CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — President Barack Obama announced here Friday that he'll withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, but his plans to leave as many as 50,000 U.S. troops there through 2011 made many Democrats in Congress angry, while Republicans cheered.
It was an ironic reception for a new commander-in-chief whose presidential campaign was built initially on his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it if elected.
"I am deeply troubled by the suggestion that a force of 50,000 troops could remain in Iraq," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. "This is unacceptable."
"I question whether such a large force is needed to combat any al Qaida affiliates in Iraq or whether it will contribute to stability in the region," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
"You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war. You can't be in and out at the same time," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "We must bring a conclusion to this sorry chapter in American history."
The Republican Obama defeated in November for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, lauded the plan.
"We have spent enormous amounts of American blood and treasure in Iraq," McCain said. "We are finally on a path to success. Let us have no crisis of confidence now."
McCain said he agrees with Obama that the U.S. should keep 50,000 troops in Iraq after the combat troops leave, following the recommendation of U.S. military commander. He worries, however, about pressure on Obama from Democrats urging a faster withdrawal.
"I worry . . . about statements made by a number of our colleagues indicating that, for reasons wholly apart from the requirement to secure our aims in Iraq, we should aim at a troop presence much lower," McCain said. "The administration should . . . not succumb to pressures, political or otherwise, to make deeper or faster cuts in our force levels."
The Republican leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives — Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio — also issued statements praising Obama's Iraq policy.
In an interview Friday with Jim Lehrer for the "News Hour" on PBS, President Obama was asked whether he was discomfited by praise from Republicans and criticism from Democrats for his Iraq strategy. He said his plan followed what he'd promised during the presidential campaign, with only slight alteration in keeping with advice from his military commanders on the ground, whom he'd promised to consult.
"You know, I don't — I don't make these decisions based on polls or popularity," Obama said. "I make the decisions based on what I think is best. This is consistent with what I said during the campaign. The fact — if anything I think people should be interested in the fact that there's been a movement in the direction of what I thought was going to be the right plan in the first place."
Obama traveled to Camp Lejeune to announce his Iraq policy — which had leaked several days earlier — to a gym full of 2,700 Marines in camouflage uniforms. Some 8,000 Marines at this base near Jacksonville, N.C., will ship out this spring to Afghanistan, where Obama is escalating the U.S. presence.
The president said that, after nearly six years, it's time to end the Iraq war.
"We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars," he said.
"America's men and women in uniform have fought block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future. Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it."
He said he'd withdraw combat troops over the next 18 months — a bit longer than his campaign promise to get out within 16 months. He said he took the advice of military commanders on extending the timetable.
The pace of the drawdown will be left to the commanders and determined by events on the ground as well as politics in Washington. Commanders will be watching to ensure that they have enough troops there to maintain the gains they've made and to safeguard national elections in December.
Although U.S. and Iraqi casualties have dropped sharply, and recent provincial elections were held without major incidents, it's not clear whether Iraq's rival factions and their militias have abandoned violence or are merely biding their time. Another factor that could disrupt Obama's timetable will be the speed with which Iraqi military and security forces gain the ability to maintain order without American help.
En route to Camp Lejeune, Obama called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and then former President George W. Bush to tell each personally about his timetable.
The controversy centers on his decision to leave a force of between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. troops to train, equip and advise Iraqi forces, help protect withdrawing forces and work on counterterrorism. They'd remain until Dec. 31, 2011, the date the Bush administration agreed to withdraw all troops under a pact with Iraq.
That timetable too, could depend on conditions in Iraq and on the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has made significant gains, and where national elections also are scheduled.
Democratic leaders in Congress were less overtly hostile to the residual U.S. force than some of their members, but they, too, seemed to suggest that they'd press Obama in months ahead to leave a smaller force behind in Iraq than he announced.
"We must responsibly end the war in Iraq to make America more secure, and must keep in Iraq only those forces necessary for the security of our remaining troops and the Iraqi people," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"I look forward to further discussing this plan with the president and working with him to ensure we are doing what is best for America's security interests and ensuring our military remains the strongest fighting force in history."
A day earlier, he told reporters that he didn't like the idea of keeping that many troops in Iraq. "That's a little higher number than I had anticipated," he said on Thursday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left open the door to getting more troops out of Iraq faster.
"As President Obama's Iraq policy is implemented, the remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible," she said.
Other prominent Democrats were more welcoming of Obama's plan.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it a "responsible drawdown of the great majority of American forces." He said that Obama "is correct to leave in place a sufficient residual force to complete the training of Iraqi security forces, protect our personnel, and conduct counterterrorism missions."
(Johnson and Beckwith reported from Camp Lejeune, N.C. for the Raleigh News & Observer. Thomma reported from Washington. William Douglas in Washington contributed to this article.)
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