, on training, advising, assistance, and that sort of thing," he has said.
With Obama planning to ramp up the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and banking on using the Iraq troop reduction to help slash a ballooning $1.3 trillion deficit, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that once the drawdown began it would be "a one-way movement."
"The issue now is slow calendar-based versus fast-calendar based," he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.