Obama looks beyond Iraq

President Obama marked the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday by declaring that after more than seven years, vast expenditures and thousands of casualties, the nation must focus its shrunken resources on rebuilding the ailing domestic economy.

Addressing the nation for only the second time from the Oval Office, the president appealed for support from a country impatient for progress on unemployment and other economic woes and increasingly weary of wars, including the one in Afghanistan, which Obama has chosen to escalate.

As he has done several times recently, Obama made note of his campaign pledge to wind down the war in Iraq, which he opposed from the outset. “That is what we have done,” he said. “We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.”

“Now it is time to turn the page,” he said.

While acknowledging President George W. Bush’s commitment to U.S. security and support for American troops, Obama sketched a damning picture of the conflict’s effect on the economy.

“We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has shortchanged investments in our own people and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle-class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.”

He offered no new proposals to address those woes. “But in the days to come,” he said, “it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”

Obama tightly linked the move to wind down the Iraq war with the steps he has taken to significantly increase troop strength in Afghanistan. After nearly nine years of combat in Afghanistan, he acknowledged “tough questions about our mission there.”

The U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin winding down in July. However, Obama left the pace of troop reductions unclear, saying they would depend on “conditions on the ground” as U.S. officials prepare Afghan forces to take on more responsibility.

As with the troop increase in 2007 that calmed sectarian conflict in Iraq, Obama said the U.S. troops in Afghanistan “will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future.”

About 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and under terms of an agreement between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, they are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011. Their role is limited to training and assisting Iraqi forces.

Though Iraq’s police and army have made big strides, many Iraqis fear for their country’s future. Bickering politicians have not been able to put together a government in the nearly six months since national elections, leaving an opening for insurgents to launch bomb attacks and assassins to settle scores. Aggrieved parties may return to violence if they feel frozen out of the government. Absent a working government, no long-term decisions are being made.

Vice President Joe Biden was in Iraq on Tuesday to assure the nation’s leaders that the U.S. was not turning its back on them as Operation Iraqi Freedom officially ends, giving way to Operation New Dawn. Biden is to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony Wednesday.

More than 4,400 U.S. troops died and more than 31,000 were wounded. More than 100,000 Iraqi troops and civilians were killed in the last seven years.

Despite the uncertainty about whether Iraq can build a stable, democratic society, Obama seemed to rule out chances of extending the U.S. stay.

His focus on the U.S. economy was a noteworthy concession to his domestic political predicament. Polls show that the 9.5% unemployment rate far outweighs the Iraq war as a source of concern for Americans. Surveys also show widespread dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of the economy.

With midterm elections approaching and voters restive, White House advisors concluded that Obama could not ignore the economy, even in a speech devoted to such a milestone in Iraq.

On his way to a meeting with U.S. troops at Ft. Bliss, Texas, earlier in the day, Obama spoke with Bush on the telephone, but White House officials would not say what the two discussed.

At Ft. Bliss, Obama praised the 1 million American troops who have served in Iraq during the war and promised to support Afghan security forces as they begin to take responsibility for securing their own country.

Many experts and former officials who served under Bush have warned Obama against quickly scaling back U.S. commitments.

“We could end up with a situation where Iraq is a mess,” said Steven Cook, a Mideast specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. But he also noted a broad U.S. consensus that it was time for Iraqis to handle their own affairs.

Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was widely considered a prime architect of the 2003 invasion, stepped forward this week in published opinion pieces to argue against too rapid a disengagement.

Tuesday’s milestone also met with partisan criticism, with Republicans questioning whether now is the time to declare the end of combat operations.

House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio called on Obama to detail how the U.S. would respond should Iraq spiral into chaos.

“The hard truth is that Iraq will continue to remain a target for those who hope to destroy freedom and democracy,” Boehner said, speaking to the American Legion in Milwaukee. “The people of that nation — and this nation — deserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened.”

For weeks, Republicans had been criticizing Obama for claiming credit for ending combat operations in Iraq when he opposed the 2007 troop surge that many believe made this summer’s withdrawal possible.

At Ft. Bliss, home to troops who soon will be deployed in the new support mission in Iraq, Obama promised that he would not be taking any kind of “victory lap” over the withdrawal, an allusion to Bush’s 2003 declaration of “mission accomplished.”

Despite calls for Obama to give credit to his predecessor, he didn’t do that. He did, however, mention his phone call with Bush, with whom he has disagreed bitterly over the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset,” Obama said. “Yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.

“As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war and patriots who opposed it,” he said. “And all of us are united in appreciation for our service men and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.”

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in Washington and Ned Parker in Baghdad contributed to this report.