Video: Obama: ‘Time to turn the page’ on Iraq

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    >>> now to president obama 's prime time address officially marking the end of combat operations in iraq . was the war worth the sacrifice? we'll talk with vice president joe biden who's in baghdad this morning in just a moment but first savannah guthrie has more on the president's remarks.

    >> reporter: the president said last night the country has paid a huge price for the war in iraq and it was time to turn the page .

    >> i am announcing that the american combat mission in iraq has ended.

    >> reporter: addressing the nation in prime time from the oval office , the president said he was fulfilling a campaign promise, withdrawing combat troops from iraq , a seven-year war that claimed more than 4,400 american lives.

    >> the united states has paid a huge price to put the future of iraq in the hands of its people, we have met our responsibilities. now it's time to turn the page .

    >> reporter: aboard air force one tuesday, the president called former president bush and tuesday night had kind words for his predecessor.

    >> it's well known that he and i disagreed about the war from its outset, yet no one can doubt president bush 's support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security.

    >> reporter: but the president's critics lashed out even before the address saying the president failed to give proper credit to bush's troop surge .

    >> some leader who is opposed, criticized and fought tooth and nail to stop the surge strategy, now proudly claim credit for the results.

    >> reporter: the president who visited with returning soldiers in texas said he was awed by the troops service and sacrifice.

    >> we must tackle those challenges at home with a sense of energy and a sense of purpose as our men and women in uniform served abroad.

    >> reporter: today the president's next foreign policy -- face to face talks between israel and the palestinian authority in 18 months. the president making a high stakes bet that involvement by the u.s. will kick start the peace process . yet on the eve of negotiations, hamas fighters killed four israeli settlers , bringing a swift response from israel 's prime minister in washington.

    >> we will not let the blood of israeli civilians go unpunished.

    >> reporter: and making talk of peace all the more difficult.

    >> the test of the mettle of this president is going to be can he move both leaders despite whatever provocations occur to stay committed.

    >> reporter: israel , the palestinian authority , egypt and jordan will hold a private dinner at the white house tomorrow. peace talks get underway in ernest at the state department .

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter and NBC News
updated 8/31/2010 9:19:20 PM ET 2010-09-01T01:19:20

President Barack Obama made it official Tuesday: Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the nation’s No. 1 priority is fixing the economy.

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“The end of our combat mission in Iraq” comes at “a time of great uncertainty for many Americans,” Obama said in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office of the White House.

“But this milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment,” he added. “It should also serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.”

Read the full text of the speech

And it opens up another opportunity “to rebuild our nation here at home,” the president said, declaring that “now, it is time to turn the page.”

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The last full U.S. combat brigade actually left Iraq two weeks ago. But Obama waited to mark the end of the combat mission until Tuesday, the deadline he’d announced in February, and he did it without declaring victory, saying that while Iraq’s security was now in the hands of the Iraqis, the advance had had come “a huge price” for the United States.

“We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” he said.

Now it is time to “put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” he said. “This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president.”

The president gave no specifics on how he intended to do that, however, saying it was incumbent on the American people to join him in attacking problems at home with “energy and grit and sense of common purpose.”

‘Violence will not end’ in Iraq
Obama’s pledge to end the war helped catapult him into office. Now, as president, he is intent on reassuring Americans and the stretched U.S. military that all the work and bloodshed in Iraq wasn’t in vain.

Obama was careful not to repeat what has come to be considered one of the biggest mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who boarded an aircraft carrier in May 2003 to deliver a triumphant speech before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

Seven years later, Obama was again declaring an end to the Iraq war, but he was doing it from the sober confines of the White House’s Oval Office.

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Partly, that’s because as many 50,000 troops will stay as late as the end of next year to help train Iraq’s forces and because he’s also sending more troops to Afghanistan, the base of the al-Qaida terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s also because “violence will not end with our combat mission,” Obama said.

“But ultimately,” he said, “these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction.”

Obama spoke Tuesday with Bush, who made a similar proclamation seven years ago. Neither the White House nor aides to Bush would reveal what was said in the call, but in his speech, Obama called Bush a “patriot” and credited his “support for our troops [and] his love of country and commitment to our security.”

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, said in an interview on CNN that the call was brief but cordial.

“Whether you agree or disagree, it was a day to pay tribute to the troops,” Axelrod said, “and he felt to touch base with the former president was the right thing to do.”

Cost of the war
Obama warned that political paralysis and sectarian violence still clouded the country’s future, saying it was important that Iraq’s leaders “move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative and accountable to the Iraqi people.”

