Barack Obama marks end of Iraq war, telling troops 'Welcome Home'
Published 15/12/2011 | 07:30
President Barack Obama marked the end of America's military involvement in Iraq with two simple words for his country's troops: "Welcome Home".
Addressing soldiers in an aircraft hangar at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he conspicuously avoided the triumphant style of his predecessor George W Bush who launched the war in March 2003 and declared Mission Accomplished just weeks later.
He instead sought to soothe the doubts of a nation about the worthiness of a war that has claimed 4,484 American lives and left an Iraq that some critics warn will become a client state of Iran.
"Iraq is not a perfect place but we are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country with a representative government elected by its people," he said.
"This is an extraordinary achievement and today we remember everything you did to make it possible. Years from now your legacy will endure in the freedom of our children and our grandchildren."
Mr Obama described the uniformed young men and women before him as part of the "9/11 generation", as he attempted to carve an honourable niche for them in the story of America.
They belonged, he said, in an "unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries" from the colonists who resisted British rule to their grandparents who defeated fascism in the Second World War.
"I could not be prouder of you, America could not be prouder of you. You have earned your place in history because you sacrificed so much for people you have never met," he said.
Unlike empires of old, the United States did not invade other states for "territory or resources", he said, "we do it because it is right".
"There can be no stronger statement of our commitment to self-determination than our decision to leave Iraq," he continued.
At a ceremony in Baghdad today, the colours that American troops have fought under for nearly nine years will be lowered as the last of the forces that numbered 170,000 at their peak continue to trundle south across the border into Kuwait.
The withdrawal should be completed within days, and will be welcomed by most Iraqis.
Hundreds of people in the former insurgent bastion of Fallujah set alight US and Israeli flags in a protest to mark Mr Obama's speech.
Surrounded by the Iraqi army, demonstrators carried posters bearing photos of insurgents, faces covered and carrying weapons.
They also held up pictures of US soldiers killed and military vehicles destroyed in the two major offensives against the city in 2004.
"We are proud to have driven the occupier out of Iraq, at the cost of enormous sacrifice," said Khalid al-Alwa, the local leader of the Islamic Party, a Sunni Muslim grouping.
"Those who destroyed Iraq paid the price because the people here held them accountable."
Yaser al-Asadi, 22, college student from Baghdad said: If we knew that the Americans would do what they did, we would have defended Saddam's regime instead. I lost my brother in a random shooting by the Americans and lost home during the sectarian conflict".
Some Iraqi's still harbour suspicions that the American role was driven by its economic interests. Ahmed Alaa, 38, professor in computer sciences said: "They came to Iraq not to liberate it but to exploit its oil and other resources.
They think of their future even if it is at the expenses of other people".
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister visiting Washington this week, has moved to consolidate power as America's grip has weakened. He has rounded up hundreds of former Baath party members accused of loyalty to Saddam Hussein but has himself been charged with using the sort of strong arm tactics associated with the former dictator.
The head of a Shia-led coalition, his closeness to Iran has also been questioned. He has towed Tehran's line on Syria, refusing to join Arab neighbours in calling for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to reform.
But despite internal tensions between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, and warnings from military commanders that the country is not yet capable defending its borders, few Iraqi leaders have been willing to openly call for the Americans to continue their mission.
Even members of the Iraqiya List, the pro-Western alliance headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said that foreign troop bases were a magnet for meddling by hostile neighbours.
One Iraqi official asked: "Is this going to work? We don't know. The situation is tense and its fragile. US officials say this is the beginning of a new chapter and deeper ties which his great, but practically speaking, we are not quite sure how this is going to work."