New Iraq Mission: 'Advising And Assisting'

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President Obama declared the end of America's combat mission in Iraq Tuesday night. He said it was time to turn the page in Iraq and shift attention to America's domestic problems. Obama also said the U.S. would be involved in Iraq even after the remaining 50,00 troops pull out next year.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Here are some numbers that measure the toll of the war in Iraq. We give them on this morning, after President Obama declared an end to America's combat mission there.

INSKEEP: Four thousand, four hundred American troops were killed. More than 30,000 were injured.

MONTAGNE: The most conservative estimates say that tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed, and some estimates go into the hundreds of thousands.

INSKEEP: The war has also cost American taxpayers many, many hundreds of billions of dollars - nor is the conflict over. NPR's Mara Liasson reports on the milestone the president marked last night.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama's speech was delivered from the same spot in the Oval Office where seven and a half years ago, President Bush announced the invasion of Iraq. It was a war that then-State Senator Barack Obama opposed, and that presidential candidate Obama promised to end.

President BARACK OBAMA: This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq's security forces and support its government and people. That's what we've done.

LIASSON: But the war itself is not over; there's still plenty of violence. Public services are sporadic. And six months after national elections, Iraqi leaders still haven't been able to form a government. The president acknowledged that the U.S. commitment to Iraq is not ending yet.

Pres. OBAMA: Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq's security forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year.

LIASSON: The president didn't say so last night, but if the Iraqi government requests it, the U.S. military presence could be extended beyond the 2011 pullout date.

There had been much speculation about whether Mr. Obama would - as his Republican opponents were demanding - give George W. Bush credit for ordering the troop surge that helped stabilize Iraq. Last night, President Obama first argued that the war had been a mistake. The U.S. paid a huge price, he said, but he also said he had spoken by phone to former President Bush earlier in the day, and last night he paid tribute to his predecessor's motives and patriotism. Without explicitly giving Mr. Bush credit, he described the surge itself as a success.

Pres. OBAMA: Our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi security forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians, and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people, Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny.

LIASSON: And the president went on to talk about the surge in Iraq as the model for the strategy he is now attempting in Afghanistan. He's even using the same general - David Petraeus - that President Bush put in charge in Iraq.

Pres. OBAMA: As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But as was the case in Iraq, we can't do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves.

LIASSON: While Mr. Obama had always opposed the war in Iraq, he had always supported the war in Afghanistan. He said last night: The drawdown in Iraq will free up resources for a buildup in Afghanistan.

The president's address comes at a politically perilous time for him and his party. With the economic recovery in danger of stalling, Democrats are facing the possibility of losing control of both houses of Congress in November. So not long past its midpoint, the president's speech turned to what he called his central responsibility.

Pres. OBAMA: Our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who've lost their jobs back to work. To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy.

LIASSON: That was certainly a simpler and more popular message than any the president could send about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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