Symbolic milestone as withdrawal continues on schedule, but insecurity, uncertainty remain.
|Barack Obama said at Fort Bliss that his address to the nation should not be taken as “victory lap” [AFP]|
A few hours after Barack Obama, the US president, declared it is “time to turn the page” on the American-led war in Iraq, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said the effort there had been based on flawed premises.
“The problem with this war, I think, for many Americans, is that the premise on which we justified going to war turned out not to be valid,” Gates told US soldiers and reporters during an unannounced visit Wednesday to Camp Ramadi in Iraq. “Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it’ll always be clouded by how it began”.
Gates was responding to a questioner who asked if the war had been “worth it”.
His remarks came ahead of a formal ceremony on Wednesday in which the US militarywill hand responsibility to Iraq’s security forces.
Obama declared an end to the war Tuesday night during a nationally televised address from the Oval Office – only the second of his term – and told Americans that restoring the America’s sagging economy was now “our central mission as a people”.
Obama, who inherited the war from his predecessor, George Bush, and is fighting another in Afghanistan, said he had fulfilled a 2008 campaign promise to end US combat operations in Iraq.
He said it was now “time to turn the page” after seven years of bloodshed, sacrifices on both sides and the use of vast resources from tight budgets.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” Obama said. “Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest, it is in our own”.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Baghdad, said US optimism contradicts the lack of progress on the ground.
“Anybody [in Iraq] who wanted to watch that speech live on television would not be able to do so in most of the cases, simply because there is no electricity,” he said.
“There is very little water in many areas, there’s very little access to healthcare – so this is the situation within Iraq at present, at the very moment that the US president is saying that it is now capable of governing itself.”
President Bush launched the war in 2003 over suspicions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found.
Obama’s speech in full
Almost a trillion dollars have been spent and more than 4,400 US soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion.
A recent CBS News poll found 72 per cent of Americans now believe the war was not worth the loss of American lives.
Roughly 50,000 US troops remain in the country, but the Iraqi army is now formally in charge of its own security.The United States and Iraq have agreed that all US forces will withdraw by the end of 2011.
However, Obama’s declaration comes amid continuing violence and a stalemate in efforts to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election.
The impasse in Iraq has raised tensions as politicians squabbleover power and anti-government fighters carry out attacks aimed at undermining faith in domestic security forces.
Hoshiyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, warned Iraq’s neighbours against interfering as US troops withdraw by a 2011 deadline set out in a bilateral security pact.
“We have warned all of them there wouldn’t be any vacuum, and if there would be a vacuum, the only people who will fill that vacuum are the Iraqis themselves,” he said.
Obama, in announcing the end of the Iraq war, shifted his policy focus to boosting the US economy.
“Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” Obama said.
“This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Obama used a visit to the US Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas, to stress that his speech should not be seen as a “victory lap”.
“It’s not going to be self-congratulatory. There’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us,” he said.
Iraqi forces have been taking the lead since a bilateral security pact came into force in 2009. US soldiers pulled out of Iraqi towns and cities in June last year.