WASHINGTON — President Obama announced a timetable Friday for a drastic reduction in troops in Iraq, but faced objections from war critics over his plans to leave behind a substantial "transitional force."
Under the plans, most of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq would be pulled out by the end of August 2010. However, Obama would leave 35,000 to 50,000 troops in the country until the following year.
Coming from a president who campaigned heavily on his opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Obama's decision to maintain such a large force after the troop reductions surprised supporters who shared his criticism of the war.
"I had expected that the size of the residual force would have been lower," said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noting that the number of military missions should decline with the removal of combat units.
The president outlined his troop plan before an audience of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The timeline represents a compromise between his campaign pledge for a withdrawal within 16 months and requests from military commanders, who preferred a 23-month wind-down.
Obama presented the plan as a vision for leaving Iraq on a stable footing. But he pointedly said that Iraq's leaders were responsible for ensuring the country's peace and guiding its future.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said, adding later, "We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country."
Although U.S. units will not lead combat patrols in Iraqi cities after August 2010, they will face violence, and sometimes may have to initiate confrontations. Soldiers and Marines are likely to accompany Iraqi units they advise on raids and other missions. In addition, some U.S. units will continue to conduct counter-terrorism missions against militants aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq or Shiite militias.
American troops also will protect civilian reconstruction teams and other development efforts and could be required to fend off attackers. The troops also are needed for the massive logistical task of removing the military equipment from seven years of war and turning compounds over to the Iraqi military.
Some antiwar groups were alarmed by the size of the transition force, which would nearly equal the number of troops planned for an increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
"There is no need for a residual force or permanent bases in Iraq," said Paul Kawika Martin, executive director of Washington-based Peace Action.
But the troop plan drew support from surprising quarters. During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly squared off with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who considered the proposed withdrawal an irresponsible retreat. But after being briefed on Obama's timetable, McCain praised the decision, saying that he believed the plan would "lead to success."
Perhaps seeking to blunt criticism on the transitional force, Obama emphasized that security agreements with Iraq require the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
Senior administration officials have said emphatically that there were no plans for any sort of long-term presence like the U.S. garrisons in Germany or South Korea.
"The path is not towards any sort of a Korea model," said a senior administration official, who spoke about internal planning on condition of anonymity. "The path is towards reducing it in a fairly substantial way."
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking to reporters after Obama's announcement, said that the U.S. should be ready to provide continuing help after 2011 if the Iraqis request it.
"My own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training, helping them with their new equipment, and providing perhaps intelligence support," Gates said.
In an interview on PBS' "NewsHour," Obama said his proposal closely mirrored his campaign promises, including the plan for a "residual force, a transition force" to advise the Iraqi military and protect U.S. personnel. During the campaign, Obama's military advisors said the transition force could number up to 55,000.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who spoke with Obama after the speech, said his security forces were ready to protect the country. In a rare example of agreement with Maliki, and with a U.S. initiative, the camp of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr also welcomed Obama's announcement.
But Sunni lawmakers are not as enthusiastic about the departure of American forces, who are seen as a buffer against possible Shiite persecution. Rasheed Azzawi, a lawmaker with the main Sunni bloc in parliament, said it remained to be seen whether Iraqi security forces would be able to control the situation by the time the U.S. combat mission is slated to end.