CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - Before 2,000 Marines here on Friday, President Obama announced that the United States combat presence in Iraq will end in August 2010 after about 90,000 troops are withdrawn.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said to applause from the Marines.
The president said he plans to leave a force of 35,000 to 50,000 to advise Iraqi security forces, conduct counter-terrorism missions and protect U.S. personnel. The drawdown should signal to Iraqis that they are responsible for their country's future, he said.
"The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq's future is now its own responsibility," Obama said.
He promised that the United States will engage with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to work toward stability in the region. He also pledged to refocus efforts on defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Obama said U.S. diplomatic efforts will be strengthened, relieving strain on the military.
"As a nation, we have had our share of debates about the war in Iraq. It has, at times, divided us as a people," Obama said. "To this very day, there are some Americans who want to stay in Iraq longer, and some who want to leave faster. But there should be no disagreement on what the men and women of our military have achieved."
"And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein's regime - and you got the job done," the president said. "We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government - and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life - that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible."
By removing most troops from Iraq over the next 18 months, Obama will free up forces to fight in Afghanistan and relieve stress on Marine and Army forces that have been repeatedly deployed. There are about 142,000 troops in Iraq.
Last week, Obama ordered 17,000 more troops - 4,000 of them from Camp Lejeune - to Afghanistan to bolster the U.S. force of 38,000 fighting a growing insurgency there.
Obama campaigned on a pledge to end U.S. involvement in Iraq within 16 months of taking office. By agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops must be withdrawn by the end of 2011.
Obama said he planned to abide by that date.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent for the presidency, told USA TODAY Friday that he supported the plan for withdrawal.
Obama consulted Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees Central Command, and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, and they agreed to the plan, which holds a "moderate risk," McCain said.
Security and political gains there remain fragile, he said. Most of the troops will be withdrawn in 2010 under the plan.
"It's reasonable," said McCain, who was briefed on the plan. "It's doable."
About two brigades per month can be removed from Iraq. Brigades consist of about 3,500 troops.
However, the pace of withdrawal will likely be dictated by security concerns in Iraq.
U.S. commanders, for instance, have maintained high levels of forces during elections there. National elections in Iraq are scheduled at the end of this year.
Obama's plan drew criticism from leaders of his own party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the residual force of 50,000 U.S. troops is too large.
Violence in Iraq has plummeted, reaching levels last seen in 2004.
Attacks in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have risen. There were a record number of makeshift bomb attacks in 2008 - 3,276 such attacks, a 45% increase compared with 2007.
Of the 17,000 troops being sent there this year, 4,000 will be from this sprawling base near the North Carolina coast.
Obama promised to strengthen health care programs for veterans. The Marines roared loudest when Obama promised to raise their pay.
After the speech, Marine Cpl. Nathan O'Hara said he's eager to serve in Afghanistan. "It's a chance to serve," said O'Hara, "a chance to test yourself."