By Ross Colvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Using the gravity of the
Oval Office as a backdrop, President Barack Obama said in a
17-minute televised address to war-weary Americans Tuesday
that it was "time to turn the page" on the unpopular Iraq war.
* Obama declared the formal end of the U.S. combat mission
in Iraq but the reality is that there are still 50,000 U.S.
troops in harm's way there. Combat units may have been
relabeled "advisory and assistance" brigades but they are still
heavily armed and may be called upon by the Iraqi government to
help in counter-insurgency operations in the still volatile
* Even as he trumpeted the success of the U.S. drawdown in
Iraq, Obama tried again to assuage Americans' growing doubts
about the war in Afghanistan, emphasizing that U.S. forces
would be there only for a "limited time" and that they would
begin to come home next summer. U.S. military deaths in
Afghanistan have soared this summer as violence has worsened.
* Obama's declaration of what he called "this historic
moment" was largely ceremonial. Little will change on the
ground as Iraqi security forces have been taking the lead in
combat operations for months.
* His announcement fulfilled his 2008 election campaign
promise to end combat operations in Iraq but it is too early to
say how it will play with voters in the Nov. 2 congressional
elections. Opinion polls show Americans are preoccupied with
stubbornly high unemployment and record government deficits.
* Mindful that the economy is issue No. 1 for
recession-weary Americans, Obama stressed that winding down the
costly war would enable the government to focus more resources
on its "most urgent task" -- boosting hiring and economic
A top Obama aide said earlier that savings from ending the
war in Iraq could be redirected toward the economy. The White
House had previously suggested the money saved would go toward
helping to cut the deficit, which it aims to halve by 2013.
Economists say it is too early to say which path Obama will
eventually choose but they point out that any savings will be
over the longer term and will not have any immediate effect.
* Obama played down the persistent violence that still
plagues Iraq, stressing it had fallen to near record lows since
the war began in 2003. But bombings and assassinations have
killed hundreds of Iraqis over the summer while political
parties remain deadlocked on the formation of a new government,
some six months after elections in March.
* The Oval Office address capped a month-long effort by the
Obama administration to refocus public attention on the war in
Iraq, now largely ignored by Americans more concerned about the
stumbling economy. After a drumbeat of discouraging economic
news over the summer, the U.S. drawdown from Iraq has,
ironically, been a good news story for the administration.
* The speech was widely seen as being targeted, at least in
part, at the left-wing, anti-war base of the Democratic Party
that has become increasingly disenchanted with Obama ahead of
the November elections in which Democrats are widely expected
to struggle to keep control of Congress.
* Obama repeated his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops
from Iraq on schedule by the end of 2011. But many Iraq
experts, as well as former senior U.S. diplomats and military
officials who served there, doubt he can fulfill that pledge,
given the fragility of Iraq's democracy and the external and
internal threats it still faces.
* As expected, Obama chose his words carefully and avoided
the "Mission Accomplished" moment that came to haunt President
George W. Bush. Bush was ridiculed after boldly declaring the
end of major combat in Iraq in 2003. More than 4,000 U.S.
soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis went on to die in the
years of insurgent and sectarian violence that followed.
* In an election year, it was perhaps inevitable that Obama
would lay some of the blame for the war and the state of the
economy on his predecessor. He said that during the past decade
-- meaning Bush's two terms -- that a trillion dollars had been
spent on war and this "has short-changed investments in our own
* The speech is likely to reignite debate over how much
credit Obama should get for the troop drawdown. He has angered
Republicans for failing to acknowledge that the troop build-up
ordered by Bush in 2007 helped to create the conditions for
U.S. forces to begin withdrawing. As a senator, Obama opposed
the troop "surge."
* The speech was notable if only for the fact that Obama
speaks rarely about the Iraq war, which as a senator he opposed
as a costly misadventure and distraction from the war in
Afghanistan. Obama is often portrayed as a reluctant war-time
leader who views the Iraq war as an unwelcome distraction from
more pressing issues at home and abroad.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)