|A US Security Personnel Leaving Iraq. Photo Credit: Reuters|
The U.S. military officially ended its war in Iraq on Thursday, rolling up
its flag at a low-key ceremony with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta nearly nine
bloody years after the invasion that ousted Dictator Saddam Hussein.
"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of
an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," Panetta said
at the ceremony outside Baghdad's still heavily-fortified airport.
Almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives
in the war that began with a "Shock and Awe" campaign of missiles
pounding Baghdad, but descended into sectarian strife and a surge in U.S. troop
U.S. soldiers rolled up the flag of American forces in Iraq and slipped it
into a camouflage-coloured sleeve in a brief ceremony, symbolically ending the
most unpopular U.S. military venture since the Vietnam War of the 1960s and
The remaining 4,000 American troops will withdraw by the end of the year,
leaving behind a country still tackling a weakened but stubborn Islamist
insurgency, sectarian tensions and political uncertainty.
"Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by those who
would seek to divide, by economic and social issues," Panetta told the
rows of assembled U.S. soldiers and embassy officials at the ceremony.
"Challenges remain, but the United States will be there to stand by the
Saddam is dead, executed in 2006, while an uneasy politics is at work and
the violence has ebbed. But Iraq still struggles with insurgents, a fragile
power-sharing government and an oil-reliant economy plagued by power shortages
In Falluja, the former heartland of an al Qaeda insurgency and scene of some
of the worst fighting in the war, several thousand Iraqis celebrated the
withdrawal on Wednesday, some burning U.S. flags and waving pictures of dead
Iraq's neighbours will watch how Baghdad tackles its problems without the
U.S. military, while a crisis in neighbouring Syria threatens to upset the
region's sectarian and ethnic balance.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who made an election promise to bring troops
home, told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that Washington will remain a
loyal partner after the last troops roll across the Kuwaiti border.
Need To Be Safe:
Iraq's Shi'ite leadership presents the withdrawal as a new start for the
country's sovereignty, but many Iraqis question which direction the nation will
take without U.S. troops.
"I am happy they are leaving. This is my country and they should
leave," said Samer Saad, a soccer coach. "But I am worried because we
need to be safe. We are worried because all the militias will start to come
Some like Saad fear more sectarian strife or an al Qaeda return to the
cities. A squabble between Kurds in their northern semi-autonomous enclave and
the Iraqi Arab central government over disputed territories and oil is another
Violence has ebbed since the bloodier days of sectarian slaughter when suicide
bombers and hit squads claimed hundreds of victims a day at times as the
country descended into tit-for-tat killings between the Sunni and Shi'ite
In 2006 alone, 17,800 Iraqi military and civilians were killed in violence.
Iraqi security forces are generally seen as capable of containing the
remaining Sunni Islamist insurgency and the rival Shi'ite militias that U.S.
officials say are backed by Iran.
But attacks now target local government offices and security forces in an
attempt show the authorities are not in control.
Saddam's fall opened the way for the Shi'ite majority community to take
positions of power after decades of oppression under his Sunni-run Baath party.
Even the power-sharing in Maliki's Shi'ite-led government is hamstrung, with
coalition parties split along sectarian lines, squabbling over laws and
Sunnis fear they will be marginalised or even face creeping Shi'ite-led
authoritarian rule under Maliki. A recent crackdown on former members of the
Baath party has fueled those fears.
Iraq's Shi'ite leadership frets the crisis in neighbouring Syria could
eventually bring a hardline Sunni leadership to power in Damascus, worsening
Iraq's own sectarian tensions.
It Worth It?:
U.S. troops were supposed to stay on as part of a deal to train the Iraqi
armed forces but talks over immunity from prosecution for American soldiers
Memories of U.S. abuses, arrests and killings still haunt many Iraqis and
the question of legal protection from prosecution looked too sensitive to push
At the height of the war, 170,000 American soldiers occupied more than 500
bases across the country.
Only around 150 U.S. soldiers will remain after Dec. 31 attached to the huge
U.S. Embassy near the Tigris River. Civilian contractors will take on the task
of training Iraqi forces on U.S. military hardware.
Every day hundreds of trunks and troops trundle in convoys across the
Kuwaiti border as U.S. troops end their mission.
"Was it worth it? I am sure it was. When we first came in here, the
Iraqi people seemed like they were happy to see us," said Sgt 1st Class
Lon Bennish, packing up recently at a U.S base and finishing the last of three
deployments in Iraq.
"I hope we are leaving behind a country that says 'Hey, we are better
off now than we were before.”