President Barack Obama on Wednesday honored America’s nearly nine years of “bleeding and building” in Iraq, hailing the “extraordinary achievement” of a war he once branded “dumb.”
“Welcome home, welcome home,” Obama cried in an aircraft hangar in North Carolina, basking in the “Ooh Ahh” cheers and red berets of 82nd Airborne Division troops, part of the final US exodus from Iraq unfolding this month.
“We knew this day would come. We have known it for some time now. But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long,” Obama said, seeking to forge national reconciliation after a divisive conflict.
“It is harder to end a war than to begin one,” said Obama, who made the responsible resolution of a conflict unleashed in the “shock and awe” US aerial bombing of Baghdad in March 2003 his core political promise.
Against a backdrop of transport planes and army vehicles in mustard yellow desert livery at Fort Bragg, a base which sent off 202 soldiers to die in Iraq, Obama only obliquely referred to the political fury whipped up by the war.
“It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate,” he said, remembering he was a state senator and many of the bloodied veterans before him were in school when fighting started.
“Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying; the bleeding and the building; the training and partnering — has led us to this moment of success,” the US commander-in-chief said.
“We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” Obama added.
“We are building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.”
While Iraq is not “perfect,” Obama said, “this is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making.”
Obama also remembered the “heavy cost” borne by 4,500 US soldiers who died in the war launched to topple Saddam Hussein over his refusal to turn over suspected weapons of mass destruction stocks that were never found.
“Today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost a loved one, for they are all a part of our broader American family,” he said, adding it was important that US leaders, analysts and generals learn the strategic lessons of the conflict.
He did not however mention his predecessor George W. Bush who controversial sent America to war, though did argue that all Americans had a duty to look after the returning wounded.
Obama conjured up the most dramatic images of the war: US armor streaking towards Baghdad, “the roadside bombs, the sniper fire, the suicide attacks” and the troop surge which turned the “abyss of chaos” towards reconciliation.
He also drew lessons of national character from the heroism of US troops.
“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages … you have lived through the fires of war… you have done something profound with your lives,” he said.
Obama made his political career by opposing the war in Iraq. In late 2002, he said he was against “dumb wars” such as Iraq, and rode anti-war fervor to the White House by promising to bring troops home.
But the former Illinois lawmaker always said he was not against all wars, and true to his word escalated the Afghan war after taking office. Tens of thousands of Americans are still at war there.
In Iraq, the final troops of a US garrison that peaked at around 170,000 will leave within days, with limited fanfare.
Euphoria over their return is perhaps dimmed by America’s struggle against the worst recession in decades and a new presidential election season is grabbing news headlines.
Obama opened several days of remembrance by hosting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the White House on Monday and promised an “enduring” future relationship with Iraq.
There are fears in Washington however that Iraq, despite years of training by US forces, still lacks the capacity to defend its borders and could be unduly influenced by Washington’s foe Iran.