WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama vowed on Friday to pull all U.S. troops from Iraq this year, symbolically ending the war but dashing U.S. hopes of leaving a few thousand troops to buttress a still shaky Iraq and offset neighboring Iran’s influence.
After months of negotiations with officials in Baghdad failed to reach an agreement to keep possibly thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq as trainers, Obama announced he would stick to plans to pull out the remaining force of 40,000 by year’s end.
“After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” Obama told reporters.
The announcement was a milestone more than 8 1/2 years after the Bush administration led the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein based on warnings of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
Obama made his announcement after a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He said the two leaders agreed to stick to an earlier arrangement to pull the remaining U.S. troops by year’s end.
The prospect of extending the troop presence was very sensitive for Iraq’s fractured political elite.
Maliki, heading a tenuous coalition including politicians vehemently opposed to foreign troops, eventually advocated a training presence but rejected any legal immunity for U.S. soldiers. Those terms were deemed unacceptable in Washington.
Obama, eyeing a 2012 re-election campaign likely to be fought over his handling of the U.S. economy, is looking to wind down a decade of war in the Muslim world that did lasting damage to the U.S. image worldwide and stretched its military and budget to the brink.
In Iraq, where the U.S. force peaked at about 190,000 during the height of President George W. Bush’s troop surge in 2007, almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers have died and the war has cost U.S. taxpayers over $700 billion in military spending alone.
Even as leaders of Iraq’s fragile democracy seek to distance themselves from Washington, Iraq is only slowly getting to its feet after years of ferocious violence that shattered its society and killed tens of thousands of people.
While Washington has hailed Iraq’s halting progress, especially as tumult has swept the Middle East, its political system remains gripped by perennial deadlock on issues dividing a religiously and ethnically fractured country.
Violence there is a far cry from the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, but Iraq still suffers daily attacks from a stubborn insurgency allied with al Qaeda, and from Shi‘ite militiamen.
Obama’s announcement in the White House briefing room was freighted with political overtones.
The president, who was an early opponent of the war and campaigned on a promise to end it, repeated his mantra that “the tide of war is receding.”
But prominent Republicans criticized the president. Senator John McCain told Reuters the decision went against the advice of U.S. military commanders, could embolden Iran and likely would be met with alarm by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is already concerned about U.S. commitment to his country.
“In retrospect, I don’t think the political side of the Obama administration ever had any serious intentions of keeping a residual force there because none of their actions were serious,” said McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
About 160 U.S. soldiers will remain behind under State Department authority to train Iraqi forces along with a small contingent of soldiers guarding the U.S. Embassy. There will also likely be a U.S. special operations presence in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday the United States would start negotiating with Iraq about military training assistance after U.S. forces withdraw this year. Such an arrangement could potentially involve a troop presence in the country.
“Once we’ve completed the reduction of the combat presence, then I think we begin a process of negotiating with them in order to determine what will be the nature of that relationship,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Indonesia.
He did not rule out having U.S. trainers rotate through Iraq, without being stationed there.
Obama’s announcement underscored the gaps that remain between U.S. and Iraqi priorities and political realities.
“This has been inevitable,” said David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador in the Middle East.
“National security strategists in both Washington and Baghdad made a strong case for keeping U.S. military forces beyond 2011, but the domestic politics in both countries were against it,” he said.
The U.S. military role in Iraq has been mostly reduced to advising the security forces in a country whose military was rebuilt from scratch following the 2003 invasion.
Lingering weaknesses in Iraq’s military capability would have been one reason to keep a larger U.S. troop presence.
Another was Iran. Chronically critical of Iran’s nuclear program, Washington is especially sensitive to the prospect of an expansionist Iran, following its recent allegations about a foiled Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
“We remain very concerned that Iran is meddling, not just in the affairs of Iraq but of other countries in the region. And that’s unacceptable,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said this week when discussing a possible extended troop presence.
Brian Katulis, a security expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said the specter of Tehran dictating decisions to Baghdad was a red herring.
“Iranian influence is overstated,” he said. “And it’s not as if a few thousand U.S. troops was going to be a linchpin.”
Even without soldiers, the U.S. presence will remain substantial. U.S. officials say the embassy in Baghdad, an imposing, fortified complex by the Tigris River in Baghdad’s Green Zone, will be the largest in the world.
Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Deborah Charles, Alister Bull and Warren Strobel in Washington, Patrick Markey in Baghdad, Phil Stewart aboard a U.S. military aircraft; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Philip Barbara and Peter Cooney