US forces formally marked the end of their combat mission in Iraq with a low-key ceremony near Baghdad yesterday, after almost nine years of war that began with the invasion to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
There are a little more than 4,000 US soldiers in Iraq, but they will depart in the coming days, at which point almost no US troops will remain in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 personnel on more than 500 bases.
The withdrawal officially ends a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 US soldiers dead, many more wounded and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the 2003 US-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian fighting.
“After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern itself has become real,” US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at the symbolic flag-lowering ceremony staged near Baghdad’s airport.
“Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide it, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself,” Panetta said, but the US “will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges.”
“This is a time for Iraq to look forward. This is an opportunity for Iraq to forge ahead on a path to security and prosperity,” he said. “And we undertake this transition today reminding Iraq that it has in the United States a committed friend and partner. We owe it to all of the lives that were sacrificed in this war not to fail.”
Panetta said the US withdrawal was “nothing short of miraculous” and “one of the most complex logistical undertakings in US military history.”
The ceremony was a day after hundreds of people in Fallujah marked the departure of US forces by burning US flags and shouting slogans in support of the “resistance.”
Fallujah, a city of about half a million people west of Baghdad, remains deeply scarred by two US military offensives in 2004, the latter of which is considered one of the fiercest for the US since the Vietnam War.