The war launched in March 2003 with missiles striking Baghdad to oust President Saddam Hussein closes with a fragile democracy still facing insurgents, sectarian tensions and the challenge of defining its place in an Arab region in turmoil.
The convoy’s departure, which included about 110 vehicles and 500 soldiers, came three days after the American military folded its flag in a muted ceremony here to celebrate the end of its mission.
In darkness, the convoy snaked out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriyah, around 2:30 a.m., and headed toward the border.
“I just can’t wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe,” Sgt. First Class Rodolfo Ruiz said as the border came into sight. Soon afterwards, he told his men the mission was over, “Hey guys, you made it.”
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfillment of an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor, the most unpopular war since Vietnam and one that tainted America’s standing worldwide.
“The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there,” said a soldier who only identified himself as Specialist Joseph. He said he had immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted a year later, and refused to give his full name because he worried for his family’s safety.
For Iraqis the U.S. departure brings a sense of sovereignty tempered by nagging fears their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
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.
One and a half million American men and women served in Iraq since that first force arrived, back when the campaign was expected to be quick and greeted warmly. But even today, the legacy of the war is in many ways still unknown.
The United States is leaving an Iraq where sectarian, regional, and political groups still show willingness — and sometimes a desire — to resolve their differences violently, and where many of the vital issues created by the invasion are still unsettled.
For the United States, a war launched in the aftermath of 9/11 became one of its most controversial. Repeated and extended deployments strained the military and the country’s budget.
Still, today the final commander in Iraq said the war was worth it.
“If you’re a loved one of someone that was killed in action or seriously wounded in action, there are no words that can make you ever believe that this was worth it,” Gen. Lloyd Austin said today in Camp Adder, from where the final combat troops left.
“However, if you really think about what’s happened here — we removed a brutal dictator that killed, tortured hundreds of thousands of people over time and it provided the Iraqi people opportunities that they have not seen in their lifetime,” Austin said.
“If you consider the fact that we have a young democracy in a very critical region, a region that’s critical to the United States of America — yes, it was worth it.”
The United States will continue to play a role in Iraq. The largest American embassy in the world is located here, and in the wake of the military departure it is doubling in size — from about 8,000 people to 16,000 people, most of them contractors.
Under the authority of the ambassador will be less than 200 military personnel, to guard the embassy and oversee the sale of weapons to the Iraqi government.
The war’s conclusion marks a political triumph for President Obama, who ran for office promising to bring the troops home, but is bittersweet for Iraqis who will now face on their own the unfinished legacy of a conflict that rid their country of a hated dictator but did little else to improve their lives. [via The New York Times, Reuters and ABC]