12:42 P.M. AST
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: It’s an honor to stand here with President Talabani and Prime Minister Maliki. All of us are gathered here for the same reason. We’re gathered here to thank the armed forces of Iraqi and America and to honor your sacrifice, to honor your success as well as your commitment.
I also want to say to my colleagues that not only have we worked together, but I consider each of you a friend. We have spent more time together than either of you ever anticipated, I expect. And I’ve come to respect you both and all my interlocutors here in Iraq.
I also know you gentlemen will acknowledge that America sent you the very best our country has to offer -- our young men and women, about whom I'll say more in a moment, but also their leaders. Not only are Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and General Lloyd Austin outstanding diplomats and an outstanding warrior, but they’re outstanding men, and our country is extremely proud of you both. And I want to thank you both.
I wish everyone out there watching this on television could see the view from this stage where I stand right now. This palace, a grotesque monument to a dictator’s greed, is totally filled with American and Iraqi warriors who are bound together by a shared sacrifice in the service of both their countries -- an appropriate use of this palace today. Here in Iraq, you warriors became partners and friends, and now, undeniably, brothers-in-arms. All of you sitting before me today have laid the foundation for a long-term, strategic partnership between our nations and also for an Iraq that, against all odds, can serve as a source of stability not only for its people, but here in the region, and for years to come.
I think it’s fair to say almost no one thought that was possible a few years ago. So, on behalf of President Obama and the American people, let me say to both our armed forces today, thank you. Thank you for your heroic work that each one of you has done to bring about this moment. Because of you -- and it’s no exaggeration to say that -- because of you and the work those of you in uniform have done -- we are now able to end this war.
This journey began, as referenced by the Prime Minister and the President, more than eight-and-a-half years ago. March 19, 2003 was a very uncertain time in both our countries. As a result of our joint efforts, we toppled a murderous dictator, and after a grave struggle, gave Iraq both the time and the space for a society that has long suffered, long been stifled. We gave it the time and the space to reconstitute, and a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law to take hold.
Today we come together at another moment of transition. In America, and in Iraq, the tide of war is receding. And our relationship, borne on the battlefield and long defined by the imperative of security alone, is now giving way to a new, more normal partnership between sovereign nations seeking to build a future together.
President Obama and I came to office absolutely determined to bring this war to a responsible end, and to keep the promise we made to the American people and the people of Iraq that we would meet our commitments. Mr. Prime Minister, as you have seen, we are doing just that.
We kept our promise to remove all American troops from Iraq -- Iraqi cities. We kept our promise to end our combat mission last August and to reduce our forces in Iraq to 50,000. At the end of this month, we will keep our promise to remove our remaining troops from Iraq, which, when we came to office, numbered 140,000 American forces. Where I come from, where the President comes from, a promise made is a promise kept. And we are keeping our promise.
At every step along the way, as the Prime Minister pointed out, there were skeptics -- skeptics who said, don’t move too fast; what if the Iraqis aren’t ready to take on this responsibility? But the Iraq security forces proved to be more than ready. You met the challenge. Throughout the downturn of United States forces and coalition forces, you kept your people safe. And violence has remained at its lowest level since 2003 -- because of you.
So when President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki spoke this October 21st, they were in total agreement on the way forward. They agreed that the end of this phase of our relationship would be marked by the start of a new chapter -- a fresh start that the Iraqi people and the American people want, and so richly deserve.
I think the medal the Prime Minister is going to unveil later today has a perfect name: The Commitment Medal. Because it speaks to our nations' enduring commitment to one another, even as the nature of our mutual relationship evolves. It commemorates our cooperation under the security agreement, which expires at the end of this month. But it also reflects our mutual desire to embrace a new stage of our relationship, one that will be guided by the Strategic Framework Agreement -- again, referenced by my colleagues -- the Strategic Framework Agreement, which calls for broad cooperation across a wide range of areas of policy, including democratic institutions and diplomatic relations, trade and finance, energy, services, law enforcement and the judiciary, and culture and education -- and which, unlike our security agreement, does not expire.
The significance of this agreement lies not in just what it states, but what it stands for. It stands for a fundamentally different type of relationship, grounded in civilian cooperation between equal sovereigns. It means an opportunity to help a new Iraqi democracy secure its place in the community of responsible nations. It means America will remain deeply engaged here in Iraq, and throughout the region; a comprehensive relationship which we are building that will include security cooperation, a standard feature of our relations with many countries, including the training on the military equipment that we will sell to this sovereign nation.
In that effort, we’ll be building on a strong foundation: the deep ties that were forged in battle that made Iraq one of the 10 largest purchasers of U.S. military equipment, and the fourth largest in the region. And we'll continue to assist Iraq in other areas -- when asked -- where we've made commitments, such as helping those displaced by war inside Iraq and in neighboring countries.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Maliki and I chaired a meeting of the Higher Coordinating Committee, a body created by the Strategic Framework Agreement, and charged with overseeing the important work of bringing this new relationship to life.
This is a young population in Iraq. Over 50 percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 20. And I say to you, American warriors, and to you, Iraqi soldiers, because of the progress that you have made, that young generation will not have to suffer the same indignities and depravations that plagued their parents and their grandparents. That is an incredible accomplishment, and is due to the work of so many of you in this room, and also the hundreds of thousands of others who've walked in your boots and in your shoes.
I've been coming here for a long time -- close to 20. The change has been stark since my first visit. I don’t need to remind any of you assembled in this palace that it was only a few years ago that hundreds of bodies a day piled up in the morgue in Baghdad -- that a bullet slipped in an envelope and slid under the door became an unmistakable signal to abandon your home, or else; that highways had become minefields and the daily commute was a test of your faith. If you knew Iraq back then, as so many of you in this room did, and as I saw on my so many visits here, then you'd know how incredibly far we have come, and why the cynics should not doubt how much further you will move.
