Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Read Obama's speech on Iraq

Updated 8:44 with full text.

President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office at 8 p.m. today. He said that ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will allow his administration to devote more attention and resources to bolstering the economy.

The text of Obama's remarks, as provided by the White House, follows.

Did you watch the speech? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Good evening. Tonight, I'd like to talk to you about the end of our combat mission in Iraq, the ongoing security challenges we face, and the need to rebuild our nation here at home.

I know this historic moment comes at a time of great uncertainty for many Americans. We have now been through nearly a decade of war. We have endured a long and painful recession. And sometimes in the midst of these storms, the future that we are trying to build for our nation, a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity, may seem beyond our reach.

But this milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment. It should also serve as a message to the world that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young century.

From this desk, seven and a half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night. A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested.

These are the rough waters encountered during the course of one of America's longest wars. Yet there has been one constant amidst those shifting tides. At every turn, America's men and women in uniform have served with courage and resolve. As commander in chief, I am proud of their service. Like all Americans, I am awed by their sacrifice, and by the sacrifices of their families.

The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people; trained Iraqi Security Forces; and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians – and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people – Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

So tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.

This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq's Security Forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done. We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.

This completes a transition to Iraqi responsibility for their own security. U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq's cities last summer, and Iraqi forces have moved into the lead with considerable skill and commitment to their fellow citizens. Even as Iraq continues to suffer terrorist attacks, security incidents have been near the lowest on record since the war began. And Iraqi forces have taken the fight to al-Qaida, removing much of its leadership in Iraqi-led operations.

This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout. A caretaker administration is in place as Iraqis form a government based on the results of that election. Tonight, I encourage Iraq's leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people. And when that government is in place, there should be no doubt: the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States. Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq's future is not.

Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq's Security Forces; supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops will leave by the end of next year. As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians – diplomats, aid workers and advisers – are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds ties with the region and the world. And that is a message that Vice President Biden is delivering to the Iraqi people through his visit there today.

This new approach reflects our long-term partnership with Iraq, one based upon mutual interests, and mutual respect. Of course, violence will not end with our combat mission. Extremists will continue to set off bombs, attack Iraqi civilians and try to spark sectarian strife. But ultimately, these terrorists will fail to achieve their goals. Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war, and they have no interest in endless destruction. They understand that, in the end, only Iraqis can resolve their differences and police their streets. Only Iraqis can build a democracy within their borders. What America can do, and will do, is provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.

Ending this war is not only in Iraq's interest – it is in our own. The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people. We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home. We have persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people – a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page.

As we do, I am mindful that the Iraq War has been a contentious issue at home. Here, too, it is time to turn the page. This afternoon, I spoke to former President George W. Bush. It's well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset. Yet no one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security. As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq's future.

The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, and to learn from our experience as we confront the many challenges ahead. And no challenge is more essential to our security than our fight against al-Qaida.

Americans across the political spectrum supported the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11. Now, as we approach our 10th year of combat in Afghanistan, there are those who are understandably asking tough questions about our mission there. But we must never lose sight of what's at stake. As we speak, al-Qaida continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense. In fact, over the last 19 months, nearly a dozen al-Qaida leaders – and hundreds of al-Qaida's extremist allies – have been killed or captured around the world.

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who, under the command of General David Petraeus, are fighting to break the Taliban's momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That's why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan's problems. And, next August, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: This transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people's.

Indeed, one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power – including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America's example to secure our interests and stand by our allies. And we must project a vision of the future that is based not just on our fears, but also on our hopes – a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world, but also the limitless possibility of our time.

Today, old adversaries are at peace, and emerging democracies are potential partners. New markets for our goods stretch from Asia to the Americas. A new push for peace in the Middle East will begin here tomorrow. Billions of young people want to move beyond the shackles of poverty and conflict. As the leader of the free world, America will do more than just defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction – we will also lead among those who are willing to work together to expand freedom and opportunity for all people.

That effort must begin within our own borders. Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its link to our own liberty and security. But we have also understood that our nation's strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has shortchanged investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle-class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation's long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy and grit and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad. They have met every test that they faced. Now, it is our turn. Now, it is our responsibility to honor them by coming together, all of us, and working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for – the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.

Our most urgent task is to restore our economy, and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. To strengthen our middle class, we must give all our children the education they deserve, and all our workers the skills that they need to compete in a global economy. We must jumpstart industries that create jobs, and end our dependence on foreign oil. We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs. This will be difficult. But in the days to come, it must be our central mission as a people, and my central responsibility as president.

