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Iraq withdrawal: With US troops set to exit, 9-year war draws to close

Iraq withdrawal will occur by the end of this year, President Obama announced Friday. For the 39,000 US troops still in Iraq, withdrawal means most will be home for the holidays.

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In all, the violence claimed more than 112,000 documented civilian deaths, according to Iraq Body Count. Some organizations, though, place total Iraqi civilian and combatant deaths at more than 1 million.

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Middle East experts have long debated the impact of the war on Iran and its designs for expanded regional influence. Some have argued that the US presence in Iraq was a deterrent to Iran, while others held that the war and stationing of American troops in Iraq not only opened the door to Iran – as some Iraqi Shiite factions sought to counterbalance the US presence – but also to Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups opposed to any "infidel” presence on Muslim soil.

But the fact that the American intervention resulted in the violent replacement of Iraq’s traditional Sunni-dominated power structure with a new “democratic” structure dominated by the majority Shiites – a group more closely aligned with the country’s historical enemy, Iran – was one of the war’s ironies.

Obama signaled Friday that the US intends to monitor Iran’s meddling in Iraq. “We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said.

Iraqis and the US diplomats who will work to forge a long-lasting civilian partnership will also face the question of what the US military departure means for Iraq’s internal stability.

The US military’s combat mission ended in August 2010, but US forces remain involved in the training and professionalization of Iraq’s 600,000-strong military. Moreover, US troops continue to play a key role in the intelligence-gathering, logistics, and other assistance that have allowed Iraqi security forces to reduce the levels of violence of just a few years ago.

US forces will leave behind an Iraqi society with sectarian and ethnic divides that are just as deep as when they invaded in March 2003. The test for Iraqis will be holding together and moving forward without either a Saddam Hussein or a foreign military presence.

IN PICTURES: Troops come home

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