Obama says U.S. combat role in Iraq nears the end 

Careful to avoid any allusions to "mission accomplished," President Obama nevertheless declared the U.S. war in Iraq is a chapter "nearing its end."

"I made it clear that by Aug. 31, 2010, America's combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing -- as promised, on schedule," Obama told the Disabled American Veterans convention in Atlanta.

The speech was in part an effort to shift the focus from Afghanistan, a once-popular war now beset by doubts, toward Iraq -- previously tagged a "quagmire" then pulled from the brink by the Bush administration's surge strategy.

But while cautiously sidestepping former President George W. Bush's premature declaration that the mission was accomplished, Obama sought to highlight his own efforts in bringing the conflict toward a close.

"The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq -- but make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing," Obama said, "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."

He called it "the end of America's combat mission in Iraq."

The White House noted that when Obama took office in January 2009, there were 144,000 troops in Iraq.

By the end of this month, there will be 50,000 -- a contingent agreed upon by Iraqi officials to continue the transition to Iraqi control. Obama has said he will have all the troops out by the end of 2011.

The speech marked a bit of political gymnastics for Obama, who as a candidate was highly critical of the war in Iraq, calling it a "dumb war" and a "rash war." He opposed Bush's 2007 plan to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq.

Since then, he has opted to carry out the -- presumably -- final stages of Bush's surge strategy, a troop increase that is now largely credited with getting the once intractable Iraq war under manageable control.

Republicans were quick to seize on Obama's new embrace of success in Iraq, noting a recent spike in violence and a political situation in the deeply fractured country that remains a major impediment to future stability.

"This is no time to celebrate," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "We must continue to help the Iraqi government build, foster and sustain institutions that build national unity within the country."

The various political groups in Baghdad have been trapped in a months-long dispute over creation of a new government. Efforts by the administration, led by Vice President Biden, to urge reconciliation have so far shown no progress.

The administration, however, urged patience -- noting that democratic reform moves at its own pace in Iraq.

"If you look back at the last elections, it took some six months to form a government," said deputy press secretary Bill Burton. "And the fact that there are competing parties and individuals who want to lead this democracy is a sign of the kind of progress that they've made."


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