Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Barack Obama greets troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina December 14, 2011.
President Barack Obama marked the ending of the Iraq war on Wednesday with a tribute to the troops who fought and died in a conflict he opposed from the start.
"As your Commander in Chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: welcome home."
Accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, the president traveled Wednesday to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to address service members and their families as he brings the war to a close.
At a base that's seen more than 200 deaths over nearly nine years of fighting in Iraq Obama said, "today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost a loved one, for they are all a part of our broader American family."
Obama highlighted the human side of the war and reflected on the bravery and sacrifices of U.S. forces now on their way back home.
"Tomorrow, the colors of United States Forces-Iraq-the colors you fought under-will be formally cased in a ceremony in Baghdad," Obama said. "One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end."
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All U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq Dec. 31, though Obama has pledged the U.S. will continue to help 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 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 work to end the war in Iraq has paid political dividends, too. Twenty-five percent of Americans said that bringing the troops home from Iraq was Obama's biggest accomplishment as president, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday. That accomplishment is second only to killing Osama bin Laden, according to the poll.
On Wednesday, his focus was principally on the troops and their role and his commitment to ensuring veterans get the jobs and resources they need once they're back home. His audience will be those people most personally affected, including troops back from Iraq and their families.
In a local television interview Tuesday, Obama previewed some of his likely themes.
"We must not forget the men and women who gave their lives, tens of thousands wounded, all those missed birthday parties, missed soccer games and missed dinners because folks were on their second or third deployment. We should not take that for granted," the president told KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It is an extraordinary testimony to the bravery, courage, dedication and patriotism of our soldiers."
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.