"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,'' Obama said in the second Oval Office address of his presidency.
In spite of the drawdown of troops in Iraq, the president made clear that the United States is not backing away from its global responsibilities. He vowed to maintain "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,'' and said the United States will defeat al-Qaeda in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As "the leader of the free world,'' he said, the United States will "defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction'' and will work with others to "expand freedom and opportunity for all people.''
But in Iraq, at least, Obama made clear that the long, U.S.-led phase of the war is over.
"The United States has paid a huge price
to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people. We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home. We have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people -- a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.
"Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page," Obama said.
Some 47,500 armed U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq
, including about 20,000 assigned to advise and accompany Iraqi soldiers and police on security missions. An additional 4,500 U.S. special operations forces work with Iraqi commandos to track and snatch or kill high-level terrorists. Others are assigned as advisers to Iraqi government ministries.
Obama has stressed that the gradual drawdown of U.S. forces has been based on security conditions and blessed by his outgoing Iraq war commander, Gen. Ray Odierno.
Read David Wood's Iraq Scorecard: The War So Far and the transcript of President Obama's address from the Oval Office
The withdrawal of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops during Obama's presidency continued despite a major snag: the inability of Iraqi politicians to form a government after presidential elections last March failed to produce a clear winner. Negotiations have continued between power blocs led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister.
While political jockeying has intensified, so has violence. Last week al-Qaeda in Iraq, the chief Sunni terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for a coordinated bombing campaign that struck 13 cities across the country, killing at least 56 people.
U.S. military officers have said they are wary that the Sunni-led violence will sooner or later provoke an armed response from the majority Shia population as it becomes clear that Iraqi security forces cannot protect them. That could signal a return to the bloody sectarian fighting that claimed thousands of lives in 2006 and 2007.
U.S. troop withdrawals are mandated under a joint U.S.-Iraq agreement signed during the final months of the Bush presidency, which calls for all American military personnel to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
Many had assumed that agreement would be renegotiated, as it would ban even Marine guards at the U.S. embassy and technical experts working with Iraqis on weapons systems sold to Iraq by the United States.
But with only a caretaker government in place, no formal negotiations are underway, U.S. officials said, creating a worrisome delay.
The idea of an interim but steep reduction of U.S. forces was championed by then-Sen. Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. In Feb. 2009, barely four weeks into his presidency, Obama stood before thousands of Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to outline what he said was a new Iraq war strategy.
Announcing his decision, after an intense review with the Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others, Obama said he would shrink the U.S. military presence in Iraq to 50,000 by Aug. 31, 2010, based on the advice of his Iraq commanders and conditions on the ground.
What was striking was that his motivation was not simply to fulfill a campaign pledge, or that the war was over, or even that Iraqis would be able to handle their country themselves.The reason, Obama said, was that the United States could no longer afford the war.
"The simple reality,'' Obama said then, is "that America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities: we face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan; of relieving the burden on our military; and of rebuilding our struggling economy -- and these are challenges that we will meet.''
The president struck the same note in his speech Tuesday night
"Today, our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,'' he 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."
The war was launched by President George W. Bush in March, 2003, ostensibly to seize Iraq's stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and to overthrow the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure,'' Bush said as he announced the start of the war
on March 20, 2003. "The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,'' he declared.
Although some Republican pundits predicted the U.S. invasion would be a "cakewalk,'' Bush warned that the fighting "could be longer and more difficult than some predict and helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.''
But even he did not foresee that U.S. forces would be engaged in bitter combat for the remainder of the decade.