FORT BRAGG, N.C. - President Obama on Wednesday celebrated the soldiers who fought the Iraq war, marking the fulfillment of a campaign promise to bring home all U.S. forces after a nearly nine-year conflict that killed more than 4,400 American troops.
"So as your commander in chief, on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words - and I know your families agree," Obama said. "Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home."
Standing before a sea of paratroopers in maroon berets, the president thanked the troops returning from Iraq and hailed that country's steps toward creating an independent, democratic state.
"Now Iraq is not a perfect place," Obama said at a lectern set up in an airplane hangar. "It has many challenges ahead. But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people."
He was introduced by the first lady, a rare joint appearance borne of Michelle Obama's work finding jobs for military veterans.
In his remarks, the president largely ignored the furor over the war's origins under George W. Bush's administration.
He made only the briefest mention of the "great controversy here at home."
Instead, he kept a tight rhetorical focus on the sacrifices and victories of those who fought. He made no mention of the Iraqi dead, estimated to exceed 100,000.
Obama's political identity was shaped by the Iraq war. One way he distinguished himself from Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 Democratic nomination contest was by underscoring his early opposition to the U.S. invasion. Clinton, as a U.S. senator, had voted to authorize the war. Obama, as an Illinois state senator, delivered a speech in 2002 calling the imminent invasion "dumb."
Now commander in chief, he reminisced about milestones in the war and said there was "something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long."
"We remember the early days," he continued, "the American units that streaked across the sands and skies of Iraq. In battles from Karbala to Baghdad, American troops breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month."
The reference was to Saddam Hussein, who was captured and later hanged by the Iraqi government. Obama described Hussein in similar terms in his 2002 address. But in that speech, he said Hussein posed no threat to the United States or Iraq's neighbors and could be "contained" through international pressure.
He did not relive that history Wednesday. The war, he said, achieved America's strategic aims.
As a backdrop for the speech, the White House chose a heavily populated base that is rich in political and military symbolism. A total of 202 Fort Bragg service members were killed in Iraq. The base is also home to Green Berets who were among the first troops to enter Iraq at the start of the war in 2003.
Beyond that, Fort Bragg sits in North Carolina, a major battleground of the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama barely won the state in 2008 and has visited repeatedly since taking office.