US combat troops quit Iraq as violence grows
The last brigade of frontline American soldiers poured over the Iraqi border into Kuwait yesterday, marking the end of US combat operations.
Despite rising violence and the lack of a functioning government in Iraq, 1,200 troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, passed the Khabari border crossing just before dawn under strict operational secrecy.
Thousands more were flown out of the country.
US President Barack Obama marked the event with an open letter in which he insisted he would stick to his timetable for a final withdrawal of military aid by the end of 2011, despite widespread concern over the deteriorating security situation.
On Tuesday, a bomb killed 59 men queuing to join the army at a base in Baghdad, days after the Iraqi chief of staff called on American forces to remain in the country until 2020.
"Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all of our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year," Mr Obama wrote. "We will continue to build a strong partnership with the Iraqi people with increased civilian commitment and diplomatic effort."
The withdrawal came two weeks before the deadline for frontline soldiers to pull out, and more than seven years since, under a banner claiming 'Mission Accomplished', President George W Bush first announced the end of combat operations in Iraq.
No notice was given in case the column of heavily armoured vehicles became a target for al-Qa'ida or Shia militants.
Helicopters and military Humvees guarded the route, while soldiers patrolled the road for bombs and mines.
Some 6,000 troops in other roles will depart by the end of August, leaving 50,000 to train and support Iraqi forces.
Ordinary Iraqis have voiced their concerns as the date approaches. "The US withdrawal will subject Iraq to strong attacks from terrorists, because we are now in a critical situation and the country is suffering from foreign interference," said Mohammed al-Gartani, a leader of one of the Sunni 'Awakening' militias that took on al-Qa'ida insurgents in Sunni areas.
Some 7,000 contractors will take over some of the protection duties currently done by the army, reports said.
But the US State Department fears Congress will be more willing to cut civilian budgets for 'nation-building'.
American strategists also fear that the vacuum of security and government, five months after an inconclusive election, will allow Iran, Iraq's neighbour, to exert ever greater sway.
American generals insisted Iraqi troops were up to the challenge of beating al-Qa'ida and other militant groups. (© Daily Telegraph, London)