US President Barack Obama was to announce yesterday that he plans to withdraw the bulk of US troops from Iraq by August next year, but wants to leave tens of thousands behind to advise Iraqi forces and protect US interests, congressional officials said.
Obama, who campaigned on ending the unpopular Iraq war within 16 months of taking office, has been largely focused in his first weeks as president on turning around the collapsing US economy.
Yesterday’s expected Iraq announcement comes a day after he unveiled an ambitious budget that promises a major overhaul of the US’ costly healthcare system and sets aside an additional US$750 billion to help rescue the US troubled financial system.
The Iraq withdrawal timetable would stretch over 19 months from his inauguration last month, three more months than he promised during his campaign. He is expected to announce the new strategy during a trip to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
In a sign of the shifting war debate in Washington, Obama is not facing scrutiny over the exact timing of the withdrawal, but rather how deep it really is.
Obama told a closed-door meeting on Thursday with Republican and Democratic leaders that 35,000 to 50,000 troops would remain in Iraq after the bulk of troops are withdrawn, congressional officials said. The maintenance of a residual force for a period of time is not a surprise, but some leaders of Obama’s own party pushed back on just how big it will be.
“When they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I had anticipated,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said before the briefing.
An existing US-Iraq agreement, negotiated under former US president George W. Bush, calls for US combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all US forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
More than 4,250 US military members have died since the war began in March 2003, though US military deaths plunged by two-thirds last year from the previous year, a reflection of improving security after a troop buildup in 2007.
The US$750 billion bailout fund is in addition to the US$700 billion bank bailout passed by Congress last October.
Obama has pointedly said he has inherited the deficit from his predecessor and sought to draw a clear distinction with the former Bush administration, saying “the time has come to usher in a new era — a new era of responsibility” both in government and the private sector.
“This budget is an honest accounting of where we are and where we intend to go,” the president said at a ceremony to present the spending plan.
He was referring to former president George W. Bush’s practice of excluding the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in budget accounting.
Obama also promises to phase out direct payments to farming operations with revenues above US$500,000 a year. US farm subsidies have been a point of contention in global trade talks, as critics believe they give US farmers an unfair advantage in world markets.
It is not clear yet whether Obama’s promise to bring combat troops home from Iraq will carry a cost saving in the near term. The US has been spending about US$11 billion to US$12 billion per month fighting two wars.