End of Iraq Combat Mission Signals Beginning of New Challenges

End of Iraq Combat Mission Signals Beginning of New Challenges

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."

President Obama to Make Iraq Speech Tonight

Domestically, cost is a significant issue for the Obama administration. At a time when the economy is the foremost concern on the minds of Americans and politicians, there is little impetus to invest more in a war that occupied most of the attention of the previous administration.

Because of cost restraints, the State Department has consolidated much of its operations, nixing plans for several embassies.

"I think there is a certain amount of Iraq fatigue, not only among the American public but among congressmen and senators, about what needs to be done to fully fund this effort," said Charles W. Dunne, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and director for Iraq at the National Security Council between 2005 and 2007.

Several members of Congress have argued that Iraqis should bear the bulk of the responsibility for their security efforts, especially with the United States increasing its presence in Afghanistan. Obama tonight is expected to echo the same sentiment.

"This redoubles the efforts of the Iraqis. They will write the next chapter in Iraqi history, and they will be principally responsible for it," Gibbs said. "We will be their ally, but the responsibility of charting the future of Iraq first and foremost belongs to -- to the Iraqis."

Another issue is the increased demand for private contractors in Iraq. The State Department will double to 7,000 the number of private security contractors it employs after the U.S. military completely withdraws its troops at the end of 2011.

Contractors, especially those that provide security, have a tumultuous history in Iraq. The biggest security firm, Blackwater, came under intense fire in September, 2007, when a shooting incident involving its guards escorting a State Department convoy left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.

"State Department has least capacity to oversee contractors" and to hold them accountable to taxpayer dollars and make sure they fulfill their contracts, Fontaine said.

"It becomes much more complicated at a time when the number of government personnel is going down and not up," he added. The responsibility for contractors is "being increasingly owned by the government agency that has got least capacity to oversee these things."

President Obama to Make Iraq Speech Tonight

The end of the combat mission comes as the Iraq war becomes increasingly unpopular with Americans. In an August USA Today poll, 60 percent of Americans said the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war over, and a similar number felt the war did not make the United States any safer from terrorism.

But the president also has his fair share of critics. One of the chief ones, former Alaska governor and military mom Sarah Palin tweeted Monday: "Tues:Obama Iraq speech;poor leadership if this fierce opponent of the surge can't give credit where credit's due.Credit due GW,McCain,troops."

Republicans say their party should be credited for bringing about this milestone.

"It makes it easier to talk about fulfilling a campaign promise to wind down our operations in Iraq when the previous administration signs the security agreement with Iraq to end our overall presence there," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today. "By adopting the Bush administration's plan for winding down the war and transitioning security responsibilities to the Iraqi military over time the President has enabled us and the Iraqis to build on the gains our troops have made."

House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave a dueling speech this afternoon berating the president's national security policies, at the annual American Legion convention in Milwaukee.

"Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results," Boehner said. "Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated -- but progress."

Dunne says it's incorrect to label the drawdown as the ending of a combat mission. The military personnel on the ground won't engage in fighting but they are fully trained in combat missions.

"Calling it a responsible end of war or end or combat mission are both misnomers, because we still have people there putting their lives on the line and essentially doing the same thing they were doing two or three months ago," Dunne said. "I don't see a big change in the mission other than we've hit the magic number -- We've gone slightly below 50,000 troops and you can claim a political milestone and that's pretty much it."

White House officials say they are aware of the task that lies ahead, but also hailed today's announcement as a "milestone."

However, Gibbs wouldn't directly say whether Obama thought the Iraq war was worth fighting when posed the question this morning on "Good Morning America."

"I think that decision was made seven and a half years ago. Obviously putting resources into Iraq took our eye off of Afghanistan and we're now trying to make up for that even as we speak," he said. "But look, we can thank those men and women who made tremendous sacrifices. We can heal the wounds."

The White House said Obama will put the drawdown in the context of U.S. national security efforts in Afghanistan and southeast Asia. Most importantly, the president will honor those who have served and thank troops who have put their lives on the line.

"The one thing we don't argue about is the fact that we've got the finest fighting force in the history of the world," Obama today told members of the armed forces at Fort Bliss. "So the main message I have tonight and the main message I have to you is congratulations on a job well done."

Iraq war veteran Starlyn Lara, 33, said she wants the president to reassure veterans that they will not be abandoned as they struggle to deal with the trauma of war and loss of life.

"Its life changing. It definitely puts a huge strain on an individual," said Lara, whose spouse when she served in Iraq was an amputee. "It changes everyone's life."

ABC News' Luis Martinez, Kirit Radia and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.