LANDOVER, Maryland (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, attending his first Army-Navy football game as commander in chief on Saturday, praised the dedication of the country's armed forces ahead of a week in which he will focus heavily on the end of America's war in Iraq.
"As much fun as these things are, part of what we celebrate is the dedication and the sacrifice all these young men and young women who are in the stands are going to be making for our country," Obama told the game's commentators during the first half of the match between the U.S. Army and Navy academies.
Virtually all U.S. forces will have left Iraq by December 31, fulfilling an Obama pledge to Americans tired of the nearly nine-year-old war as the president accelerates his campaign for re-election next November. But high unemployment and the fragile economy will likely weigh more heavily with voters than costly foreign wars.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits the White House on Monday and will travel with Obama to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Wednesday, where the president and first lady Michelle Obama will thank U.S. troops returning home from Iraq.
Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion over 8 1/2 years ago, based on allegations of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
Greeted loudly by the crowd of 80,000 that filled Fedex Field outside Washington for the 112th annual contest between two of the oldest rivals in American college football, Obama tossed the coin at the start of the game.
At half-time, he crossed the field from the Navy side to the Army side of the stadium between a file of Army cadets in gray and Naval midshipmen in blue.
Obama told the game commentators he enjoyed playing high school football - until his classmates started getting bigger than him.
"I played football in ninth grade, and I realized then I was built more for basketball," he said.
(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Peter Cooney)