Most US troops will be out of Iraq by the end of August next year, according to a plan that President Barack Obama announced on Friday.
The decision marks the first step towards fulfilling his pledge to end the war in Iraq, nearly six years after US forces entered the country to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
But troops will be withdrawn at a slower pace than Mr Obama promised during the election campaign and up to 50,000 US soldiers could remain in Iraq until the end of 2011.
The president said US forces had ”succeeded beyond any expectation” by reducing violence in Iraq but warned that lasting stability could only be achieved by Iraqis themselves through political reconciliation.
He said his plans maintained enough ”forces and flexibility” to help Iraq succeed but insisted that the US could no longer afford ”to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities” at a time of mounting challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan and economic crisis at home.
Republicans praised the president for accepting military advice to lengthen the withdrawal timetable but several top Democrats voiced concern about the relatively cautious approach.
Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, said the number of troops to be left in the country beyond next year was ”a little higher” than he anticipated. Nancy Pelosi, House speaker, also questioned the justification for the slower drawdown.
Mr Obama promised during the campaign to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office, with a residual force left behind to train Iraqi forces and target al-Qaeda.
The plan announced on Friday sets back the deadline to 19 months and leaves behind more troops than anti-war Democrats hoped for.
The plans are based on recommendations from military commanders, who were concerned that a hastier drawdown could jeopardise recent security gains.
Among the first to voice support for the plan was John McCain, the Republican senator and defeated presidential nominee, who clashed fiercely with Mr Obama on Iraq during the election campaign.
Mr McCain was among a group of congressional leaders briefed on the timetable by the president and Robert Gates, defence secretary, at the White House on Thursday.
John McHugh, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the plan was ”one that we should pray for, plan for and work toward.”
Speaking after the briefing, Mr McHugh said the president had ”assured me that he will revisit his plan if the situation on the ground deteriorates and violence increases”.
In another concession, it will be left to military commanders to decide how quickly to withdraw forces between now and August 2010. During the campaign, Mr Obama promised that troops would leave at a rate of one brigade a month.
Military officials are particularly concerned about keeping enough forces in place to maintain security around Iraqi national elections in December.
There are currently 140,000 US troops in Iraq, about 90,000 of whom would be brought home by next year’s deadline. All US troops must be out by January 1, 2012, according to a status of forces agreement signed last year by President George W. Bush.
Mr Obama made the announcement to thousands of troops in a drill hall at Camp Lejeune, a large US Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
The president thanked the military for its service and sacrifice in Iraq, where 4,250 US troops have died since the invasion in March 2003.
He said that, while the situation in Iraq had improved, there would be more ”difficult days ahead”.
”Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq’s future remain unresolved,” he said, pointing to declining oil revenues, weak government and regional instability. ”In short, today there is a renewed cause for hope in Iraq, but that hope rests upon an emerging foundation,” he added.
Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the war in Iraq formed the centrepiece of his presidential campaign until the issue was overtaken by the slumping economy towards the end of the race.
He ordered defence officials to draw up a withdrawal plan on his first day in office, although the war has remained in the shadows as the new administration battles to contain the worsening economic crisis.
In its first federal budget, released on Thursday, the administration set aside $141bn for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, falling to $130bn next year and $50bn in subsequent years. The reduction in war costs is an important part of Mr Obama’s plans to cut the ballooning budget deficit.
While the war is still unpopular in the US, opposition has softened since President George W. Bush’s troop “surge” helped bring about a sharp reduction in violence last year.
A CBS-New York Times poll this week found that 63 per cent of people say things are going well for the US in Iraq – the highest level in five years and up from a low of 22 per cent in June 2007.
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