(Updates with Obama meeting with family of soldier killed in Iraq in 10th, 11th paragraphs.)
Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama marked the end of the U.S. war in Iraq with a salute to American troops at a military base central to the fight and a pledge to support veterans who are returning home to face a difficult economy.
“As your commander in chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words,” Obama told soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Special Operations Command. “Welcome home.”
The conclusion of the war is “an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making,” he said. “And today, we remember everything that you did to make it possible.”
A promise to end the conflict in Iraq was a central element of Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2008. When he took office in January 2009, there were almost 150,000 troops in Iraq. That number has shrunk to less than 8,000 and the number of U.S. military bases in the country has fallen to five from 505. When the pullout is complete, the U.S. presence will be at the embassy in Baghdad, with an array of diplomats, military advisers and contractors.
“There is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long,” Obama told troops.
‘Twists and Turns’
He said nine years ago, as troops were preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf, he was still a state senator in Illinois and many of the soldiers before him were in grade school. The U.S. effort in Iraq since then, “has taken many twists and turns,” he said.
“It is harder to end a war than to begin one,” Obama said. While the Iraq that emerged from the conflict “is not a perfect place,” he said, the U.S. was leaving behind a sovereign and stable country with an elected, representative government.
Obama also noted the other, longer war the U.S. is involved in, saying that in Afghanistan “we’ve broken the momentum of the Taliban” and begun a transition that will bring troops home in 2014.
“We’ve gone after al-Qaeda so that terrorists who threaten America will have no safe-haven, and Osama bin Laden will never again walk the face of the Earth,” Obama said, drawing applause from the gathered troops.
While at Fort Bragg, Obama met privately with the family of Specialist David E. Hickman, 23, of Greensboro, North Carolina, who died Nov. 14, said Colonel Michael Whetston, the public affairs officer at the base.
Hickman was the most recent U.S. soldier to date to die in Iraq, according to Defense Department records. Hickman died in Baghdad from injuries he suffered when hit by the blast of an improvised explosive device, according to the Pentagon.
Hickman was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
Sergeant Major Millard View, 42, who was in the audience at Fort Bragg and serves in the Army’s Special Operations Command, said Obama’s visit “means a lot for the troops.” View said he has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned from Iraq in April.
Asked whether he is confident Iraq can continue without the U.S. presence, he said, “We set them up for success. It’s up to self-determination at that point.”
Opening of War
The first bombs began exploding in Baghdad in March 2003, leading to more than 1 million Americans serving in Iraq at some time during military action that Pentagon figures show cost almost 4,500 American lives, with more than 32,000 wounded.
When it passes a fiscal 2012 defense appropriation, Congress will have authorized at least $823 billion for Iraq military operations, $47.6 billion for State Department and Agency for International Development reconstruction and an additional $7.2 billion for Veterans Administration Iraq-related medical issues, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Dec. 12 spelled out at the White House an agenda for future cooperation as the final U.S. troops return to American soil, including blocking Iran, Iraq’s neighbor, from exerting influence.
The U.S. is offering security and training assistance to help democracy take root, along with the sale of additional F-16 jets to patrol its airspace, an expansion of trade and commerce, development of its oil reserves, the fifth largest in the world, and a boost to education and in its war-torn infrastructure.
Opening for Criticism
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in letter to Obama sent to a Fayetteville, North Carolina, newspaper, that “I stand by your side” in honoring U.S. troops returning from Iraq. He also cited the unemployment rate for veterans to criticize Obama’s economic policies. In 2010, the jobless rate for veterans who’ve served since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was 11.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It is a disgrace that those who are now returning from Iraq join other Iraq veterans suffering from unemployment above 11 percent,” Romney wrote in the letter, according to his campaign. “In the face of such economic hardship, fine words welcoming veterans home are insufficient” and “it’s time for you to go.”
Support for Veterans
First lady Michelle Obama, who shared the stage with the president and has made veterans’ assistance one of her causes, told troops and their families that “this nation’s support doesn’t end as the war ends.”
“Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it,” Obama said. “It’s not enough to honor you with words; we must do so with deeds.”
The administration has won pledges from U.S. businesses, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart, a unit of Sears Holdings Corp., to hire veterans and their spouses.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association to hire 100,000 have agreed, with Obama’s prodding, to hire 100,000 veterans, wounded warriors and military spouses by 2014.
Last month the president signed into law a measure that provides tax credits to companies that hire unemployed veterans. Companies can claim a credit against taxes owed of as much as $5,600 for hiring veterans, and as much as $9,600 for hiring veterans with service-connected disabilities, if the veteran has been looking for work for six months or longer.
“After years of rebuilding Iraq, we want to enlist our veterans in the work of rebuilding America,” Obama said at Fort Bragg.
--Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Bob Drummond
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at email@example.com; Roger Runningen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com