US soldier arriving in Kuwait after leaving Iraq 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BAGHDAD - The last convoy of US soldiers pulled out of Iraq on Sunday, ending their withdrawal after nearly nine years of war and military intervention that cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.
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The war launched in March 2003 with missiles striking Baghdad to oust dictator Saddam Hussein is leaving behind a fragile democracy still facing insurgents, sectarian tensions and a struggle to define its place in the Arab region.
The final column of around 100 mostly US military MRAP armored vehicles carrying 500 US troops trundled across the southern Iraq desert through the night along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.
"It's good to see this thing coming to a close. I was here when it started," Staff Sgt. Christian Schultz said just before leaving Contingency Operating Base Adder, 300 km (185 miles) south of Baghdad, for the border. "I saw a lot of good changes, a lot of progress, and a lot of bad things too."
For US President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfillment
of an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited
from his predecessor that tainted America's standing worldwide.
For Iraqis, it brings a sense of sovereignty but fuels worries their
country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that
killed thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri 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 for now. But
a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shi'ite militias remain a
threat, carrying out almost daily attacks.
Iraq says its forces can contain the violence but they lack capabilities
in areas such as air defense 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.
"We don't think about America... We think about electricity, jobs, our
oil, our daily problems," said Abbas Jaber, a government employee in
Baghdad. "They left chaos."Heading home
After 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 hundreds of troops and trucks carrying equipment headed
south to the Kuwaiti border.
US forces, which had ended combat missions in 2010, paid $100,000 a
month to tribal sheikhs to secure different parts of highways leading
south to reduce the risk of roadside bombings and attacks.
At the height of the war, more than 170,000 US troops were in Iraq at
more than 500 bases. By Saturday, there were fewer than 3,000 troops,
and one base.
At COB Adder, as dusk fell before the departure of the last convoy, one
group of soldiers slapped barbecue sauce on slabs of ribs brought in
from Kuwait and laid them on grills alongside hotdogs and sausages.
The last troops flicked on the lights studding their MRAP vehicles and
stacked flak jackets and helmets in neat piles, ready for the final
departure for Kuwait and then home.
"A good chunk of me is happy to leave. I spent 31 months in this
country," said Sgt. Steven Schirmer, 25, after three tours of Iraq since
2007. "It almost seems I can have a life now, though I know I am
probably going to Afghanistan in 2013. Once these wars end I wonder what
I will end up doing."Neighbors are keeping watch
US and foreign companies are already helping OPEC member Iraq develop
the vast potential of the world's fourth-largest oil reserves, but
Iraq's economy needs investment in all sectors, from hospitals to
Iran and Turkey, major investors in Iraq, will be watching with Gulf
nations to see how it handles its sectarian and ethnic tensions, as the
crisis in neighboring Syria threatens to spill over its borders.
The fall of Saddam allowed the long-suppressed Shi'ite majority to rise
to power. The Shi'ite-led government has drawn the country closer to
neighboring Iran and Syria's Bashar Assad, who is struggling to put down
a nine-month uprising.
Iraq's Sunni minority are chafing under what they see as the
increasingly authoritarian control of Maliki's Shi'ite coalition. Some
local leaders are already pushing mainly Sunni provinces to demand more
autonomy from Baghdad.
A dispute between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and Maliki's
central government over oil and territory rights is also brewing, and is
a potential flashpoint after the buffer of the American military
presence is gone.