Obama: U.S. Will Leave Iraq 'On Schedule'

President Obama told a veterans group in Atlanta on Monday that the U.S. is on track to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq this summer as scheduled.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with the end of combat operations in Iraq. That was the message today from President Obama. He told an enthusiastic crowd of veterans in Atlanta, Georgia that he's keeping his campaign promise to end the war, he said he would end in Iraq and doing it on schedule.

By the end of August, the troops who remain in Iraq, some 50,000, will shift focus from combat operations to supporting and training Iraqi security forces. The president also defended the war he decided to escalate in Afghanistan and to the pledge he's made to veterans themselves.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has our story.

ARI SHAPIRO: When President Obama has traveled recently, his topic has almost always been the economy. Today was the first time in months he devoted a major speech to Iraq, Afghanistan and the human cost of those wars.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats. And as we mark the end of America's combat mission in Iraq, a grateful America must pay tribute to all who served there.

SHAPIRO: This is a message administration officials will hammer all month long. The headline: President Obama promised to bring all 90,000 combat troops home by the end of August.

Pres. OBAMA: And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule.

SHAPIRO: Republicans point out that while Mr. Obama is quick to blame George W. Bush for the economic collapse and the budget deficit he inherited, he's less eager to give his predecessor credit for progress made in Iraq. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke with reporters at NPR earlier today.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The president should be commended for basically reversing his own position after the election and continuing the policies of the previous administration which is something that he inherited.

SHAPIRO: And while American troops are coming home from Iraq on schedule, Stephanie Sanok of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was disappointed that President Obama failed to mention that Iraq has no functioning government and little prospect of having one soon. Sanok worked at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on long-term transition plans.

Ms. STEPHANIE SANOK (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Right now, the security agreement that we negotiated during the Bush administration runs out at the end of 2011. If there are any U.S. troops left in Iraq, they are not covered.

SHAPIRO: Fifty-thousand non-combat troops are scheduled to remain in Iraq after the end of August. In Afghanistan, President Obama has sent 30,000 additional troops. Today he defended that strategy.

Pres. OBAMA: Because in this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for al-Qaeda and their extremist allies. We will disrupt, we will dismantle, and we will ultimately defeat al-Qaida.

SHAPIRO: Then he shifted to talk of veterans at home. He said the Veteran Affairs budget is growing faster now than almost any time in the past 30 years.

Pres. OBAMA: I've proposed a freeze on discretionary domestic spending. But what I have not frozen is the spending we need to keep our military strong, our country safe and our veterans secure.

SHAPIRO: Last week he met with veterans groups at the White House. Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America came out of that meeting frustrated.

Mr. TOM TARANTINO (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): And we have record high suicide numbers. We have record jobless numbers. You know, this is something that our commander and chief needs to use as a call to action to rally all Americans around these issues and so we can help those that are coming home.

SHAPIRO: Tarantino says today the commander in chief did it.

Mr. TARANTINO: It was a huge step forward.

SHAPIRO: After the speech the president went to a Democratic fundraiser for another ongoing mission raising money for congressional Democrats who are battling to hold their ground in the midterm elections this fall.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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