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As President Barack Obama prepares to officially end the lengthy and divisive U.S. combat operation in Iraq, he’ll personally thank some of the soldiers who fought there for their service to a mission he forcefully opposed from the start.

Many of those soldiers deployed from Fort Bliss, the sprawling Army base in El Paso, Texas, that Obama will visit Tuesday. After speaking with the troops, Obama will return to Washington to address the nation and formally end a combat mission in Iraq that lasted more than seven years, leaving more than 4,400 U.S. troops dead and thousands more wounded.

Obama was an early critic of the war, speaking out against it during the U.S. invasion in early 2003 and promising during his presidential campaign to bring the conflict to an end. The White House sees Tuesday’s benchmark as a promise kept and has gone to great lengths to promote it as such, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to Iraq to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony and raising Tuesday night’s remarks to the level of an Oval Office address, something Obama has only done once before.

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Among Obama’s goals on Tuesday is honoring those who have served in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, many returning to the battlefield for multiple tours of duty. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that while the Iraq war would have never happened had Obama been commander in chief at the time, the president holds the service and sacrifice of the troops in high regard.

Appearing on nationally broadcast interviews Tuesday morning, Gibbs repeatedly brushed aside questions about whether Obama would credit President George W. Bush’s troop surge with helping to pave the way for the withdrawal.

Top Republicans, however, were in no doubt. “Some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for the results,” House GOP leader John Boehner said, in excerpts of a speech he was to give to the American Legion convention in Milwaukee. “Today we mark not the defeat those voices anticipated — but progress.”

In Gibbs’ appearances, he said it’s “not up for question” that candidate Obama agreed sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq would bolster security. But “a number of things” brought the United States to this point, including the move toward greatrer political accommodation among the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions, the spokesman said.

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