Obama calls official end to US combat operations in Iraq

Barack Obama declares an end to US combat in Iraq, saying its people must now take the lead in charting their destiny as Americans turn to rebuilding their own battered nation.

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The US president Barack Obama has declared an end to US combat in Iraq, saying its people must now take the lead in charting their destiny as Americans turn to rebuilding their own battered nation. But he called on his country to steel itself for more bloodshed as he doubles down on the war in Afghanistan, billing the fight as "essential" to protecting the US homeland from the festering threat from al Qa'eda.

Mr Obama's primetime address was meant to mark a symbolic moment in US disengagement from Iraq, but avoided talk of victory or defeat as political uncertainty and violence cloud a nation the United States invaded in 2003. Speaking from the Oval Office, Mr Obama, who anchored his presidential campaign on opposing the war, spoke of his "awe" at the sacrifices of US troops, and issued a statesmanlike appeal to heal domestic divides opened by the conflict.

"Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended," Mr Obama said, seated in the same spot as former president George W. Bush when he unleashed the US war machine more than seven years ago. "Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," Mr Obama said in the 18-minute address marking the transition of the US mission in Iraq.

Amid political tumult at home, Mr Obama attempted to refocus Americans on the need to repair the ravaged economy, as a slowing recovery sours his popularity and augurs heavy losses for Democrats in November's congressional polls. He argued that Americans had met their "responsibility" in Iraq and now needed to "turn the page" and "rebuild our nation here at home." "At this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad."

Mr Obama had vowed to get American combat troops home from Iraq and has pulled nearly 100,000 soldiers out - even as he escalated the war in Afghanistan. But with 50,000 American troops remaining in Iraq on a training and counter-terrorism mission until the end of the next year, Mr Obama warned that though US combat was ending, violence in Iraq would not. "Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife," he said, but asserted that Iraqis would not allow "terrorists" to thwart their destiny.

He also called on Iraq's factions to end the long deadlock over forming a government after March's inconclusive elections. "Tonight, I encourage Iraq's leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people," he said. Turning to Afghanistan, Mr Obama admitted that many Americans were asking "tough questions" about the Afghan war as it grinds into a 10th year with bloodshed rising and now end in sight.

"We must never lose sight of what is at stake. As we speak al Qa'eda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan." But he seemed to temper his earlier insistence that US forces would begin withdrawing from the country next year, speaking instead of a less clear "transition" to "Afghanistan responsibility". "Troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground," Mr Obama said, in language apparently less robust than his insistence in December 2009 that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home".

White House officials insisted however, that the policy, which opened Mr Obama up to criticism from political opponents and some in the military, had not changed. Mr Obama also sought to heal fierce political divisions whipped up over the Iraq war, including by his own intense criticisms of the war leadership of ex-president George W Bush, whom he called yesterday. "It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country, and commitment to our security."

"There were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it." Some 4,427 US troops have been killed in Iraq and 34,268 wounded since the invasion ordered by Mr Bush to topple late dictator Saddam Hussein. Exact figures for Iraqi casualties caught up in the eruption of sectarian violence in the wake of Saddam's fall are not known, but the website icasualties.org put it at more than 48,600.

In a television address to his people, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki earlier stressed the Iraqi military and police were now in charge, adding he was confident the last US forces would leave as planned at the end of 2011. "This is a day that will remain in the memory of all Iraqis. Today, Iraq has become a sovereign and independent country," he said * AFP