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December 11, 2011

Obama, Maliki Hail 'New Chapter' for Iraq Without US Troops

by Dan Robinson

U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki say their countries will maintain strong security, diplomatic and economic ties after the last U.S. combat forces withdraw at the end of the year.  

With less than three weeks before the last U.S. combat troops leave Iraq, and nearly nine years after the U.S. invaded to oust Saddam Hussein, President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki sat down to discuss the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Mr. Obama pledged a "responsible" end to a war begun by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and among the most politically divisive conflicts in U.S. history.

Mr. Obama said he has fulfilled that pledge, and in a joint news conference with Mr. Maliki emphasized that while Iraqis are now responsible for their own security, the U.S. commitment to Iraq's stability and security will not diminish. "We have got an enormous investment of blood and treasure in Iraq, and we want to make sure that even as we bring the last troops out, it is well understood both in Iraq and here in the United States that our commitment to Iraq's success is going to be enduring," he said.

Mr. Obama said Iraq faces challenges, including continual attacks by "those who seek to derail Iraq's progress" but said he is confident Iraq can succeed.

He said he and Mr. Maliki reaffirmed a "common vision" of a long-term comprehensive partnership, including cooperation in security, counter-terrorism, economic development and strengthening Iraq's institutions.

Mr. Maliki said the U.S. withdrawal symbolizes a successful first stage of the new relationship. "We have proven success on the first mission, a very unique success, nobody imagined that we would succeed in defeating terrorism and the al-Qaida.  We must also establish the necessary steps in order to succeed in our second stage which is the enduring relationship under the Strategic Framework Agreement," he said.

U.S.-Iraq discussions continue on implementation of a Strategic Framework Agreement, and on U.S. training for Iraqi forces.  An agreement on that eluded both sides over the past year.

Mr. Obama noted that the U.S. will have no bases in Iraq.  He said a large U.S. diplomatic mission will help support building effective diplomatic, civilian and military-to-military ties.  

The president mentioned training for Iraq's use of F-16 fighters it purchased, possible joint military exercises, and joint counter-terrorism operations.  The White House confirmed that the Obama administration notified Congress of its intent to sell Iraq another group of F-16s.

President Obama paid tribute to the more than one million Americans who served in Iraq, 4,500 fallen Americans and thousands wounded, as well as Iraqis who gave their lives. "They are the reason that we can stand here today and we owe it to every single one of them, we have a moral obligation to all of them, to build a future worthy of their sacrifice," he said.

The two men then made the short trip from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery where they jointly laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a memorial honoring U.S. soldiers whose remains have not been identified.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama travel Wednesday to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where they will speak directly to U.S. troops and thank them again for their sacrifices.

Monday's White House talks came against the backdrop of concerns U.S. and Iraqi officials have that the U.S. withdrawal could lead to weakened security and an upsurge in violence.

Mr. Obama was asked about a comment he made as a presidential candidate describing the war in Iraq as a "dumb war."  He said "history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq, adding it is "absolutely clear" that sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers and civilians, and the courage of Iraq's people, made possible an Iraq that is self-governing, inclusive and with enormous potential.