ATLANTA – President Barack Obama declared Monday that the Iraq war was nearing an end "as promised and on schedule," touting what he called a success of his administration though it comes amid persistent instability and uncertainty in Iraq.
Obama cited progress toward meeting his deadline of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of this month. A transitional force of 50,000 troops will remain to train Iraqi security forces, conduct counterterrorism operations and provide security for ongoing U.S. civilian efforts. Under an agreement negotiated in 2008 with the Iraqis, all American troops are to be gone from Iraq by the end of next year.
"The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," Obama said in a speech to the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans. "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."
The main focus of Obama's appearance was the move toward fulfillment of Obama's campaign promise to end the Iraq war, a position that perhaps most defined his 2008 candidacy and was key to his base of support in the liberal wing of his party. With pivotal congressional elections approaching, the White House wants to highlight the progress as a success story. Monday's speech was only the first in a series of such events planned for this month, with others to be headlined by the president as well as Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials.
"The message is, when the president makes a commitment, he keeps it," White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters traveling with Obama to Georgia on Air Force One.
But the rhetoric comes amid deep concerns about Iraq's stability.
U.S. officials have stepped up the pressure on Iraqi leaders to overcome a political impasse that has prevented the formation of a new government for the nearly five months since parliamentary elections that did not produce a clear winner.
In a reminder of Iraq's fragility, two bombings and a drive-by shooting killed eight people there Monday.
With such attacks remaining a daily occurrence, especially in Baghdad, questions persist about the readiness of Iraqi security forces to take over for the Americans and tamp down insurgents. Obama said, "Violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it's been in years," but figures released by Iraqi authorities over the weekend - dismissed by the U.S. military as too high - showed July to be the deadliest month for Iraqis in more than two years.
At the same time Obama has drawn down forces in Iraq, he has increased the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, ordering a surge of 30,000 additional troops for the 9-year mission there.
But with casualties on the rise, fresh concerns have arisen - with some saying the Afghanistan war should be ended and others questioning Obama's plan to begin winding it down as soon as next July. Critics say such a timetable will embolden the Taliban and other extremist groups in the region.
With such debate and low public support, the White House has launched a fresh effort to paint the U.S. goals in Afghanistan as modest: keeping the region from being a haven for terrorists.
"We face huge challenges in Afghanistan," Obama said Monday. "But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we're focused on goals that are clear and achievable."
Despite the increase in Afghanistan, there are fewer U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan now than there were when Obama took office last year. Come September, when the Iraq drawdown is complete, the White House says there will 146,000 troops on the ground, down from 177,000 in January 2009.
Speaking before a mostly friendly crowd of more than 2,500 disabled veterans, some in wheelchairs, others with lost limbs, Obama promised an all-out effort to support troops. "Your government is going to take care of you when you come home," he said.
After the speech, he was heading to a lunch benefiting the Democratic National Committee, his latest stop in a summer fundraising sprint that also includes events in Chicago later this week. But Georgia's most prominent Democrat, former Gov. Roy Barnes, wasn't joining Obama in Atlanta. Barnes, who is running to get his old job back, had previously scheduled events in southern Georgia, his campaign said.
Distancing himself from the president could be politically smart for Barnes. Georgia is a Republican stronghold that John McCain carried in 2008. A poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. in July had Obama with a 37 percent approval rating in the state. Fifty percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama's performance.