President Barack Obama speaks to troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday saluted troops returning from Iraq, asserting that the nearly nine-year conflict was ending honorably, "not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."
Marking the conclusion of the war at a military base that's seen more than 200 deaths from fighting in Iraq, Obama never tried to declare victory. It was a war that he opposed from the start, inherited as president and is now bringing to a close, leaving behind an Iraq still struggling.
But he sought to pronounce a noble end to a fight that has cost nearly 4,500 American lives and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives.
"The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages," he said, applauding their "extraordinary achievement."
All U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq Dec. 31, though Obama has pledged the U.S. will continue civilian assistance for Iraq as it faces an uncertain future in a volatile region of the world. Even as majorities in the U.S. public favor ending the war, some Republicans have criticized the withdrawal, arguing that Obama is leaving behind an unstable Iraq that could hurt U.S. interests and fall subject to influence from neighboring Iran.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's one-time rival for the presidency, issued a particularly harsh verdict on his handling of Iraq. "I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves," McCain said on the Senate floor
Obama, appearing with first lady Michelle Obama, highlighted the human side of the war, reflecting on the bravery and sacrifices of U.S. forces now on their way back home. He recalled the start of the war, a time when he was only an Illinois state senator and many of the warriors before him were in grade school.
"We knew this day would come. We have known it for some time now," he said. "But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long."
Obama, who became president in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, said the war faced twists and turns amid one constant: the patriotism and commitment of U.S. troops.
"It is harder to end a war, than to begin one," he said.
Still, he made only passing mention of the enormous soul-searching the war caused in America, saying it "was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate." He did not mention that he had opposed it.
He noted the early battles that defeated and deposed Saddam Hussein and what he called "the grind of insurgency" -- roadside bombs, snipers and suicide attacks.
"Your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it," he said.