FORT BRAGG, N.C. — President Barack Obama on Wednesday saluted troops returning from Iraq, asserting that the nearly nine-year conflict was ending honorably, "not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."
Marking the conclusion of the war at a military base that's seen more than 200 deaths from fighting in Iraq, Obama never tried to declare victory. It was a war that he opposed from the start, inherited as president and is now bringing to a close, leaving behind an Iraq still struggling.
But he sought to pronounce a noble end to a fight that has cost nearly 4,500 American lives and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives.
"The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages," he said, applauding their "extraordinary achievement."
All U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq Dec. 31, though Obama has pledged the U.S. will continue civilian assistance for Iraq as it faces an uncertain future in a volatile region of the world. Even as majorities in the U.S. public favor ending the war, some Republicans have criticized the withdrawal, arguing that Obama is leaving behind an unstable Iraq that could hurt U.S. interests and fall subject to influence from neighboring Iran.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama's one-time rival for the presidency, issued a particularly harsh verdict on his handling of Iraq. "I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves," McCain said on the Senate floor
Obama, appearing with first lady Michelle Obama, highlighted the human side of the war, reflecting on the bravery and sacrifices of U.S. forces now on their way back home. He recalled the start of the war, a time when he was only an Illinois state senator 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."
Obama, who became president in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, said the war faced twists and turns amid one constant: the patriotism and commitment of U.S. troops.
"It is harder to end a war, than to begin one," he said.
Still, he made only passing mention of the enormous soul-searching the war caused in America, saying it "was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate." He did not mention that he had opposed it.
He noted the early battles that defeated and deposed Saddam Hussein and what he called "the grind of insurgency" – roadside bombs, snipers and suicide attacks.
"Your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it," he said.
Upon his arrival at Fort Bragg, Obama met with five enlisted service members who had recently returned from combat. He also met with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq who was the most recent, and potentially final, U.S. fatality of the war.
Obama has on several occasions addressed his reasons for ending the war, casting it as a promise kept after he ran for president as an anti-war candidate and speaking of the need to refocus U.S. attention on rebuilding the troubled economy at home.
Obama's approval rating on handling the situation in Iraq has been above 50 percent since last fall, and in a new Associated Press-GfK poll, has ticked up four points since October to 55 percent. Among independents, his approval rating tops 50 percent for the first time since this spring.
With the economy foremost on people's minds, fewer now consider the war a top issue. Fifty-one percent said it was extremely or very important to them personally, down from 58 percent in October, placing it behind 13 of 14 issues tested in the poll.
It's the president's first visit to Fort Bragg, which is 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.
North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, also is an important state for the 2012 presidential election and will host the Democratic convention.
To underscore the political significance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of the leading GOP presidential contenders, addressed an open letter to Obama and sent it to the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer decrying the unemployment rate for veterans.
Unemployment for veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, was 11.1 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Romney called such a statistic a "disgrace."
"In the face of such economic hardship, fine words welcoming veterans home are insufficient," he wrote. "It is time for a fundamental change of direction. If you won't or can't lead our country out of the economic morass you've deepened, then I would suggest that it's time for you to go."
McCain accused Obama of making a political decision, arguing that the U.S. should have left troops in Iraq to help secure the country. He said Obama was able to bring the war to a conclusion thanks to a troop surge in 2007 that Obama, as a U.S. senator, had opposed.
"For three years, the president has been harvesting the successes of the very strategy that he consistently dismissed as a failure," McCain said.
In his speech, Obama said that Iraq "is not a perfect place."
But he added that "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."
Brig Gen Norman Ham, commander of the 440th Airlift Wing, in an interview reflected on the mixed outcome in Iraq.
"The world isn't a perfect place. We try to help where we can and do the best we can," Ham said. "We have limited resources to go everywhere and do everything for everyone, but we do the very best we can and that's what we've done in Iraq – the very best we can."
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., and AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.