Obama hails 'march home' from Iraq

President pays tribute to US troops in speech marking end of eight-year conflict he had opposed

Barack Obama marked the impending withdrawal of the last American soldiers from Iraq not as mission accomplished, but as "a final march toward home".

The US President yesterday sought to pronounce a symbolic end to a war that has cost the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,500 Americans since it began almost nine years ago.

Speaking ahead of a 31 December deadline for the withdrawal of all US combat troops from Iraq, Mr Obama applauded the "extraordinary achievement" of service members. "The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages," he told soldiers in a speech delivered at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.

Mr Obama, appearing with his wife. Michelle, recalled the start of the war, a time when he was an Illinois state senator in opposition to the invasion, 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."

It was the President's first visit to Fort Bragg, home to Army Special Operations, the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne, among others. Special Forces troops from Fort Bragg were among the first soldiers in Iraq during the 2003 invasion and its paratroopers helped lead the 2007 troop increase.

Mr Obama has pledged the US will continue civilian assistance for Iraq as it faces an uncertain future in a volatile region of the world. Despite a drop in violence since its peak in the sectarian conflicts of 2006 and 2007, extreme violence and sporadic attacks are still common in Iraq. This was illustrated as recently as 5 December, when at least 20 people were killed in three bomb blasts about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Yesterday, four bombs went off across the country, killing three people.

In his speech, Mr Obama conceded that Iraq "is not a perfect place". But, he added,"We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.

"We are building a new partnership between our nations. Because of you, we are ending these wars in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure," he told the assembled troops.

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