Part of that responsibility is making sure that we honor our commitments to those who have served our country with such valor. As long as I am president, we will maintain the finest fighting force that the world has ever known, and do whatever it takes to serve our veterans as well as they have served us. This is a sacred trust. That is why we have already made one of the largest increases in funding for veterans in decades. We are treating the signature wounds of today's wars post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, while providing the health care and benefits that all of our veterans have earned. And we are funding a post-9/11 GI Bill that helps our veterans and their families pursue the dream of a college education. Just as the GI Bill helped those who fought World War II – including my grandfather – become the backbone of our middle class, so today's servicemen and women must have the chance to apply their gifts to expand the American economy. Because part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it.

Two weeks ago, America's final combat brigade in Iraq – the Army's Fourth Stryker Brigade – journeyed home in the pre-dawn darkness. Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of vehicles made the trip from Baghdad, the last of them passing into Kuwait in the early morning hours. Over seven years before, American troops and coalition partners had fought their way across similar highways, but this time no shots were fired. It was just a convoy of brave Americans, making their way home.

Of course, the soldiers left much behind. Some were teenagers when the war began. Many have served multiple tours of duty, far from their families who bore a heroic burden of their own, enduring the absence of a husband's embrace or a mother's kiss. Most painfully, since the war began 55 members of the Fourth Stryker Brigade made the ultimate sacrifice – part of over 4,400 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq. As one staff sergeant said, “I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this day would probably mean a lot.”
Those Americans gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries. Along with nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq, they fought in a faraway place for people they never knew. They stared into the darkest of human creations – war – and helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace.

In an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation. Every American who serves joins an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar – Americans who have fought to see that the lives of our children are better than our own. Our troops are the steel in our ship of state. And though our nation may be traveling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America, and all who serve her.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bank's 'shocking proposal' over NASCAR tower

A dramatically low buyout offer tied to the tower looming over NASCAR's shrine reflects the toll office vacancies are taking on the Charlotte market.

According to court papers, Wells Fargo shocked Regions Bank with its offer to buy out Regions' share of the office building's loan.

The proposal?

Wells Fargo would pay for 42 cents on the dollar for the $37 million loan, with an offer in the mid-teens.

The offer is detailed in court papers Regions filed over financing for the 19-story office tower that is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex in uptown Charlotte.

Regions Bank says in papers filed in a federal court last month that it provided half of the loan amount to developers of the NASCAR Plaza in May 2007. The 376,000-square-foot building, which towers over the NASCAR Hall of Fame is reported to be less than 50 percent occupied.

- Doug Miller

Judge slams Belk over child's $5,000 political contribution

How did a 7-year-old contribute thousands of dollars to elect George W. Bush?

When Bill Belk, the millionaire grandson of the Belk stores founder, wrote a $5,000 check from her account for the RNC Presidential Trust in August 2000 .

Judge Erwin Spainhour criticized the move as a an "inappropriate, egregious use of the minor's funds" on Thursday. Spainhour ordered Belk to repay nearly $131,000 to his daughter's custodial account after citing repeated examples of what he called Belk's misuse of the money.

Click here for details on the RNC contribution.

Belk told the Observer last year that the contribution for his daughter - and similar ones for his sons - was designed to help them by electing George W. Bush, who went on to cut taxes on investment income.

- Doug Miller

Friday, August 20, 2010

Is your nonprofit in danger?

More than 2,200 Charlotte-area nonprofits are in danger of losing tax-exempt status, under a new tax law that is being enforced this year for the first time.

That means donors won't be able to deduct donations to those charities when itemizing tax returns.

Click here to read the list of nonprofits.

Click here to search the database by zip code.

As the Observer's Mark Price reported this week, the IRS says all failed for three consecutive years to comply with a 2006 law that requires small nonprofits (those with gross receipts of $25,000 or less) to file annual tax returns for the first time.

It stipulates that any such organization failing to file for three consecutive years will automatically lose its federal tax-exempt status and be forced to pay taxes on any income. Some 300,000 groups nationwide appear on the IRS noncompliance list.

- Doug Miller

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mecklenburg gets C in workforce study

The size of Mecklenburg County government's workforce grew slightly faster than that of the private sector but less than the overall population from 2000-01 to 2009-10, according to a new study from the John W. Pope Civitas Institute.

