President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of most US troops in Iraq by the end of August 2010.
In a speech at a Marine Corps base, he said the US “combat mission” in Iraq would officially end by that time.
But 35,000 to 50,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq will stay on into 2011 to advise Iraqi forces, target terror and protect US interests.
Mr Obama praised the progress made but warned: “Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead.”
Some Democrats are concerned that the timetable falls short of his election pledges on troop withdrawal.
Mr Obama had said previously that he would completely pull out troops within 16 months of taking the top job.
Earlier this month, he ordered the deployment of up to 17,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan, saying they had been due to go to Iraq but were being redirected to “meet urgent security needs”.
In his address at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, Mr Obama said his national security team had drawn up a “new strategy” for US involvement in Iraq.
The strategy recognised that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political and that the most important decisions about its future must now be made by Iraqis, he said.
US TROOPS IN IRAQ
Aug ’10 troops down to 35-50,000
Dec ’11 all US troops out of Iraq
Source: Brookings Institution
“We have also taken into account the simple reality that America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities: we face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan; of relieving the burden on our military; and of rebuilding our struggling economy – and these are challenges that we will meet.”
Mr Obama said all US troops would have left Iraq by the end of 2011, in line with an agreement signed between the two countries last year.
The president recognised that the conflict had been “a long war” and paid tribute to US forces who have served in Iraq.
“Thanks to the sacrifices of those who have served, we have forged hard-earned progress, we are leaving Iraq to its people, and we have begun the work of ending the war.”
He also announced that his administration would increase the numbers of soldiers and Marines, in order to lessen the burden on those now serving, and was committed to expanding veterans’ health care.
Addressing the Iraqi people directly, Mr Obama said theirs was “a great nation” that had persevered with resilience through tyranny, terror and sectarian violence.
He went on: “So to the Iraqi people: let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources.
North America editor Justin Webb
“We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country.”
The two nations would build a future relationship based on mutual interest and respect, he said.
Mr Obama said there were important lessons to be learned from the Iraq conflict – among them that the US must go to war with clearly defined goals, that it must weigh the costs of action and “communicate those costs candidly to the American people”.
As a result of these lessons, he had ordered a review of US policy in Afghanistan, he said, and put the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan into the federal budget.
Stressing that Iraq’s future was inseparable from that of the broader Middle East, Mr Obama said the US would now “pursue principled and sustained engagement with all of the nations in the region, and that will include Iran and Syria”.
The new US ambassador to Iraq would be Christopher Hill, the former US chief negotiator with North Korea, the president added.
The withdrawal plan is a middle way between the speedy reduction Mr Obama envisaged during his election campaign and the slower one some military leaders may prefer, BBC North America editor Justin Webb says.
Mr Obama wants only two combat brigades to leave this year but after December elections in Iraq the pace should quicken, our correspondent says.
The BBC’s Mike Sergeant in Baghdad says that security in Iraq is now better and people say they are ready for US forces to leave.
However, some people are deeply worried about what exactly will happen when US combat troops disappear, our correspondent says.
While Iraqi forces are much better trained and equipped than before, they are still dependent on US troops for support in many areas, our correspondent adds, and a great deal of American financial and political support may be needed for years to come.
Democrats have expressed concern that the troop withdrawal is being watered down.
Speaking before Mr Obama briefed Congressional leaders about the plan on Thursday, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi said 50,000 troops seemed too many for a residual force and needed to be justified.
However, other sceptics have expressed concern that a fast withdrawal could reverse the dramatic but fragile gains in security in Iraq.
John McHugh, the top Republican on the House armed services committee, said after the briefing that Mr Obama had promised the pullout strategy would be revisited if violence in Iraq increased.
Obama’s Iraq speech: Excerpts
Excerpts of the speech given by US President Barack Obama on plans for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
He said the US combat mission in Iraq would officially end by August next year and that all US troops would have left the country by the end of 2011.
The relative peace and strong participation in January’s provincial elections sent a powerful message to the world about how far Iraqis have come in pursuing their aspirations through a peaceful political process.
On my first full day in office, I directed my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of our strategy in Iraq to determine the best way to strengthen that foundation, while strengthening American national security.
I have listened to my Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and commanders on the ground. We have acted with careful consideration of events on the ground; with respect for the security agreements between the United States and Iraq; and with a critical recognition that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political – not military.
Because the most important decisions that have to be made about Iraq’s future must now be made by Iraqis.
Let me say this as plainly as I can: by 31 August, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq. We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government. There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.
After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its security forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country.
As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq.
Diplomacy and assistance is also required to help the millions of displaced Iraqis. These men, women and children are a living consequence of this war and a challenge to stability in the region, and they must become a part of Iraq’s reconciliation and recovery.
America has a strategic interest – and a moral responsibility – to act.
In the coming months, my administration will provide more assistance and take steps to increase international support for countries already hosting refugees; we’ll cooperate with others to resettle Iraqis facing great personal risk; and we will work with the Iraqi government over time to resettle refugees and displaced Iraqis within Iraq – because there are few more powerful indicators of lasting peace than displaced citizens returning home.
The future of Iraq is inseparable from the future of the broader Middle East, so we must work with our friends and partners to establish a new framework that advances Iraq’s security and the region’s. It is time for Iraq to be a full partner in a regional dialogue, and for Iraq’s neighbors to establish productive and normalized relations with Iraq. And going forward, the United States will pursue principled and sustained engagement with all of the nations in the region, and that will include Iran and Syria.
This reflects a fundamental truth: we can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation – we need a smarter, more sustainable and comprehensive approach. That is why we are renewing our diplomacy, while relieving the burden on our military. That is why we are refocusing on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing a strategy to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon; and actively seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world.
Every nation and every group must know – whether you wish America good or ill – that the end of the war in Iraq will enable a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East. And that era has just begun.
You and your families have done your duty – now a grateful nation must do ours. That is why I am increasing the number of soldiers and marines, so that we lessen the burden on those who are serving. And that is why I have committed to expanding our system of veterans’ health care to serve more patients, and to provide better care in more places. We will continue building new wounded warrior facilities across America, and invest in new ways of identifying and treating the signature wounds of this war: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as other combat injuries.
We will also heed the lesson of history – that those who fight in battle can form the backbone of our middle class – by implementing a 21st Century GI Bill to help our veterans live their dreams.