One statistic illustrates this progress: In 2007, Iraqis suffered 1,600 violent incidents per week. Today, because of your work, that number is under 100 incidences per week -- more than there should be, but more than a tenfold decrease. And it wasn't luck. It wasn't an accident. It was the sacrifice and bravery and professionalism of all of you assembled before me in uniform that made it possible. And it will not and should not be forgotten -- either in Iraq, or in my home country of the United States of America.
What you all know is that it doesn’t mean that the threats are over. Far from it. Violent extremists continue to launch appalling attacks against innocent civilians, fire deadly rockets at diplomats merely trying to do their job, and threaten Iraqi troops and police who are sworn to protect their own people. But Iraqi security forces have been well trained, prepared, and you are fully capable of meeting the challenge. And Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture will be the ultimate guarantor -- the ultimate guarantor -- of this stability.
When we announced this way forward in October, there were those who charged that America was abandoning Iraq and that one of two outcomes would result -- you’ve heard it and I’ve heard it -- either Iraq would slide back into ethnic or sectarian war, or that other countries in the region would unwelcomingly fill the vacuum. In my view, in the President’s view, those arguments not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people.
First, the lesson of the last few years in Iraq is that, while there remain strong disagreements over matters of policy, Iraq’s leaders are opting for political solutions, not violence. I’ve said many times -- and some of my friends in the front row have heard me say it time and again, and it’s often overlooked, an overlooked development in Iraq -- politics has broken out. Politics has become the dominant means of settling disputes and advancing interest. And as you've all learned, in all democracies, politics is sometimes messy -- not just in Iraq. And as President Obama and I have said early in our administration, the pursuit of perfection should not stand in the way of advancing achievable goals, continually. Disputes are now settled within the bounds of acceptable give-and-take. And that’s a huge and necessary step forward.
The second point is that we learned over more than eight years in Iraq that this country’s independent, patriotic spirit is stitched into its national fabric. The Iraqi people will not, have not, and will not again yield to any external domination. And they would never abide another nation violating their sovereignty by funding or directing militias that use Iraqi terrain for proxy battles that kill innocent Iraqi civilians. That’s why I’m confident.
President Harry Truman once described the end of war -- and I quote -- as a “solemn but glorious hour.” Honoring those who fought this war also requires us to remember all that was lost. More than one million Americans -- and if you’ll excuse the personal reference -- including my son -- served on this soil -- 4,486 of your comrades, 4,486 fallen angels have made the ultimate sacrifice. And more than 30,000 were wounded, many of whom, because of the advanced medical care, survived trauma that would have killed men and women in the earlier wars of this nation, and now live a life with horrific injuries. Others bear scars, invisible scars, for all that they’ve experienced.
We honor their sacrifice, as well as yours -- and we take immense pride and success in what you have done. And we owe you. We owe you. And the only sacred obligation our nation has is to care for those who we send to war, and care for them when they come home.
With all due respect for those who came before you, I strongly believe that America’s forces today, including those of you in this room, are truly the finest forces that our nation has ever produced -- ever. And if you forgive me, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, I think they’re the finest in the world.
In Iraq, American fighting men and women were given a mission as complicated and as challenging as any in our history. Your troops were steeped in military doctrine, but you were asked to deal with vagaries of local politics and issues ranging from electricity to unemployment, currency exchange to trash collection. You adapted. You succeeded. You defeated a tyrant -- you helped defeat a tyrant, helped beat back violent extremists, and enabled the rise of a new democratic nation, and gave the Iraqi people a chance, at long last, for a better future -- a future they deserve.
And now, in the finest tradition -- the finest American tradition -- having carried out your mission, you’re leaving. Taking nothing with you but your experiences, your achievements, and the pride associated with a hard job well done.
And for you Iraqis, the cost of war was still greater. Hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens lost their lives. National bonds stretched to the breaking point. You have known more than 30 years of sustained trauma -- dictatorship, economic isolation, and extended periods of war and terror. And from the ashes of so much turmoil, you raised an army that all of Iraq and the world can be proud of, so that you can keep your people safe. And even more remarkable, you've forged a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law.
After all you’ve been through, this is what Iraq deserves. You're the heirs to a civilization that was once the cultural beacon for all humanity, and you're also the heirs to a vast natural bounty on which a modern society can be built.
What stands before you now is nothing less than the prospect of a normal and a prosperous life for your people. A life where you can kiss your children goodbye each morning without wondering if that kiss will be the last. A life where ordinary citizens need not live in fear of their government or their neighbors. A life where this country’s vast natural and human resources can fuel an economy which can provide abundance for all. Normal life may not yet be a reality for every Iraqi, but, God willing, it is within your reach.
Eight years ago, on the eve of war, an art critic in this storied capital of Baghdad told a foreign journalist that he did not fear the future because he took solace in the past. And here is what he said: "So many crises have visited Baghdad, and we have faced all of them. The soul of Baghdad,” he said, “will remain.”
The tide of war is receding, and the soul of Baghdad remains. The soul of Iraq remains. And you in this room -- the political leadership and military leadership, and the American forces -- helped make the possible. And your fellow citizens owe all of you a debt that I don’t believe can ever be fully repaid.
I want to thank you all for allowing me to be here on this historic day, an historic day for both the United States and for Iraq. Our forces are leaving, with their heads held high. But the hard-won ties between our two nations, pray God, will live on.
May God be with the people of Iraq on this new journey, and may God bless America. (Applause.)
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