End of Iraq Combat Mission Signals Beginning of New Challenges

End of Iraq Combat Mission Signals Beginning of New Challenges

ByABC News
August 30, 2010, 6:07 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2010— -- Hinting at the cautiously optimistic tone he will take tonight in his address to the nation, President Obama said today that the end of the combat mission in Iraq doesn't mean it's time for a victory lap.

Speaking to troops today in Fort Bliss, Texas, Obama said a lot of work still lies ahead for the United States to make sure Iraq is an effective partner.

"It is not going to be a victory lap. It is not going to be self-congratulatory," Obama said of his primetime Oval Office speech tonight. "There's still a lot of work that we got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner for us."

After seven and a half years of a war that has cost the nation more than $885 million and over 4,400 lives, the U.S. military officially ended its combat operations today. But the work in Iraq is far from over.

In fact, new challenges await the president, who will try to show that the United States is still committed to Iraq but is placing the responsibility of governance in the hands of the Iraqis.

Watch President Obama's primetime oval office address tonight on ABC News at 8 p.m. ET. Get the full analysis tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

About 50,000 U.S. troops remain in the country to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces. The deadline for their withdrawal is the end of 2011, according to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), but U.S. troops are likely to stay beyond that and Iraqis, experts say, most likely will push to renegotiate the agreement.

"There's an end in sight, but I don't think December 2011 is that end," said Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security and a foreign policy advisor to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "I think it will be several years after that before it can truly go down to zero."

The White House said Monday that Americans won't hear the words "Mission Accomplished" cross Obama's lips tonight -- in a direct jab to then-President Bush's dramatic landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 with a sign that read "Mission Accomplished" in the background.

"You won't hear those words coming from us," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. "Obviously, tomorrow marks a change in our mission. It marks a milestone that -- that we have achieved in moving our combat troops out."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates today said it would be "premature" to declare victory just yet.

The transition to a non-combat mission in Iraq "is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation," Gates said at the American Legion's National Convention. "We still have a job to do and responsibilities there."

Civilian violence in Iraq has declined from its peak. About 270 Iraqis were killed this month compared to 3,389 in September 2006.

But the challenges facing the Obama administration are still numerous. Six months after Iraq held its latest elections, there's still no Iraqi government and no sign that the stalemate will end.

During his unannounced trip to the country, Vice President Biden tried to convince Iraqi officials to come together on an agreement. Many fear that the power vacuum will leave the country susceptible to attacks.

"This is not a country that needs a little more time. This is a country that has made no progress toward formation of government since March," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If anything, it's becoming clearer and clearer that all sides are rooted in their position."