During a ceremony in Baghdad, the flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq is lowered before being encased. The ceremony marked the official end of the U.S. military mission in that country.
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BAGHDAD -- The American war in Iraq came to an unspectacular end Thursday at a simple ceremony on the edge of Baghdad's international airport, not far from the highway along which U.S. troops first fought their way into the capital more than eight years ago.
There were speeches paying tribute to the fallen, promises that the United States would not abandon Iraq, vague declarations of "success," and warnings of challenges ahead.
A brass band played, and the flag that had flown over the headquarters of the U.S. mission here was lowered for the last time and folded away.
That was it. No pronouncements of victory, no cheers, and no jubilation.
No senior Iraqi government officials showed up for the event, though the name tags attached to two chairs in the front row indicated American hopes that they might. One was labeled for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the other for President Jalal Talabani.
The only prominent Iraqis to attend were a former defense minister and three generals who have worked closely alongside U.S. forces and have often expressed hopes that they will remain.
It was a reminder that for all the declarations of progress, the troops are leaving now primarily because most Iraqis wanted them to go, despite the massive uncertainties lingering over the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and over the country's still precarious political balance.
General Lloyd Austin III, sixth and last of the U.S. generals to command U.S. forces in Iraq, alluded to those when speaking of "opportunities" American troops created for Iraqis to live freely and prosper, without sounding at all sure they will. But he warned of the danger that militant groups may yet disrupt gains the Iraqi security forces have made in recent years.
"There's no doubt this is a challenging time for Iraq and its neighbors," General Austin told a small group of American soldiers and dignitaries. "But Iraq has the opportunity to assume a position of leadership if it follows the right path."
On the streets of Baghdad, Iraqis overwhelmingly said they were glad the troops were going home, but some seemed nervous that the departure of the Americans could rekindle latent power struggles and perhaps intensify the violence.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the most senior U.S. official to attend, told those who attended that America's role in Iraq is by no means over. He referred to a massive $6 billion effort being undertaken by the State Department to sustain U.S. influence now that the military role has ended.
"Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation," he told the gathering.
Speakers at the ceremony touched on the success of the mission as well as its losses: Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis killed, 32,000 Americans and tens of thousands Iraqis wounded. And $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury.
"To be sure the cost was high -- in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people," Mr. 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."
Speaking to the troops in the audience, he lauded their service and bravery: "You will leave with great pride -- lasting pride -- 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, hanged in December, 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and 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. Instead they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind; in fact they left a ruined country and a divided nation."
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country.
"The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said lawmaker Amir al-Kinani, a member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Others said that while grateful for U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went 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.
The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
General Austin led the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year -- while still conducting training, security assistance, and counterterrorism battles.
The war "tested our military's strength and our ability to adapt and evolve," he said, noting the development of a counterinsurgency doctrine.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and fewer than 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq -- a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country.
All U.S. troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.
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