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Obama declares an end to Iraq combat mission

US President Barack Obama Tuesday formally declared an end to America’s seven-year combat mission in Iraq, saying it was time to turn the page on a war which has cost thousands of Iraqi and US lives.

“Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” Obama said in excerpts of his speech released by the White House ahead of his Oval Office address to the nation at 8:00pm (0000 GMT).

“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country,” the US commander-in-chief added, drawing a close to the mission launched with the 2003 US-led invasion.

“Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page.”

Less than 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, after the United States withdrew almost 100,000 soldiers, closed hundreds of bases and moved millions of pieces of equipment, Obama said.

“Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest — it is in our own. The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people.”

US forces had made huge sacrifices and “spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home,” Obama said.

“We have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.”

Some 4,427 US troops have been killed in Iraq and 34,268 wounded since the invasion ordered by former president George W. Bush to topple late dictator Saddam Hussein.

Exact figures for Iraqi casualties caught up in the eruption of sectarian violence in the wake of Saddam’s fall are not known. But the website icasualties.org put it at more than 48,600.

Earlier, in a visit to Fort Bliss military base in Texas which has been at the forefront of the Iraqi war effort, Obama insisted there would be no declaration of victory.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” he said, saying his speech would not be “a victory lap, it is not going to be self-congratulatory.”

A major US troop pullout in past months has put the US on track for a final withdrawal by the end of 2011, but a surge in car bombings and shootings has left hundreds dead, and many remain fearful for the future.

In a television address to his people, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki earlier stressed the Iraqi military and police were now in charge, adding he was confident the last US forces would leave as planned at the end of 2011.

“This is a day that will remain in the memory of all Iraqis. Today, Iraq has become a sovereign and independent country,” he said.

“As of today, our security forces will play the leading role in maintaining the security and defense of our country.”

But Iraq has been left with no functioning government since March elections, with various attempts to form a coalition between rival groups failing to form a viable majority.

The White House on Tuesday urged Iraq to move forward with “a sense of urgency” on forming a new government after months of delay.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said Tuesday it was too early for victory parades. “I am not saying that all is, or will necessarily be, well in Iraq,” Gates said in a speech in the state of Wisconsin.

“This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation,” Gates said, as he also focused on the war in Afghanistan where some 140,000 international troops are fighting a deadly Taliban insurgency.

Obama warned of a “tough slog” ahead in Afghanistan. “We have seen casualties go up because we are taking the fight to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” he said, with over 1,267 US troops killed since 2001 in Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the change of mission in Iraq provided Americans with the opportunity to put behind them one of the most divisive periods in recent history.

“We can thank the men and women who made tremendous sacrifices. We can heal the wounds that were opened,” he told ABC television.

However, a well-known Obama critic said the president, who opposed the so-called “surge” strategy in Iraq, should not be allowed to claim credit for improvements in security there.

“Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results,” said House of Representatives Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, who underlined that credit for a more stable Iraq “belongs to our troops.”

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