In Atlanta, Obama touts beginning of end of combat in Iraq

President Barack Obama used his speech to veterans in Atlanta on Monday as a launching point for the beginning of the end of combat in one of America's most controversial wars.

But the speech also kicks off a month of appearances by Obama and other top Washington officials aimed at attempting to reassure a war-weary U.S. public -- and the rest of the world -- that Iraq is getting better and that the administration lives up to its promises.

"I made it clear that by Aug. 31, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end," Obama told members of the Disabled American Veterans at their annual conference at the Hyatt Regency. "That is exactly what we are doing -- as promised, and on schedule."

By the end of August, Obama said, 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq, but only in training and advisory roles, according to an agreement between the United States and Iraq. That's down from 144,000 when Obama took office and down from approximately 88,000 at the end of May. All U.S. troops are expected to be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

Following Obama's speech Monday, top Washington officials will be fanning out nationwide over the next month to help prepare for the return home of many veterans but also to reiterate the president's message that things are finally improving in Iraq.

"What we want to do is emphasize that, No.1, we're drawing down responsibly ... No. 2, this withdrawal is the success of U.S. forces and Iraqi forces, and No. 3, the nature of the relationship [with Iraq] is changing," Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in an interview.

The beginning of the end of combat operations in Iraq comes as the Obama administration is facing increasing scrutiny over the ramp-up of the war in Afghanistan.

Just last week, many congressional Democrats signaled they were against Obama's plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan when they voted against a $37 billion emergency war spending measure. The measure ultimately passed the House, 308-114.

"It's a dead end," U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said about the war in Afghanistan. "We've been there almost 10 years now. It's time to say enough is enough."

Nationally, the country is growing increasingly tired of war as well. A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 43 percent of Americans, the most ever, said they thought it was a mistake to ever go to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Only 1 in 3 respondents said they favored Obama's management of the war.

Republicans were quick to criticize Obama for taking any credit whatsoever for winding down the war in Iraq.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement Monday pointing out that then-Sen. Obama and other Democrats had initially opposed the 2007 troop surge that helped result in a more stable Iraq. Boehner said credit for success there today belongs to troops, to the Bush administration and to Republican policies.

"Despite many difficult debates in 2007 and 2008, Republicans stood on principle against the irresponsible plans put forth by congressional Democrats to withdraw all our troops and leave Iraq in chaos," Boehner said. As a result of that and the efforts of U.S. and Iraqi forces, he added, "the drawdown of U.S. troops that began under the previous administration has been able to continue."

In Georgia, meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Austin Scott, who is running for Congress, chastised the president for ever setting a timetable for leaving Iraq. Obama first announced the withdrawal plans in February 2009.

"I believe it's absolutely ridiculous that you'd tell people on the other side of us, our enemies, what our plans are," Scott said. "We shouldn't make public our plans for the war."

Scott and other Republicans also criticized the other reason for Obama's first trip to Atlanta since becoming president -- to speak at a Democratic Party fundraising luncheon.

Though clearly portraying the troop drawdown in Iraq as a bright spot, White House officials were quick to caution in advance of Obama's appearance in Atlanta that it was not "Mission Accomplished," as President George W. Bush had implied in 2003 after the end of the initial fighting in Iraq.

Obama made a point Monday to say the danger isn't over for Americans as the remaining 50,000 troops in Iraq transition from a combat role to an advisory role.

"These are dangerous tasks," he said. "There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress. And the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq.

"But make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing, from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats," he said.

Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy research group in Washington, said the message that Obama and other officials are hoping to convey over the next month is that there has been some success in Iraq.

That message, she said, is warranted.

"This is a huge indicator that things have changed," Sullivan said. "This reflects that you have had success on the ground."

TIMELINE

January 2009: About 144,000 troops are stationed in more than 350 bases throughout Iraq when President Barack Obama takes office.

February 2009: At a speech in Camp Lejeune, N.C., Obama announces that the combat mission in Iraq will end on Aug. 31, 2010.

January 2010: About 112,000 troops stationed in Iraq.

May 2010: About 88,000 troops stationed at approximately 120 bases in Iraq.

*Aug. 31, 2010: About 50,000 troops in advisory and training roles to be based at 94 bases in Iraq. Official end of U.S. combat mission.

*Dec. 31, 2011: All U.S. troops expected to leave Iraq.

*Planned

Source: White House