At Camp Lejeune in North Carolina right now, Barack Obama is announcing that the Iraq combat mission will end by August 31, 2010.
Obama proclaimed, “a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.” That era, Obama said, has just begun.
After the combat brigades are withdrawn, 35,000-50,000 U.S. troops will remain for the transition with three missions: (1) training and equipping non-sectarian Iraqi Security forces; (2) targeted counter-terrorism missions; and (3) protecting ongoing civilian and military efforts.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement, all U.S. troops will be out by 2011.
In addition to the withdrawal of American troops, Obama cited two other strategic priorities: sustained diplomacy with Iraq and “comprehensive American engagement” across the region.
Obama spoke directly to the Iraqi people, saying:
“Our nations have known difficult times together. But ours is a bond forged by shared bloodshed, and countless friendships among our people. We Americans have offered our most precious resource – our young men and women – to work with you to rebuild what was destroyed by despotism; to root out our common enemies; and to seek peace and prosperity for our children and grandchildren, and for yours.”
“Hostility and hatred are no match for justice; they offer no pathway to peace; and they must not stand between the people of Iraq and a future of reconciliation and hope.”
“The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources.”
UPDATE: On a conference call just now, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the reason for extending from Obama’s campaign promise of 16 to his announcement of 19 months was logistical and related to 2010 summer elections. Had troops been out by the end of May, key logistical support for related to protection around those elections “really would present some difficult security and logistical issues.”
He also said that setting a fixed date for a change in mission was important for American troops to know and for the Iraqi people. “The President retains the flexibility to make changes, but clearly does not anticipate having to make changes.”
Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent asked about how the U.S. will ensure that Iraqi forces receiving training and equipment are non-sectarian, a condition Obama stated in his announcement today. Gates replied that “we have been very pleased” that the Iraqi Army had developed along non-sectarian lines. “We have a pretty good feel” that the Iraqis are developing and operating along these lines. The U.S.-Iraqi Army relationship, Gates said, was close enough to spot any sectarian activity and “would be in a position to bring that to the attention of the Iraqi leadership.”