Brush with fame paints town's dream

John and Dorothy Greenfield of Centerville, Ohio, recreate Grant Wood's "American Gothic" in front of the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa. Residents hope a new visitors center will draw more tourists to the small town.

ATLANTA -- Marking a long-sought milestone in a much-maligned war, President Barack Obama affirmed Monday that American combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of August -- "as promised and on schedule" -- as the U.S. moves toward a supporting role in a country still struggling with violence and a fractured government.

"Make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats," Obama said in a speech before a group of disabled veterans.

The president gave assurances that U.S. forces in Iraq will drop to 50,000 by the end of the month -- a reduction of 94,000 troops since he took office 18 months ago. The remaining troops will form a transitional force until a final U.S. withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011, he said.

Obama used the upcoming milestone to highlight what he sees as a bright spot on his foreign policy agenda and a campaign promise close to fulfillment.

During his campaign, Obama pledged to bring a swift and orderly end to a war he said he would not have waged, though the departure has not been as quick as he initially had promised. Shortly after taking office, the president revised a 16-month withdrawal timeframe and set the Aug. 31 deadline.

Still, for a White House beleaguered on other fronts -- from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to increasing violence in Afghanistan -- Iraq is seen as a success story the administration intends to tell. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials will emphasize progress in Iraq in a series of speeches in the coming weeks, the White House said. On Monday, Obama addressed a convention of the Disabled American Veterans before speaking at a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.

The speech served as a sort of pivot for the president as he tries to regain Congress' confidence that the American-led mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. Last week, 102 Democrats in the House voted against a $59 billion appropriation for both wars.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- 33,000 when Obama took office -- will have nearly tripled to 96,000 by September. But a White House fact sheet also highlighted a different number: By the end of August, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will have dropped from 177,000 to 146,000.

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On Monday, the president restated his case for the stepped-up presence in Afghanistan.

"If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attacks," he told the veterans. "As president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen."

The president expressed confidence in the Afghan government's anti-corruption efforts and the U.S. campaign to target key al-Qaida leaders. The government of Pakistan, which has been accused of shielding anti-U.S. elements, has begun to target extremists, he said.

There is no consensus on what impact the withdrawal will have on security in the region.