WASHINGTON (AP) - As President Barack Obama prepares to officially end the lengthy and divisive U.S. combat operation in Iraq, he'll personally thank some of the soldiers who fought there for their service to a mission he forcefully opposed from the start.
Many of those soldiers deployed from Fort Bliss, the sprawling Army base in El Paso, Texas, that Obama will visit Tuesday. After speaking with the troops, Obama will return to Washington to address the nation and formally end a combat mission in Iraq that lasted more than seven years, leaving more than 4,400 U.S. troops dead and thousands more wounded.
Obama was an early critic of the war, speaking out against it during the U.S. invasion in early 2003 and promising during his presidential campaign to bring the conflict to an end. The White House sees Tuesday's benchmark as a promise kept and has gone to great lengths to promote it as such, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony and raising Tuesday night's remarks to the level of an Oval Office address, something Obama has only done once before.
Among Obama's goals on Tuesday is honoring those who have served in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, many returning to the battlefield for multiple tours of duty. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that while the Iraq war would have never happened had Obama been commander in chief at the time, the president holds the service and sacrifice of the troops in high regard.
"Whether you are for the invasion or whether you opposed the invasion, you had our men and women in uniform who undertook the commands of their commander in chief, and should be held up and celebrated for what they've done in allowing combat troops now to come home," Gibbs said.
Since the start of the war, 200,000 personnel from Fort Bliss have deployed to Iraq, serving in every major phase of the war. Fifty-one soldiers from the base died there and many more were wounded.
Last week, some 600 soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team returned to the base as part of Obama's self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for having all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq. Just about 50,000 U.S. troops will remain, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 in 2007. U.S. troops will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.
Administration officials have been careful to avoid equating the end of the combat mission with a mission accomplished. That was the phrase on the now-infamous banner that flew on an aircraft carrier seven years ago when President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, a symbol the Bush White House came to deeply regret as the war dragged on.
"You won't hear those words coming from us," Gibbs said Monday. "Obviously tomorrow marks a change in our mission. It marks a milestone that we have achieved in removing our combat troops. That is not to say that violence is going to end tomorrow."
Under a security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the end of 2011. But the Obama administration insists the U.S. is not abandoning Iraq and is ramping up a diplomatic corps to help stabilize the country's government and economy over the coming years.
"This redoubles the efforts of the Iraqis," Gibbs said. "They will write the next chapter in Iraqi history, and they will be principally responsible for it. We will be their ally, but the responsibility of charting the future of Iraq first and foremost belongs to the Iraqis."
Ahead of Tuesday night's remarks, Obama also planned to speak with Bush. While Bush's decision to invade Iraq was criticized by many - including Obama - the troop surge Bush ordered in 2007 has been credited with tamping down violence in Iraq and helping keep the country from falling into a civil war. Among the unanswered questions about Tuesday's address is whether Obama will give Bush any credit for the role the surge played in leading the war to its end.