Dec 13, 2011

US, NATO to leave Iraq by December

US President Barack Obama has declared that American troops will leave Iraq this month "with honour and with their heads held high", while at the same time warning the country's neighbours not to interfere in its progress.

In a press conference with Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, at the White House on Monday, Obama said: "This is a historic moment. A war is ending." The president also said that the US would leave behind a sovereign and self-reliant Iraq, and that the removal of troops after nearly nine years would begin a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries - warning neighbouring nations not to interfere.

"Our strong presence in the Middle East endures," Obama said. "And the United States will never waver in the defence of our allies, our partners and our interests." 

"That is the concern, that at the end of the day the Iraqi officials have much closer ties to the Iranians." Obama said warning Iran to "stay out". 

Obama acknowledged differences between Washington and Baghdad on how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, but said Maliki was acting in Iraq's best interests.

For his part, Maliki thanked the US for its continued assistance in helping rebuild Iraq and said that his country's relationship with the US would not end with the departure of the last US soldier.

Maliki insisted that Iraq would need foreign expertise to help it exploit its natural resources and progress in politics, commerce and education. 

In regards to Syria, Maliki raised concerns about the risk of sectarian violence in that country spilling into Iraq and said that he wanted the Syrian situation resolved peacefully.

As of late last week, the number of US troops in Iraq had dwindled to about 8,000, down from 170,000 at the war's peak in 2007. 

Later on Monday, Obama and Maliki laid wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war have been buried. 

The war also claimed the lives of at nearly 115,000 Iraqis, according to an estimate by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, although some estimate the number of civilians killed has been much higher. 

NATO on Monday also announced plans to end its mission in Iraq. "The North Atlantic Council has decided to undertake the permanent withdrawal of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq personnel from Iraq by 31 December 2011," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the military alliance's secretary-general.

NATO has about 130 advisers from 13 member nations and from Ukraine in Iraq.

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