Iraq on its own as last US troops head home
The last convoy of US soldiers has pulled out of Iraq, ending nearly nine years of war that cost almost 4,500 American and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and left a country grappling with political uncertainty.
The final 110 vehicles carrying 500-odd troops mostly belonging to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, crossed the border with Kuwait at 4.38am GMT, leaving just a couple of hundred soldiers at the US embassy, in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 troops on 505 bases.
The final column trundled across the southern Iraq desert from their last base through the night along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.
"I just can't wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe," Sgt First Class Rodolfo Ruiz said as the border came into sight. Soon afterwards, he told his men the mission was over, "Hey guys, you made it."
"It feels good, it feels real good to be out of Iraq," Sergeant Duane Austin, a 27-year-old father of two, said after getting out of his vehicle in Kuwait. "It's been a pretty long year -- it's time to go home now."
For President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfilment of a promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor.
For Iraqis, though, the US departure brings a sense of sovereignty tempered by nagging fears their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government still struggles with a delicate power-sharing arrangement between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, leaving Iraq vulnerable to meddling by Sunni Arab nations and Shi'ite Iran.
The intensity of violence and suicide bombings has subsided. But a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shi'ite militias remain a threat.
Iraq says its forces can contain the violence but they lack capabilities in areas such as air defence and intelligence gathering. A deal for several thousand US troops to stay on as trainers fell apart over the sensitive issue of legal immunity.
For many Iraqis, security remains a worry -- but no more than jobs and getting access to power in a country whose national grid provides only a few hours of electricity a day despite the OPEC country's vast oil potential.
US and other foreign companies are already helping Iraq develop the world's fourth-largest oil reserves, but its economy needs investment in all sectors, from hospitals to infrastructure.
After Mr Obama announced in October that troops would come home by the end of the year as scheduled, the number of US military bases was whittled down quickly as troops and trucks headed to Kuwait.
American forces, which had ended combat missions in 2010, paid $100,000 (€76,000) a month to tribal sheikhs to secure stretches of the highways leading south to reduce the risk of roadside attacks.
On Saturday, 25 soldiers sat on folding chairs in front of two armoured vehicles watching a five-minute ceremony as their brigade's flags were packed up for the last time before loading up their possessions, ready for the final departure for Kuwait.