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In Iraq, combat troops head home to US with guitars, hope

As planned, US combat troops departed Baghdad this weekend. The 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, reflected on their efforts – and Iraq's future.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / August 16, 2010

In this photo taken Aug. 13, US Army soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, prepare to board a military aircraft in Baghdad, Iraq, as they begin their journey home. These soldiers are part of the last brigade of combat troops which are now leaving Iraq, heading home as part of the U.S. drawdown of forces.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo

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Baghdad

The last US combat brigade of the Iraq war is leaving – a milestone in the seven-year war that has left soldiers and commanders heartened by progress here but unsure whether the gains they’ve fought so hard for will hold.

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On the airfield at the Baghdad airport that was one of the first places secured by US combat troops as they moved into the Iraqi capital in 2003, soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, boarded planes over the weekend to Fort Lewis, Wash.

“We’re going home!” some of them shouted over the roar of the engine of the C-17 cargo plane after they cleared their weapons, stowed their duffel bags, and sat back for the first leg of the long journey back.

In the waiting room, the laptops that allowed them to keep in daily touch with their families on this deployment displayed photos of the wives and children that many would soon be seeing.

The brigade, designed around the armored Stryker vehicle first sent into battle here in 2004, played a key part in urban fighting in the military surge. Nearly half the unit spent a record 15 months deployed in the worst of the fighting in Diyala Province three years ago. Throughout the war, three Stryker brigades with more than 12,000 soldiers were deployed in Iraq.

While combat troops will remain to train, advise, and conduct joint counterterrorism operations, the soldiers’ departure marks President Obama’s pledge to bring all combat brigades home by Sept 1. Under the current US-Iraq security agreement, the remaining 50,000 US forces will be out by this time next year. The remaining troops and their brigades are also fully combat ready but are here on advisory and assistance missions.

'Our strategy was irreversible momentum'

Most of the Strykers spent this deployment in and around Baghdad helping maintain security for elections and working with Iraqi security forces without firing a single shot in combat.

“Seven years of war is ending on their watch. I wanted them to walk home with pride in their hearts and understand that their sacrifice and their performance was well received,” brigade commander Col. John Norris told a group of reporters seeing off the first large group of soldiers.

For most commanders and their troops, the legacy of the war is more ambiguous than their accomplishments.

“Our strategy coming in here was irreversible momentum and history will be the judge whether it was truly irreversible,” says Colonel Norris, from Louisville, Ky. “The momentum was clearly established…what history will tell in a few years I don’t know.”

'Obviously you can feel tension, but I feel hope'

The brigade arrived in Iraq in August 2009 after being diverted from a planned deployment to Afghanistan, when it became clear that combat capability was needed here to prepare for Iraq’s national elections in March.

The elections in early March went off with minimal violence. But more than five months later, forming a new government has stalled over disagreements over who would get the top positions.

“Obviously you can feel tension with the government and wanting a new government but I feel hope,” says Capt. Christopher Ophardt, ending his third deployment here. “I think the hope isn’t so much in that everything’s going to be great – it’s we think there could be a future for Iraq. Whether that happens or not is where the angst comes in.”

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