US soldier leaves Iraq 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BAGHDAD - The US military officially ended its war in Iraq on Thursday, packing up a military flag at a ceremony with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
RELATED:Doubts, fears nag Iraqis as US pulls outArab World: Getting under Tehran’s umbrella
The last 4,000 American troops will withdraw by the end of the year, leaving Iraq still tackling a weakened but stubborn insurgency, sectarian tensions and political uncertainty.
"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," Panetta said at the ceremony.
US soldiers rolled up the flag for American forces in Iraq and slipped it into a camouflage-colored sleeve.
Nearly 4,500 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their
lives in a war that began with a "Shock and Awe" campaign of missiles
pounding Baghdad, but later descended into a bloody sectarian struggle
between long-oppressed majority Shi'ites and their former Sunni masters.
Saddam is dead, an uneasy politics is at work and the violence has
ebbed. But Iraq still struggles with the insurgency, a fragile
power-sharing government and an oil-reliant economy plagued by power
shortages and corruption.
In Falluja, the former heartland of an al-Qaida insurgency and scene of
some of the worst fighting in the war, several thousand Iraqis
celebrated the withdrawal on Wednesday, some burning US flags and waving
pictures of dead relatives.
Iraq's neighbors will keep a close watch on how Baghdad will confront
its problems without the buffer of a US military presence, while a
crisis in neighboring Syria threatens to upset the region's sectarian
and ethnic balance.
US President Barack Obama, who made an election promise to bring troops
home, told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that Washington will
remain a loyal partner after the last troops roll across the Kuwaiti
Iraq's Shi'ite leadership presents the withdrawal as a new start for the
country's sovereignty, but many Iraqis question which direction the
nation will take once US troops leave.
Some fear more sectarian strife or an al-Qaida return to sow terror in
the cities. A squabble between Kurds in their northern semi-autonomous
enclave and the Iraqi Arab central government over disputed territories
and oil is another flashpoint.
Violence has ebbed since the bloodier days of sectarian slaughter when
suicide bombers and hit squads claimed hundreds of victims a day at
times as the country descended into tit-for-tat killings between the
Sunni and Shi'ite communities.
Only around 150 US soldiers will remain in Iraq after Dec. 31 attached
to the huge US Embassy that sits near the Tigris River. Civilian
contractors will take on the task of training Iraqi forces on US
Every day hundreds of trunks and troops trundle in convoys across the Kuwaiti border as US troops end their mission.