Obama: No Iraq victory lap as combat mission ends
FORT BLISS, Texas
FORT BLISS, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama declared the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially over on Tuesday but said he would not take a "victory lap" because a lot more work remained to be done inside the country.
Obama, thanking troops in Texas before delivering an evening address to the nation, said Iraq now had the opportunity to create a better future for itself, and the United States, as a result, was more secure.
"I wanted to come down to Fort Bliss mainly to say thank you. And to say, welcome home," he told troops, who shouted the traditional Army "Hooah" back to him in greeting.
"I'm going to make a speech to the nation tonight," Obama said. "It's not going to be a victory lap. It's not going to be self-congratulatory. There's still a lot of work that we've got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us."
The White House says the removal of all but 50,000 U.S. troops and the declaration of the end to the combat phase shows Obama is fulfilling a campaign promise he made in 2008 to pull out of Iraq.
Obama hopes that message will resonate with Americans ahead of the November 2 elections in which his Democrats are struggling to keep their dominance in the Congress.
But high unemployment and slowing economic growth have eclipsed the war as the top issue in voters' minds, much as the economy did in 2008 when Obama prevailed over Republican John McCain in the presidential election.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said Obama would talk about the economy in the context of the drawdown from Iraq.
"He feels it's very important to refocus resources that we've been spending abroad over the last several years into investing in our economy and our long-term competitiveness here at home," Rhodes told reporters on board Air Force One.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs previewed the same economic theme in media interviews earlier in the day.
"The nation he truly wants to rebuild is the nation that he lives in, the United States of America," Gibbs said on ABC television. "We gain our strength abroad from our prosperity here at home. There are steps that we have to take here to continue our recovery to make sure that people are getting put back to work," he said.
The address, scheduled for 8 p.m. EDT, will be Obama's second from the Oval Office. The president used the same high-profile venue in June to discuss his administration's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Obama called former President George W. Bush, who launched the war in 2003, during his flight.
SENSE OF URGENCY, NOT MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
As Obama prepared to deliver his speech, Vice President Joe Biden flew into Iraq to assure Iraqis the United States is not abandoning them. He met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
Biden's talks took place amid a political deadlock almost six months after an inconclusive election in March over forming the next government.
"Iraq should move forward with a sense of urgency," Rhodes said. "It is time to get down to some of the core issues."
The White House is aware that Obama cannot afford to come across as too triumphant. To do so could evoke comparisons to Bush's May 2003 speech aboard an aircraft carrier. In front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, Bush announced that major combat operations were over, a move that was seen as a huge misstep after violence soared later.
More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone," Defense Secretary Roberts Gates said on Tuesday. "This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished."
Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, rode a wave of anti-war sentiment that boosted his support within his Democratic Party during the 2008 campaign.
When he took office in January 2009, the U.S. military presence in Iraq was 140,000 troops and it reached a high of around 170,000 under the surge ordered by Bush.
The roughly 50,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq are moving into an advisory role in which they will train and support Iraq's army and police.
The effective change on the ground will not be huge because the U.S. military has already been switching the focus toward training and support over the past year. Obama has promised to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
Ahead of the speech, Republicans criticized Obama for what they say is a failure to acknowledge the success of Bush's troop surge in bringing down violence in Iraq. Obama had opposed the 2007 troop increase.
Obama has set July 2011 as the date for a beginning of a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and he hopes the example of Iraq will reassure his Democratic supporters that he can keep his word.