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.
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.