MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Today marks a milestone in the war in Iraq. Six years after the U.S.-led invasion, President Obama announced the current phase of the war is coming to an end.
President BARACK OBAMA: Let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.
NORRIS: That's a bit later than Mr. Obama had promised on the campaign trail. There are also unanswered questions about the role of the troops that will remain, and when the last U.S. forces will leave. Here's NPR's defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: President Obama delivered his speech today before a military crowd at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Pres. OBAMA: Good morning, Marines.
(Soundbite of Marines)
KELLY: But he made clear he was speaking to all Americans and to the people of Iraq.
Pres. OBAMA: Today, I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end.
KELLY: Iraq is not yet secure, Mr. Obama said, but violence is down substantially. Thus, his decision that the bulk of U.S. forces, something like 100,000 troops, will leave Iraq by the end of August 2010.
Pres. OBAMA: 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.
KELLY: What will remain in Iraq is what Mr. Obama called a transitional force -between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. troops. There are lots of questions about what this residual force will actually do, and how big it should be. Some Democrats question whether Mr. Obama shouldn't be bringing more troops home faster. On the other side are those who worry combat troops are leaving too soon. Here's Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former top aide to General David Petraeus in Iraq, now at Ohio State University.
Colonel PETER MANSOOR (Former Aide to General Petraeus): You know, the danger is that it creates renewed uncertainties among Iraqis. What you don't want to do is have the security situation begin to spiral downward, with the worst case of a return to sectarian violence and civil war.
KELLY: The point of leaving a residual force of tens of thousands of U.S. troops is to prevent that. But this brings us to the really important deadline looming, December 31st, 2011. That's when all U.S. troops have to be out of Iraq under an agreement signed by President Bush. President Obama said today he will honor that.
Pres. OBAMA: Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
KELLY: The president does not leave much wiggle room there. But in conversations this week with members of Congress, diplomats, military officials and others, no one said they think all U.S. troops will really be out of Iraq by December 2011. One defense official pointed out there are still U.S. troops in Kosovo. There are still U.S. troops in South Korea, for that matter, decades after fighting ended there. In the case of Iraq, where violence is still a daily problem, Colonel Mansoor says there is no question U.S. forces will still be needed in a peacekeeping role past 2011.
Col. MANSOOR: I do not believe that any realistic appraisal of the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police will state that they will be fully ready to take on all the counter-terrorist missions in Iraq. Certainly, they will not be prepared to provide their own air support by that date.
KELLY: Mansoor believes that as 2011 looms closer, the Status of Forces Agreement will have to be renegotiated, for reasons both of Iraqi security and long-term U.S. interests in the region. And there may be support for that idea within Mr. Obama's own Cabinet. Defense Secretary Robert Gates held a conference call with reporters today right after the president finished speaking. And he said it might be a good idea to keep a small number of U.S. forces in Iraq past the 2011 deadline.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): My own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training and helping them with their new equipment and providing, perhaps, intelligence support and so on.
KELLY: But that would depend on the Iraqi government asking U.S. forces to stay on. And so far, Mr. Gates said no such request has been made.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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