President Obama speaks as First Lady Michelle Obama listens during a tribute… (Davis Turner / Getty Images )
Reporting from Fort Bragg, N.C. — President Obama celebrated the soldiers who fought the Iraq war on Wednesday, marking the fulfillment of a campaign promise to bring home all U.S. forces following a nearly nine-year conflict that killed more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers.
"So as your commander in chief, on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words – and I know your families agree," the president said. "Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home."
Obama, standing before a sea of paratroopers wearing maroon berets, thanked the troops returning from Iraq and hailed the country's steps toward creating an independent, democratic state.
"Now Iraq is not a perfect place," said Obama, standing at a lectern set up in an airplane hangar. "It has many challenges ahead. But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people."
He was introduced by the first lady, a rare joint appearance borne of Michelle Obama's work finding jobs for military veterans.
In his remarks, President Obama largely ignored the furor over the war's origins under the Bush administration.
He made only the briefest mention of the "great controversy here at home …"
Instead, he kept a tight rhetorical focus on the sacrifices and victories of those who fought. He made no mention of the Iraqi dead, estimated to be more than 100,000.
Obama's political identity was shaped by the Iraq war. One way he distinguished himself from Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 Democratic nomination contest was by underscoring his early opposition to the U.S. invasion. Clinton had voted to authorize the war while serving in the U.S. Senate. Obama, as an Illinois state senator, delivered a speech in 2002 calling the imminent invasion "dumb."
Now commander in chief, he reminisced about key milestones in the war and said there is "something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long."
"We remember the early days," he continued, "the American units that streaked across the sands and skies of Iraq," he said. "In battles from Karbala to Baghdad, American troops breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month."
That was a reference to Saddam Hussein, who was captured and later hanged by the Iraqi government. Obama described Hussein in similar terms his 2002 address. But in that speech, he said Hussein posed no threat to the U.S. or Iraq's neighbors and could be successfully "contained" through international pressure.
He didn't relive that history on Wednesday. The war, he said, achieved America's strategic aims.
Interrupted by frequent chants of "Hooah!" Obama said that "everything that American troops have done in Iraq – all the fighting and all the dying, bleeding and building, training and partnering – all of it has led us to this moment of success."
As a backdrop for the speech, the White House chose a heavily populated base that is rich in political and military symbolism. A total of 202 Ft. Bragg service members were killed in Iraq. The base is also home to Green Berets who were among the first troops to enter Iraq at the start of the war in 2003.
Beyond that, Ft. Bragg sits in North Carolina, one of the major battlegrounds of the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama barely won the state in 2008 and has visited repeatedly since taking office – most recently in a bus tour in October.
In advance of Obama's arrival, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed published in the Fayetteville Observer criticizing the president's economic record.
"Every one of the men and women who have just come back from overseas has a future to look forward to," Romney wrote. " Right now, unfortunately, that future is bleak. Those who will be leaving the service will need to find jobs. Yet jobs are extraordinarily hard to find."
One expert estimated Obama's chances of winning North Carolina next year as "certainly less than 50-50."
David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University, said that Obama's ratings have suffered because of the sour economy, though he added the state remains "competitive."
"By competing here and trying to win, he [Obama] at least compels the Republicans to allocate time and resources here, as well," Rohde said.
Campaign advisors believe that ending the war is a major point in Obama's favor. Polls showed Americans were tired of the conflict and wanted it over.
A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll rated the end of the Iraq war as Obama's second-biggest accomplishment, next to killing Osama bin Laden.
Anticipating Romney's argument, Obama said he is striving to improve conditions for returning troops.
"We've worked with Congress to pass a tax credit so that companies have an incentive to hire vets," he said. "And Michelle has worked with the private sector to get commitments to create 100,000 jobs for those who've served."
"Hooah!" the paratroopers shouted.