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U.S. drawdown in Iraq proceeding as planned, Obama says

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Obama: Iraq troop drawdown 'on schedule'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Obama claims progress has been made in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • NEW: Obama highlights new benefits for veterans
  • The president says the U.S. military mission in Iraq will change next month
  • The number of U.S. troops in Iraq is scheduled to decrease to 50,000

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The Obama administration's planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq is proceeding "as promised" and should lead to an end of America's combat mission there by the end of August, President Barack Obama said Monday.

Plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of this month are on schedule, Obama told the national convention of Disabled American Veterans. At that point, the U.S. mission will shift to the training and support of Iraqi security forces.

A full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is scheduled to occur by the end of next year.

The war in Iraq "is nearing an end," he said. "As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. And that is exactly what we are doing."

While the U.S. military commitment in Iraq is now nearing a conclusion, the president warned, there is still danger there for U.S. troops on the ground.

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Video: Disabled American vets react
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"The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," Obama said. "But make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."

Obama's update on the conflict in Iraq came in the context of a wide-ranging speech addressing several issues tied to national security and veterans' benefits.

Obama defended his decision to increase U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan -- a decision criticized by some of the more liberal members of his own party. He said the military has now gone on the offensive against extremist elements, and took issue with critics who claim the U.S. end game in Afghanistan remains poorly defined.

"We face huge challenges in Afghanistan," he said. "But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we're focused on goals that are clear and achievable."

"If Afghanistan were to be engulfed by an even wider insurgency, al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates would have even more space to plan their next attack."

"As president of the United States, I refuse to let that happen," he said.

The Pakistan government has begun to "take the fight to violent extremists within its borders. Major blows have been struck against al Qaeda and its leadership," Obama said.

On Iraq, the president provided a largely optimistic assessment of the U.S. effort, saying violence there is currently "near the lowest it's been in years."

But Iraqi officials released data Saturday that they said shows July was the deadliest month for civilians since May 2008, reporting that 396 civilians, 50 Iraqi soldiers and 89 police officers were killed. Iraqi officials also said 100 so-called "terrorists" were killed, and 955 others were detained.

The U.S. military has disputed the Iraqi figures, saying the actual numbers are less than half what Iraq's government reported.

The U.S. command in Baghdad, Iraq, "refutes that 535 people were killed in Iraq during the month of July," the military said in a statement Sunday. It put the total number of people killed by "enemy action" at 222, including 161 civilians, 55 Iraqi troops and six Americans -- the ninth-lowest civilian casualty count since January 2008, according to the U.S. military.

The U.S. military has said it believes Iraqi security forces can maintain current levels of relative stability, but that sentiment is not shared by many Iraqis.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said in a recent interview with CNN that he is concerned that "the security is declining ... [and] that's why we need really good resolutions, we need to expedite the formation of a government and we need to create an understanding in the region, and we need the help of the United States to facilitate all of these issues through its good offices in Iraq and elsewhere in the region."

Starting in September, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq -- 50,000 -- will be almost a third of the total number there when Obama took office in January 2009, the White House has said. There will be 96,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan -- more than three times the number there at the beginning of Obama's term.

In July, there were 81,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 87,000 in Afghanistan.

While there is sharp public division over the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, Americans largely support the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans back the administration's plan to remove most troops by the end of August, according to a May 21-23 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

Only 36 percent of Americans favor the war in Iraq, the survey indicated.

Obama offered praise Monday for all the veterans of major U.S. military conflicts since World War II.

"In the life of our nation, not every generation has been summoned to defend our country in its hour of need. But every generation to answer that call has done so with honor and courage," he told the enthusiastic crowd.

The president ran through a litany of administration initiatives for military veterans, including "dramatically increased funding for veterans health care across the board."

Among the initiatives he highlighted: an increased use of electronic record-keeping that will allow veterans, for the first time, to go to the VA's website and download or print personal health records "so you have them when you need them and can share them with your doctors outside the VA."

The new measure will take effect this fall, he said.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

 
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