From NBC's Athena Jones
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- An American flag and a crowded Marine field house provided the backdrop Friday for President Obama's announcement of his plan to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by August 2010.
The Iraq war was the issue that helped rocket Obama, who opposed it from the start, to political stardom, and he campaigned on a promise to redeploy combat troops within 16 months of taking office.
The reduction announced today will bring US troops down from the current 142,000 to what Obama called a transitional force of 35,000 to 50,000 and will change their mission from combat to training, equipping, and advising Iraqi security forces; counter-terrorism; and protecting "ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq."
All U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, but the initial drawdown will not happen as quickly as the president originally envisioned.
"As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we've made and protect our troops," Obama told the audience of about 2,000. "Those consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months."
He noted the progress that had been made in Iraq and praised U.S. troops, while repeating his argument that the long-term solution in Iraq must be political rather than military and that America must focus more attention on the war in Afghanistan and on regional diplomacy.
Obama -- who was accompanied by Defense Sec. Robert Gates, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Jim Jones, the assistant to the president for national security affairs -- thanked former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and named Chris Hill as the new ambassador. He called Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno "two of our finest generals" and said they would be critical in carrying forward his new Iraq strategy.
"He wanted a firm deadline for the end of this combat mission and that is Aug. 31, 2010," Gates said later in an interview. "I think that he also saw the wisdom in allowing the commanders in the field to be the best judges within that specific timeframe of the pacing of those withdrawals."
Gates said he, Mullen and both generals were comfortable with the president's decision and that the longer withdrawal time period had been chosen in order to the keep the maximum force presence through the end of the year and into early next year to provide security for the elections and to make sure there were no problems with the various factions accepting the results of the elections.
The secretary said the president could adjust the deadlines he had set out if he thought it was in the United States' national security interests, while adding, "I don't think any of us believe that's going to be necessary."
The president was not the first Obama to visit Camp Lejeune, home to 8,000 Marines. Michelle Obama spoke with several hundred veterans and military families here in October.
There are about 21,000 Marines in Iraq and just over 1,000 Marines have been killed there. Some of the Marines here at Camp Lejeune will be redeployed to Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months.
The crowd was respectful, interrupting the president several times to applaud. The biggest cheers came when Obama promised to raise military pay and when he spoke about help for returning troops.
Tania Gomez, a lance corporal from West Covina, Calif., was among several Marines who said they were pleased the president had come here to deliver the news.
"I was very happy about the part where he said he was bringing troops back from Iraq," Gomez said. "They've been over there a long time; they need to come home to their families."