BAGHDAD — There was no “Mission Accomplished” banner. No victory parade down the centre 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 Thursday 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 another 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-Qaida 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,” Defence 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. Iranian influence is on the rise. One of the few positive developments from the American viewpoint — a democratic toehold — is far from secure.
“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.”
Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on Dec. 30, 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and plunged the nation into a bloodbath between rival Muslim sects.
An insurgency that rose up within months of the April 2003 fall of Baghdad scuttled reconstruction plans and forced the Americans to keep up to 170,000 troops in Iraq years after Saddam was captured.
Iraq nowadays is far quieter than at the height of the war, but with an uneasy peace achieved through intimidation and bloodshed. The number of Iraqi neighbourhoods in which members of the two Muslim sects live side by side and intermarry has dwindled.
The forced segregation, fueled by extremists from both communities, has fundamentally changed the character of the country. And it raises questions about whether the Iraqis can heal the wounds of the sectarian massacres after the Americans leave.
Some Baghdad neighbourhoods, such as Hurriyah, are still guarded by thick blast walls and security checkpoints. Widespread corruption, bureaucratic hurdles and electricity shortages continue to stifle Iraq’s economy.
It was hard to find an Iraqi on Thursday who did not celebrate the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country whose capital, Baghdad, was once among the world’s great centres of culture and learning.
Some 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, though many initially supported the war as a just extension of the fight against terrorism after the 9-11 attacks.
One of the many ironies of the war is that Saddam had not tolerated al-Qaida, which planned and carried out the attacks. With Saddam gone and the country in chaos, al-Qaida in Iraq became the terror movement’s largest and most dangerous franchise, attracting fighters from North Africa to Asia for a war that lingers on through suicide bombings and assassinations, albeit at a lower intensity.
The ceremony at Baghdad’s airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served two tours in Iraq, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
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.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and about 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007. All U.S. troops are slated to be out by the end of the year.
President Barack Obama had no comment on Thursday’s ceremony but told soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina this week that the “war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages.”
Despite Obama’s earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops could be used as a quick reaction force if needed.
The U.S. will leave behind thousands of diplomats and security contractors.
“We will have to be working closely with the Iraqis to ensure the security of our civilians,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
Still, the disappearance of uniformed troops marked a defining moment in Iraq’s history.
“It is a great achievement for the Iraqi people,” said Hayder al-Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition. “Iraqi politicians have made their way and have made the independence and sovereignty a reality here. The Americans have committed a lot of mistakes in Iraq and they failed to protect the country.”