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[caption width="250" caption=" President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Wednesday. (Associated Press | Haraz N. Ghanbari) "][/caption]

ERICA WERNER

Associated Press

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina — President Barack Obama on Wednesday saluted troops returning from Iraq, asserting that the nearly nine-year conflict was ending honorably, “not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.”

Marking the conclusion of the war at a military base that’s seen more than 200 deaths from 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 still struggling.

But he sought to pronounce a noble end to a fight that has cost nearly 4,500 American lives and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives.

“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 the withdrawal, arguing that Obama is leaving behind an unstable Iraq that could hurt U.S. interests and fall subject to influence from neighboring Iran.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s one-time rival for the presidency, issued a particularly harsh verdict on his handling of Iraq. “I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves,” McCain said on the Senate floor

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.

“We knew this day would come. We have known it for some time now,” he said. “But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long.”

Obama 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 at Fort Bragg, Obama met with five enlisted service members who had recently returned from combat. He also met with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq who was the most recent, and potentially final, U.S. fatality of the war.

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’s 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.

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.”

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