Obama marks the symbolic end of Iraq combat operations

President Barack Obama marks the symbolic date of the end of US combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday, seven years after an invasion he opposed and at a time when the country still seems far from being stabilized.

US President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington, DC.(Photo: AFP)

Speaking from the Oval Office, Obama will address Americans in a nationally televised speech at 8 pm (midnight GMT). Before that he will go to a military base in Texas to meet with soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq.

The size of the US force in Iraq has dropped below a symbolic threshold of 50,000 troops. Starting Monday, their mission will be to "advise and support" the Iraqi army.

Under a timetable set by Obama when he took office, all US troops are supposed to be out by the end of 2011, although officials have said a small residual military presence is likely to remain indefinitely.

Iraqi officials, worried about a surge in attacks and a five-month-old political impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government, have expressed concern that the US military may be moving to the exits too quickly.

Just last week, 53 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by a dozen coordinated car bombings in 10 cities and towns across the country, the latest in a rash of attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Iraq's top army officer told AFP earlier this month that he feared worsening security problems after the Americans leave, and said they should stay until the Iraqi military is fully ready -- in 2020.

But the White House has insisted that the Iraqis are capable of providing for their own security now, and the top US general said only a "complete failure" of the local security forces could lead to a resumption of US combat operations.

Obama assured Americans in an interview on NBC television Sunday that the timing was right for a drawdown.

"What you've seen is lower and lower levels of violence. The Iraqi security forces are functioning at least as well if not better than any of us had anticipated," Obama said.

Alluding to the Iraqi's failure to form a new government, Obama said the political difficulties were "natural in a fledgling democracy. But we are confident that that will get done."

During his speech, only the second of his presidency to use the solemn setting of the Oval Office, Obama is expected to raise the other major theater of US military operations: Afghanistan, where the president chose to escalate, tripling the number of US troops since the start of his mandate.

Insurgent violence there has intensified as the United States has pivoted from Iraq.

Though a vehement critic of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he was a state legislator in Illinois, Obama argues the war in Afghanistan is justified because the Taliban's Al-Qaeda allies pose a threat to the security of the United States.

The speech will also give Obama an opportunity to pay homage to US soldiers. More than a million have been deployed in Iraq since 2003 and some 4,400 lost their lives there.

He has consistently drawn a distinction between the political decision to invade and the performance of US troops on the ground.

Source: AFP

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