FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (AP) — President Barack Obama saluted troops returning from Iraq Wednesday, declaring that the nearly nine-year conflict is ending honorably, "not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."
Marking the conclusion of the war at this military base that's seen more than 200 deaths over nearly nine years of 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 that is still struggling.
But he sought to declare a noble end to a fight that has cost nearly 4,500 American lives and left about 32,000 wounded.
"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 Obama's withdrawal, arguing he's leaving behind an unstable Iraq that could hurt U.S. interests and fall subject to influence from neighboring Iran.
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.
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 in Fort Bragg Wednesday, Obama met with five enlisted service members who had recently returned from combat. He also met with the family of a soldier killed overseas.
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 was 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.
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."
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina, and AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.