President Obama made it official today, announcing that he will end U.S. combat operations for the majority U.S. troops in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010.
Within 18 months, officials expect that 90,000 of the current 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will have withdrawn, leaving between 35,000 and 50,000 troops to train, equip and advise Iraqi Security Forces, support the Iraqi government and conduct targeted counterterrorism missions.
"The United States will pursue a new strategy to end the war in Iraq through a transition to full Iraqi responsibility," Obama said.
"America's men and women in uniform have fought block by block, province by province, year after year, to give the Iraqis this chance to choose a better future. Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it," he said.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said, triggering applause from the Marines.
The president called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and former President George W. Bush from Air Force One en route to the speech to brief them on what he would say.
The plan has drawn guarded support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who battled Obama over his Iraq withdrawal plans throughout the long presidential campaign.
"I am cautiously optimistic that the plans, as laid out by the president, can lead to success," McCain said.
But the plan has disappointed leading Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who are surprised that Obama plans to leave such a large contingent of Americans in Iraq.
"I think that's a mistake," said Rep. Lynn Woosley, D-Calif. "He promised the country he would have everybody out by 16 months after he was sworn in."
Addressing an audience of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Obama said America's six-year Iraq experience "has already been a long war," and he praised the country's military.
"You have fought against tyranny and disorder. You have bled for your best friends and for unknown Iraqis. And you have borne an enormous burden for your fellow citizens," he said.
Obama won more applause when he praised the nation's soldiers, telling them, "In an age when so many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly, you did the opposite – you volunteered to bear the heaviest burden."
But he got a roar of approval when he promised to reward the nation's fighters by raising their pay.
"I figured that would be an applause line," he said with a grin.
Obama warned Americans, "Let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.
The president also wanted to "take a moment to speak directly to the people of Iraq."
"We Americans have offered our most precious resource -- our young men and women -- to work with you to rebuild what was destroyed by despotism," he said, adding, "We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country."
Withdrawal from a stable Iraq, Obama said, would usher in "a new era of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East."