“When that government is in place, there should be no doubt: The Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States,” he said.

Part of bolstering that strength is ensuring the recovery of the American economy, he said.

“This will be difficult,” he said. “But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people and my central responsibility as president.”

In that light, Obama said his administration would focus on jobs, education and entrepreneurship, without offering any specific initiatives.

“To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy,” he said. “We must jump-start industries that create jobs and end our dependence on foreign oil.”

And “we must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs,” he added.

New tone from a new venue
The speech was only the second Obama has delivered from the Oval Office, which debuted a new look Tuesday night. The office was overhauled while the Obamas were on vacation last week, and even as TV reporters reported from the White House lawn Tuesday, hammering could still be heard in the background.

Reflecting the economic tenor of Obama’s remarks, the White House was quick to stress that the redesign was funded by Obama’s inaugural committee, working through the nonprofit White House Historical Association.

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Explainer: Iraq in 2010: Key stats

  • Image: Displaced Iraqi children in hut made of cans
    Ahmad al-Rubaye  /  AFP-Getty Images
    Internally displaced Iraqi Shiite children peek out from a hut made of mud and cooking oil cans at a squatter settlement in southern Baghdad on July 12, 2008.

    How to measure where Iraq is today compared to just before the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in March 2003? While statistics tell only part of the story, they provide a quick snapshot of various categories — from war deaths to quality of life indicators.

    Below are some chosen for having recent and relatively reliable data. Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, adds his perspective from his time living and working in Baghdad. Click on the links on the left to find out more about key facts.

  • Fatalities

    Image: Brandon E. Maggart
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP

    The estimate of civilian deaths tied to the war has declined since peaking in 2006 at 27,768 for that year. For January-July 2010, the estimate was 2,264 deaths. U.S. military fatalities peaked in 2007 at 904. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq topped 160,000 several times since 2003, and now stands at around 50,000.

    Source: Iraq Body Count, Defense Department

    Richard Engel: Estimates of the number of Iraqi causalities vary wildly. The number I’ve heard from my most reliable sources is around 150,000. Many Iraqis, however, believe the number is much higher. It is not uncommon for Iraqis to claim that they lost one million to the war. While I have never seen evidence to support this claim, it is important because that is the common perception. One million dead is the number many Iraqis use to calculate in their minds the cost of the war.

  • Displaced Iraqis

    Karim Kadim  /  AP

    2.76 million in November 2009, down from 2.84 million a year earlier but still high compared to 1.3 million in 2005. Seventy percent are women and children. Another 1.7 million Iraqis were living abroad in June 2009, down from a peak of 2.3 million who fled, mainly to Syria and Jordan.

    Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, U.N.

    Richard Engel: The displacement statistics don’t tell a complete picture because often those who left Iraq were from specific communities. Iraqi Christians for example left at a disproportionately high rate, as did Iraqi professors and medical doctors.  

  • Food

    Image:Iraqi aid
    Anja Niedringhaus  /  AP

    Ninety percent of Iraqis get government-subsidized food rations of wheat, rice, sugar, tea and other basics — but distribution is uneven. The U.N. World Food Program helped 1 million Iraqis in December 2009, and estimates 6.4 million more are highly dependent on government safety nets.

    Source: U.N. World Food Program

    Richard Engel: Iraqis survived on these food rations under Saddam Hussein. Under his dictatorship, the food rations were basic, but complete. You could live off of them. Now, they are minuscule: just a few bars of soap or bags of rice. Iraqis still collect the rations, but can no longer live off them.

  • Health infrastructure

    While Iraq had 34,000 physicians in the early 2000s, by 2008 only 16,000 were still in the country — a trend that has not been reversed since Iraq's 2008 appeal for medical staff to return.

    Source: International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Communications

    Landlines have been stagnant, at around 40 per 1,000 people in recent years, but cell phones have soared from less than 1 per 1,000 in 2002 to 476 per 1,000 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

    Those Iraqis with online access has grown tenfold, from less than 1 per 1,000 in 2002 to 10 per 1,000 in 2008.

    Source: International Telecommuncation Union

  • Corruption

    In 2003, Iraq was already 16 countries from the bottom of an annual ranking on perceived corruption. It's only gotten worse, being listed in 2009 as the fourth most corrupt country along with Sudan, and ahead only of Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia.

    Transparency International

    Richard Engel: Iraqi corruption is insidious and appears to be getting worse.