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Obama dodges Iraq debate as troops leave

15 December 2011, 11:37

United States - The presidency of Barack Obama was nurtured by the political firestorm whipped up by the Iraq war - but in ending the conflict, he is leaving recriminations to history.

Obama, honouring a promise to end the war, is remembering America's dead and turning a political page as the last US troops come home this month.

He must delicately reconcile praise for troops who sacrificed for their nation with his own early dismissal of a "dumb" war, while avoiding a fresh wade through the bitterness and misadventures of a divisive conflict.

What Obama is leaving unsaid, suggests that the scars of war remain raw.

"I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq," Obama said, refusing to thrash again through arguments about the case for war he made as a state lawmaker in 2002, as he met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday.

‘A self-reliant Iraq’

But the president said it was "absolutely clear" that Iraq could now chart its own destiny owing to nine years of sacrifices by US soldiers and civilians and its own people.

As he greeted American troops on Wednesday who have just returned home, Obama went further, hailing an "extraordinary achievement" and honouring the nearly 4 500 US troops who died.

"We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people," Obama said, despite some fears Iraq remains volatile and prey to interference by Iran.

The White House explained Obama decided not to revive old debates about the war because he had no control over the decision by the previous administration of George W Bush to launch it in 2003.

"The president's position on how we got into the war hasn't changed," said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.

"His responsibility was to make sure that his policies created the best possible environment for Iraq going forward, which would thereby make the extraordinary sacrifices of the men and women in uniform, as well as the broader American public, validated."

Obama's early opposition to a war that turned sour, and votes cast in favour of it by other key Democratic politicians including Hillary Clinton, provided an opening for his White House run in 2008.

Avoiding criticism for Bush

In speeches and appearances marking the end of the war, Obama has not brought up Bush, who went to war over never-found weapons of mass destruction in what the Republican's critics proclaim as a foreign policy disaster.

But he did say on Wednesday, in what some ultra-sensitive observers might see as a mild swipe at his predecessor: "It is harder to end a war than to begin one."

Acting as national consoler, Obama also skipped lightly over the question of whether the war should ever have been fought.

"It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate," Obama said.

The president also avoided giving Bush direct credit for his lonely decision to launch a troop surge in the dark days of 2007 when it seemed America might lose the war, a decision then senator Obama opposed.

"We remember the surge and the Awakening - when the abyss of chaos turned toward the promise of reconciliation," Obama told troops in North Carolina.

The future

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney panned Obama for not giving Bush credit for the operation, though he also avoided retrying the case for war against Saddam Hussein.

"This is a president who opposed the surge," Romney said on the Sean Hannity radio show.

"Him doing a victory lap on president Bush's wisdom in this regard is an embarrassment."

Obama would later mount a troop surge of his own, in Afghanistan, and the success of Bush's Iraq escalation may have been crucial in allowing him to plot his own gradual drawdown in Iraq.

The president has also avoided other controversies from the war in recent days, including abuse at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison, the incompetence of America's post-war effort, and the plight of troops who died in barely protected Humvees.

Some of his critics in Washington also balk at his upbeat assessment of the future.

Republican Senator John McCain has lamented the failure of US and Iraqi negotiators to agree a future US training mission in Iraq.

"All of the progress that both Iraqis and Americans have made, at such painful and substantial cost, has now been put at greater risk. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I am not," McCain said this week.


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