FORT BRAGG, N.C. — President Barack Obama is marking the end of the Iraq war with a tribute to the troops who fought and died in a conflict he opposed from the start.
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 was to highlight the human side of the war, reflecting on the bravery and sacrifices of U.S. forces now on their way back home.
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.
Upon his arrival in Fort Bragg Wednesday, Obama met with five enlisted service members who had recently returned from combat. He also met with the family of a soldier killed overseas.
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.
On Wednesday, his focus will be 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."
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 and 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.
North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, also is an important state for the 2012 presidential election and will host the Democratic convention.
To underscore the political significance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of the leading GOP presidential contenders, addressed an open letter to Obama and sent it to the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer decrying the unemployment rate for veterans.
Unemployment for veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, was 11.1 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Romney called such a statistic a "disgrace."
"In the face of such economic hardship, fine words welcoming veterans home are insufficient," he wrote. "It is time for a fundamental change of direction. If you won't or can't lead our country out of the economic morass you've deepened, then I would suggest that it's time for you to go."
Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., and AP Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.