Reporting from Atlanta and Baghdad — President Obama affirmed Monday that U.S. combat troops would leave Iraq by the end of August — "as promised and on schedule" — in a speech aimed at highlighting a foreign policy bright spot and rebuilding support for the struggling mission in Afghanistan.
"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," Obama told a group of disabled veterans in Atlanta.
There are currently 65,000 troops in Iraq. The president gave assurances that the U.S. force would drop to 50,000 by the end of the month — a reduction of 94,000 since he took office 18 1/2 months ago. The remaining troops will form a transitional force until a final U.S. withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011, he said.
During his campaign, Obama pledged to bring a swift and orderly end to a war he said he would not have waged, but the departure has not been as quick as he had initially promised. Shortly after taking office, the president revised a 16-month withdrawal timeframe and set the Aug. 31 deadline.
U.S. officials say the withdrawal will make little practical difference in Iraq. It is rare these days to see a U.S. military vehicle on the streets — and even the withdrawal is taking place stealthily, at night.
Many Iraqis who might otherwise have welcomed the drawdown as a step toward sovereignty are instead apprehensive. Political tensions are rising among the country's divided factions, and the insurgency has not yet been defeated.
Still, for a White House beleaguered on other fronts — from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to increasing violence in Afghanistan — Iraq is seen as a success story the administration intends to tell. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials will emphasize progress in Iraq in a series of speeches in the coming weeks, the White House said.
On Monday, Obama addressed a convention of the Disabled American Veterans before speaking at a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
The speech served as a sort of pivot for the president as he tries to regain Congress' confidence that the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. Last week, 102 Democrats in the House voted against a $59-billion appropriation for both wars, 70 more than opposed a war spending bill a year ago.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 33,000 when Obama took office, will have nearly tripled to 96,000 by September. But a White House fact sheet also highlighted a different number: By the end of August, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have dropped from 177,000 to 146,000.
On Monday, the president restated his case for the stepped-up presence in Afghanistan.
"If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attacks," he told the veterans. "As president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen."
Obama expressed confidence in the Afghan government's anti-corruption efforts and the U.S. campaign to target key Al Qaeda leaders. The government of Pakistan, which has been accused of shielding anti-U.S. elements, has begun to target extremists, he said.
"Because in this region and beyond, we will tolerate no safe haven for Al Qaeda and their extremist allies," he said.
There is no consensus on what effect the withdrawal will have on security in the region.
It comes at a time of deepening political uncertainty in Iraq, fueling fears of a resurgence of violence once the U.S. combat troops leave. Negotiations on the formation of a new government are stalled over the question of who should be the prime minister, and few now expect progress until at least September.
"Iraqis had hoped they would have a strong, independent government by now, but no one expected it to drag on this long," said Basma Khatib, an Iraqi women's rights activist. "It's a big mess and things might get a lot worse if we don't have a government soon."
The U.S. military and Iraqi government note that violence isn't immediately on the rise, though they disagree on the details. According to a revised figure released by the Ministry of Health on Monday, 335 Iraqis died in violence in July, a number consistent with monthly death tolls earlier in the year.
The U.S. military had disputed an earlier government tally of 535 deaths in July, which would have marked a sharp increase, saying that according to its records 216 Iraqis died violently last month, in addition to one U.S. soldier. The U.S. military rarely releases civilian casualty figures, and when it does, they are consistently lower than Iraqi ones.
Iraqi troops have been responsible for security in most of the country's hot spots since U.S. troops withdrew from the cities in June 2009.