WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has ended the ban on news organizations photographing the flag-covered coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq as they return to the United States through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The change will also apply to U.S. war dead from the growing conflict in Afghanistan.
Now each family will decide if news organizations can cover their family members' return. The ban was one of the many controversial innovations of the Bush administration in its managing of the media coverage of the Iraq war.
Bush administration officials and their supporters took the position that the ban preserved the privacy of the families of the dead. However, many critics argued that instead it callously and cynically deprived the war dead of an element of national recognition of their sacrifice for the country's cause while playing down the human cost of pursuing that cause.
It is difficult to refute that argument. The Bush ban was controversial precisely because it radically abandoned a cherished tradition that successive U.S. administrations and state and local authorities have all practiced in providing maximum honors and maximum public coverage to America's war dead for more than two centuries.
Critics also saw the photo ban as part of a Bush administration strategy to downplay the cost of the war in the minds of the American public, along with accounting for the financial cost outside of the main federal budget.
The announcement came just before President Obama flew to North Carolina on Friday to announce his plan to end the war in Iraq. The president said Aug. 31, 2010, would be the last day of U.S. participation in the Iraq war. However, there will still be 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops -- about one-third of current levels -- left in Iraq. Some of those who leave Iraq will be directed to Afghanistan.
Obama wanted to make these cuts, but he really had no choice about doing so. The Bush administration had already signed its long-delayed Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December. Maliki's government was created by the Bush administration, but it has been moving ever closer to Iran and was insistent that the United States agree to remove its combat forces from Iraq.
Obama's decision will certainly play well with his support base, which was determined to evacuate U.S. forces from Iraq. Jon Soltz, an Iraqi war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, which strongly backed Obama during the campaign, praised the president's decision.
"Removing roughly 100,000 troops from Iraq while leaving residual training and specialized forces is a huge step toward winding down the war," he said. "Those of us who served in Iraq have fought for this for years, and we're relieved that President Obama is now moving in this direction."
"Getting out of Iraq won't be quick, and it won't be easy," Soltz said. "But President Obama must continue this direction in Iraq, with the ultimate goal of having all troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, or earlier."
Nevertheless, Obama's plan represents a huge gamble. Guerrilla violence in Iraq has been greatly reduced over the past two years, but it certainly has not been eradicated. The bloody civil war between the majority Shiite Muslims who President Bush empowered and the Sunnis of central Iraq who dominated the country for more than 80 years until Saddam Hussein was toppled could easily erupt again.
Even worse, Iran could make common cause with extremist Sunnis as well as the Shiite allies it has nurtured in the Iraqi government, army and militia in an effort to rapidly conquer the country.
Indeed, since Obama is not making a full pullout, he could produce the worst of all possible worlds. The troop reduction could make a renewal of the civil war or a hostile rising by the Iraqi army against U.S. forces far more likely, but having 30,000 or more U.S. troops still there could force Obama to recommit large forces to try to redeem the situation.
The future in Iraq, therefore, remains clouded with dangers. And no clear, secure, full exit strategy is yet in sight.