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Obama Hails End of Iraq Combat, Stresses Economy

Updated 8:55 p.m. Eastern Time

President Obama hailed the end of combat operations in Iraq Tuesday night, telling Americans that "Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country."

In a twenty-minute speech to the American people from the Oval Office, the second of his presidency, Mr. Obama hailed American troops for their sacrifices in a conflict that has thus far cost more than 4,400 American lives.

"Our troops are the steel in our ship of state," he said. "And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead."

Though the speech was focused on Iraq, Mr. Obama pivoted to the poor economic situation at home, far and away the top concern of Americans. He said improving the economy and putting Americans back to work is "our most urgent task," describing that goal as "our central mission as a people."

He also addressed the ongoing war in Afghanistan, vowing that a transition of U.S. troops out of the country will begin next year "because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's."

Mr. Obama called his predecessor George W. Bush earlier in the day to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, and in his remarkshe hailed the former president, whom he had harshly criticized over the war. (Watch the video at left.)

"It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset," Mr. Obama said. "Yet no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hopes for Iraqis' future."

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The president said America "met its responsibilities" in what is the second-longest war in its history, adding: "Now, it is time to turn the page."

"The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people," he said. "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."

The president tied the war to the nation's economic struggles, saying the trillion-dollar cost of fighting abroad "has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits." (Watch the video at left.)

"And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad," he said. "They have met every test that they faced. Now, it is our turn."

Obama Calls Bush, Talks to Troops about Iraq

Though he avoided the words "Mission Accomplished," which so bedeviled his predecessor Mr. Bush after the then-president appeared in front of a banner emblazoned with them during a 2003 speech, Mr. Obama spotlighted the fact that he followed through on his promise to end at least the combat phase of what he once cast as a "dumb" war.

President Barack Obama reads his speech for photographers after delivering a primetime televised address marking the the end of combat mission in Iraq from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010. AP

He described the end of combat operations as a "historic moment" and said he fulfilled his "pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office." As Mr. Obama noted, more than 90,000 American troops have left the country since he became president.

He also acknowledged that "many challenges remain." Indeed, American involvement has not ended in Iraq. The United States plans to keep up to 50,000 troops in the country through the end of next year. Those troops will be part of a diplomatic and support mission called "Operation New Dawn," but they will be combat-capable, and some will continue to engage in targeted counterterrorism missions.

Real Risks for 50,000 U.S. Troops Still in Iraq

And while the country has a fragile stability compared to just a few years ago, it is far from where many hoped it would be at this point. Feuding political factions have failed to form a government since the March parliamentary elections, creating an uncertainty that may be fueling the insurgency; violence has surged in recent weeks.

"Tonight, I encourage Iraq's leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people," the president said in his remarks.

"Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife," he added. "But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction."

President Obama announces the end of combat operations in Iraq during an Oval Office address on August 31, 2010. CBS

While Mr. Obama said all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year, Iraq's most senior Army officer said earlier this month that his troops won't be prepared to maintain security in the country without U.S. assistance for a decade.

In his comments, Mr. Obama referenced what had changed since Mr. Bush first announced the beginning of combat operations in Iraq.

"A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency," he said. "Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested."

But he stressed the performance of U.S. troops, who he said "have served with courage and resolve."

"As Commander-in-Chief, I am incredibly proud of their service. And like all Americans, I am awed by their sacrifice, and by the sacrifices of their families," he said. The president travelled to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas earlier in the day, thanking troops for "a job well done."

A Bittersweet Homecoming for Iraq Troops

Republicans have criticized Mr. Obama for what they have cast as his trying to take credit for ending the war despite his opposition to the surge that many credit with helping to bring the country under control.

"Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results," House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a speech at the American Legion National Convention. On Facebook, Sarah Palin wrote that "Had we followed the course advocated by then-candidates Obama and Biden, the Iraq war would be remembered now as a crushing defeat for the United States and our allies."

The White House has acknowledged that the surge succeeded, though White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has also pointed to the Sunni Awakening and an improved political situation for helping to bring the country to its current point. He stressed that the war would never have happened had Mr. Obama been president when it began and said it took the U.S. focus off the war in Afghanistan.

When it comes to that war, the president said Tuesday night, "we can't do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves."

(Watch his comments on Afghanistan at left.)

"The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure," he said. "But make no mistake: this transition will begin."

He also stressed America would remain committed to its military veterans and noted that those who fought in Iraq left many things behind.

"Some were teenagers when the war began," he said. "Many have served multiple tours of duty, far from their families who bore a heroic burden of their own, enduring the absence of a husband's embrace or a mother's kiss."

As for those who have died in the war, he said they  "gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries."

"Along with nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq, they fought in a faraway place for people they never knew," he said. "They stared into the darkest of human creations -war -and helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace."

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