U.S. declares low-key end to war in Iraq
BAGHDAD - There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner. No victory parade down the center of this capital scarred by nearly nine years of war. No crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.
There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner. No victory parade down the center of this capital scarred by nearly nine years of war. No crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.
It took the U.S. military just 45 minutes yesterday to declare an end to its war in Iraq with a businesslike closing ceremony behind concrete blast walls in a fortified compound at Baghdad International Airport. The flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up. On the chairs - nearly empty of Iraqis - were tags that listed not only the name of the assigned VIP, but the bunker to rush to in case of an attack.
With that, and brief words from top U.S. officials who flew in under tight security, the U.S. drew the curtain on a war that killed 4,487 Americans, by the Pentagon's count, and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
The conflict also left an additional 32,000 Americans and far more Iraqis wounded, drained more than $800 billion from the U.S. treasury and diverted resources from Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda rebounded after their defeat in the 2001 invasion.
"To be sure the cost was high - in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the roughly 200 troops and others in attendance. "Those lives have not been lost in vain. They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq."
Many Iraqis, who saw their country devastated through years of fighting, disputed that.
"With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim, a member of the Shiite Muslim sect that has dominated politics since the end of Saddam's Sunni-led regime.
"The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them," said Khazim, whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City. "Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind them. In fact, they left a ruined country and a divided nation."
The low-key ceremony stood in sharp contrast to the start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with a "shock and awe" airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.
Now, the final few thousand U.S. troops will head out in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights, leaving behind a nation free of Saddam's tyranny but fractured by violence and fearful of the future. Bombings and gun battles still occur almost daily. Experts are concerned about the Iraqi security forces' ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.
U.S.-Iraqi ties are no doubt closer than they were during much of Saddam's rule but are still short of what Washington once envisioned.
"You will leave with great pride - lasting pride," 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."