The true cost of Iraq war
THERE was no 'mission accomplished' banner and no victory parade down the centre of this capital that has been scarred and rearranged by nearly nine years of war. Nor were there any crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.
Instead, the US military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq yesterday with a businesslike closing ceremony behind blast walls in a fortified compound at Baghdad airport.
The flag used by US forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up in a 45-minute ceremony. No senior Iraqi political figures attended.
With that, and brief words from top American officials who flew in under the tight security that is still necessary because of the ongoing violence, the US drew the curtain on a war that left 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.
The conflict also left another 32,000 Americans and far more Iraqis wounded, drained more than $800bn from the US treasury and soured a majority of Americans on a war that many had supported as a just extension of the fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, they leave behind a nation free of Saddam's tyranny but fractured by violence and fearful of the future. Bombings and gun battles are still common and experts are concerned about the Iraqi security forces' ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.
"You will leave with great pride -- lasting pride," Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the troops seated in front of a small domed building in the airport complex, "secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history."
Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain of how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on the last day of 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction and which nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.
"With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim, a Shiite whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City.
"The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. They did not leave a free people and country behind them; in fact, they left a ruined country and a divided nation."
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called "American occupiers", who had been neither invited not welcome in a proud country.
"The American ceremony represents the failure of the US occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said politician Amir al-Kinani, a member of the coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Others said that while they were grateful for US help in ousting Saddam, the war had gone on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.
The low-key nature of the ceremony stood in sharp contrast to the high-octane start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. US and allied ground forces then stormed across the Kuwaiti desert, with the media in tow.
The final few thousand US troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
AS of yesterday, 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 who were there during the surge ordered by President George W Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped Iraq.
The total US departure is a bit earlier than had initially been planned and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still-maturing Iraqi security forces.
Despite President Barack 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 finalise the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick-reaction force if needed.
Despite the war's toll and unpopularity, Mr Panetta said earlier this week that it had "not been in vain." He described the Iraq mission as "making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself".
However, the Iraq Body Count website says more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the US invasion. The vast majority of these were civilians.
Mr Panetta echoed Mr Obama's promise that the US planned to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq to foster a deep and lasting relationship, as well as maintaining a strong military force in the region.
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 counter-terrorism force to remain. US defence officials said they expected that there would be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.
Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration and the US president has fulfilled a crucial campaign promise at a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is rolling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in next year's election.