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It's over: US Defence Secretary formally ends war in Iraq

Nine years, thousands dead and billions of dollars spent, the US has formally ended its mission in Iraq.

Military personnel bow their heads during ceremonies marking the end of the war in Iraq today.
Military personnel bow their heads during ceremonies marking the end of the war in Iraq today.
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

AFTER NEARLY NINE years, 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than $800 billion, US officials formally shut down the war in Iraq — a conflict that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said was worth the price in blood and money, as it set Iraq on a path to democracy.

Panetta stepped off his military plane in Baghdad as the leader of America’s war in Iraq, but will leave as one of many top US and global officials who hope to work with the struggling nation as it tries to find its new place in the Middle East and the broader world.

More than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the US invasion in 2003, according to the Iraq Body Count website. Bombings and gun battles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security force’s ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.

Still, Panetta said earlier this week, the war “has not been in vain.”

Panetta and several other US diplomatic, military and defense leaders participated in a symbolic ceremony during which the flag of US Forces-Iraq was officially retired, or “cased,” according to Army tradition.

The US Forces-Iraq flag was furled — or wrapped — around a flagpole and covered in camouflage. It will be brought back to the United States.

“You will leave with great pride — lasting pride,” Panetta told the troops. “Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history.”

Pessimistic

During a stop in Afghanistan this week, Panetta described the mission as “making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself.”

That, he said, is “a tribute to everybody — everybody who fought in that war, everybody who spilled blood in that war, everybody who was dedicated to making sure we could achieve that mission.”

Iraqi citizens offered a more pessimistic assessment. “The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country,” said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. “The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans.”

A member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr saw another message in the US withdrawal. “The American ceremony represents the failure of the US occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people,” said Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.

Panetta echoed President Barack Obama’s promise that the US plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.

As of today, there were two US bases and about 4,000 US troops in Iraq — a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country.

All US troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.

The total US departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult neighborhood.

Immunity agreement failure

US officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. US defence officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.

Still, despite Obama’s earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship.

Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration, and today’s ceremony will allow the president to fulfill a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is roiling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.

Panetta acknowledged the difficulties for Iraq in the coming years, as the country tries to find its footing.

“They’re going face challenges in the future,” Panetta said yesterday during a visit with troops in Afghanistan. “They’ll face challenges from terrorism, they’ll face challenges from those that would want to divide their country.

They’ll face challenges from just the test of democracy, a new democracy and trying to make it work. But the fact is, we have given them the opportunity to be able to succeed.”

Logistical challenge

The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top US commander in Iraq.

Austin is leading the massive of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 US troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.

The war “tested our military’s strength and our ability to adapt and evolve,” he said, noting the development of the new counterinsurgency doctrine.

Over the coming days, the final few thousand US troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights — a marked contrast to the shock and awe that rocked the country on March 20, 2003, as the US invasion began.

Saddam Hussein has been ousted, the reports of weapons of mass destruction largely laid to rest. And the future of a nascent democracy awaits.

Read: Obama marks the end of the Iraq war >

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