According to the study from the conservative Raleigh-based institute, Mecklenburg's county government workforce grew from 4,900 in the 2000-01 budget year to 4,968 for the year that ended June 30. That's a rate of 1.4 percent. The number of jobs fluctuated repeatedly over the past decade.

By comparison, the number of jobs in the private sector grew by 1.1 percent during the same time period, according to the study. The overall county population grew by an estimated 28.6 percent.

Read the full report by clicking here.

The study used data from an annual tax and budget survey by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, and doesn't take into account layoffs for the budget year that started July 1.

“Mecklenburg County was given an average C grade because they fell into the group of counties that at least showed some restraint in terms of county government employee growth," Civitas Institute analyst Brian Balfour said in a news release. "While they did add county workers, they did so at a pace reflective of the county’s population growth.”

The study further defined a C grade as one for "counties that grew their government workforce at a rate less than the rate of their population growth, or at a rate less than twice the rate of population growth."

The highest grades were given to county governments that shrunk their workforce while the population increased. Two Charlotte-area counties, Burke and Caldwell, were given an A grade.
Alexander, Cabarrus, Iredell, Rowan and Union Counties also were given C grades, while Gaston and Lincoln were awarded Ds.

Caldwell and Cleveland received Fs, a grade reserved for "counties that grew their government workforce despite a drop in the county’s population; or grew their government workforce more then four times the rate of the county’s population growth."

Wake County also received a C. --APRIL BETHEA

Friday, August 13, 2010

Obama's remarks about the ground zero mosque

President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan,  at the White House on Friday. (AP)
On Friday night, President Barack Obama stepped into the thorny debate over the Muslim community center and mosque planned for near ground zero. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Obama's remarks for Friday night's iftar dinner at the White House, marking the breaking of the daily Ramadan feast, transcribed and distributed by the White House:
Good evening, everybody. Welcome. Please, have a seat. Well, welcome to the White House. To you, to Muslim Americans across our country, and to more than one billion Muslims around the world, I extend my best wishes on this holy month. Ramadan Kareem.

I want to welcome members of the diplomatic corps; members of my administration; and members of Congress, including Rush Holt, John Conyers, and Andre Carson, who is one of two Muslim American members of Congress, along with Keith Ellison. So welcome, all of you.

Here at the White House, we have a tradition of hosting iftars that goes back several years, just as we host Christmas parties and seders and Diwali celebrations. And these events celebrate the role of faith in the lives of the American people. They remind us of the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.

These events are also an affirmation of who we are as Americans. Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion. In the Virginia Act of Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion." The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land. And that right has been upheld ever since.

Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose -- including the right to believe in no religion at all. And it is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious -- a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in stark contrast to the religious conflict that persists elsewhere around the globe.

Now, that's not to say that religion is without controversy. Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities -- particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the response to that attack -- from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us also remember who we're fighting against, and what we're fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam -- it's a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders -- they're terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion -- and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.

So that's who we're fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms -- it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us -- and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.

In my inaugural address I said that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus --- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and every culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And that diversity can bring difficult debates. This is not unique to our time. Past eras have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches. But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be -- and will be -- today.

And tonight, we are reminded that Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity. And Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan --- making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.

Like so many other immigrants, generations of Muslims came to forge their future here. They became farmers and merchants, worked in mills and factories. They helped lay the railroads. They helped to build America. They founded the first Islamic center in New York City in the 1890s. They built America's first mosque on the prairie of North Dakota. And perhaps the oldest surviving mosque in America --- still in use today --- is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Today, our nation is strengthened by millions of Muslim Americans. They excel in every walk of life. Muslim American communities --- including mosques in all 50 states --- also serve their neighbors. Muslim Americans protect our communities as police officers and firefighters and first responders. Muslim American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it. And Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military. At next week's iftar at the Pentagon, tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery.

These Muslim Americans died for the security that we depend on, and the freedoms that we cherish. They are part of an unbroken line of Americans that stretches back to our founding; Americans of all faiths who have served and sacrificed to extend the promise of America to new generations, and to ensure that what is exceptional about America is protected -- our commitment to stay true to our core values, and our ability slowly but surely to perfect our union.

For in the end, we remain "one nation, under God, indivisible." And we can only achieve "liberty and justice for all" if we live by that one rule at the heart of every great religion, including Islam --- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

So thank you all for being here. I wish you a blessed Ramadan. And with that, let us eat.