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Obama Marks End of U.S. Combat Mission in Iraq, Salutes Bush

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    In this image from video, President Obama speaks from the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010, about the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq. (AP)

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    President Obama walks to the Oval Office after arriving via Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010. (AP)

President Obama praised President Bush's commitment to U.S. troops Tuesday as he announced a close to combat operations in Iraq that he said cost America a "huge price."

Speaking from the same desk where Bush launched the war, Obama cast the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- demonstrated by the departure of 95,000 U.S. combat troops to a remaining force below 50,000 -- as an opportunity for America to "turn the page," both on American involvement in Iraq and American priorities at home, where the economy is still struggling to regain its footing.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," the president said in a newly remodeled Oval Office. "Only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets. Only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner."

While not explicitly crediting Bush for shepherding the 2007 troop surge -- planned by Gen. David Petraeus, now the top commander in Afghanistan -- to save the flagging war effort in Iraq, Obama highlighted Bush's commitment to U.S. security.

"It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset," 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 hope for Iraq's future."

The commander-in-chief also compared his troop buildup in Afghanistan to the surge though he parted from Bush's approach of not setting a timetable, repeating his call for a July 2011 drawdown of U.S. forces.

"As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves," he said. 

"The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin -- because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's," Obama added.

Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq and pulling the country out of recession. But as foreign policy plays itself out, the economy has continued to falter 19 months after Obama took office. 

The president said the "most urgent task" is to restore the economy and put people back to work. He blamed the country's financial straits in part on U.S. involvement in war.

"We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas," he said. "This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. ...

"Ending this war is not only in Iraq's interest, it is in our own," Obama said. "The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people."

Since the war began, more than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed and almost 32,000 have been wounded. Many more Iraqis have been killed. The war is one of the longest in U.S. history, even as the one in Afghanistan continues.

Not all U.S. troops are expected to leave Iraq until the end of 2011, a final agreement that was secured by Bush during his last year in office.

But Obama created the Aug. 31, 2010, milestone in one of the defining chapters in recent American history that couldn't help but arrive even as Iraq remains in political turmoil.

With its leaders unable to form a new government long after March elections that left no clear winner, Obama said a "caretaker" government presides. In Baghdad on Tuesday, Vice President Biden pressed Iraqi leaders anew to break the impasse. 

Responding to the 17-minute speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised Obama for "keeping his promise to responsibly end this war."

"In doing so, we are moving closer to the day when Iraq's future rests solely in the hands of the Iraqi people," she said in a written statement.

But Republicans refused to let Obama or his Democratic allies try to take credit for ending the combat mission in Iraq.

"Our success in Iraq has everything to do with the hard work of our men and women in uniform, the Iraqi people, and President Bush's resolve," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a written statement. "It has nothing to do with President Obama's campaign promise to carry out the previous administration's plan for returning U.S. troops from Iraq."