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Obama urges Guantanamo closure this year, shift from ‘permanent war footing’

President Barack Obama said that 2014 should be the year to finally close the prison at Guantanamo Bay as the United States winds down its military role in Afghanistan and shifts away from a 'permanent war footing'.

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address last night.  Larry Downing / Reuters
US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address last night. Larry Downing / Reuters

WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama said that 2014 should be the year to finally close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay as the United States winds down its military role in Afghanistan and shifts away from a “permanent war footing.”

In his annual State of the Union address, Mr Obama renewed his old vow — dating back to the start of his presidency five years ago — to shut the internationally condemned jail at the US Naval Base in Cuba, and he called on Congress for further action to help him do so.

“This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” Mr Obama said. “Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

Mr Obama stopped short of offering any new prescriptions on how he intends to empty Guantanamo of its remaining 155 prisoners. They were rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks and have been held without trial ever since.

But after US lawmakers made it easier late last year to transfer Guantanamo inmates to their home countries, Mr Obama is in a better position than before to gradually reduce the detainee population. But he said Congress needed to give him further flexibility.

The effort to close Guantanamo is a critical part of Mr Obama’s broader drive to roll back some of the most controversial aspects of the global fight against Islamist militants as he presses ahead with plans to formally end the long, unpopular war in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Mr Obama has already sought to narrow the scope of the deadly US drone campaign against Al Qaeda and its allies, and recently announced reforms in surveillance activities triggered by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations.

“Even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks — through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners — America must move off a permanent war footing,” Obama said.

Opened by President George W Bush in 2002, Guantanamo became a symbol of the excesses of his administration’s “war on terror” interrogation and detention practices.

Mr Obama failed to meet his promise to close the prison within a year of taking office in early 2009, and although he has since recommitted to his pledge, he was reluctant until now to set a new time frame for achieving it.

His renewed promise followed congressional passage in December of a broader defence spending bill that loosened some restrictions on Mr Obama’s ability to send more of the Guantanamo detainees home.

Despite that, he still faces major obstacles to shutting Guantanamo. Lawmakers refused to budge on a ban on bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the US mainland.

On top of that, complications remain with Yemen, where US officials fear released prisoners might join up with an active Al Qaeda branch. Yemen’s government also has yet to build a long-promised detention centre for any prisoners sent home.

Obama also used his speech to reassure a war-weary American public that the US military was on track to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than a decade of war there.

“We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over,” he said.

He also sent a thinly veiled message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is locked in a test of wills with Washington over efforts to reach a long-term security pact that would enable a small contingent of US forces to remain in the country beyond 2014.

The White House has warned that it will resort to a “zero option,” pulling out all US forces at the end of the year unless he signs a security deal soon.

He defended an interim nuclear deal with Iran, which has many skeptics in Congress, as the best way to resolve a top security challenge “without the risks of war”.

Mr Obama also reiterated his vow to veto a new sanctions bill that he fears could cause Iran to walk away from the negotiating table.

While Al Qaeda’s core leadership was “on a path to defeat,” the extremist threat was evolving through Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, Obama said.

In the emotional high point of the speech, Obama praised a US soldier who was blown up in Afghanistan but is fighting back from massive brain injuries.

“Like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit,” he said, drawing a prolonged ovation for Remsburg, who was seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama.

The president argued that US diplomacy backed by force had resulted in the handover of Syria’s chemical weapons, and was supporting difficult talks on an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

* Agencies