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US, Iraqi leaders praise sacrifices of war, 'historic opportunity'

As US-Iraqi relations enter a new phase, America's top brass convened at Camp Victory to mark the transfer of command from Gen. Ray Odierno to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / September 1, 2010

Outgoing Commander of US Forces in Iraq Gen. Raymond Odierno (front r.) and incoming commander Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin (front l.) take part in handing over of the flag of the Multi-National Force Iraq during a Change of Command ceremony at Camp Victory in Baghdad September 1.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

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Baghdad

The United States marked the official end of its combat role in the seven-year Iraq war today, acknowledging the immense sacrifices of a war that has divided Americans as well as Iraqis and pledging to help the country move forward.

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“We fought together, we laughed together, and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together,” Gen. Ray Odierno told Iraqi military leaders and hundreds of American soldiers and officers gathered in the marble foyer of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. “It was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice.”

At the ceremony, which took place at Camp Victory on Baghdad's outskirts, Vice President Joe Biden said it was "no secret" that the war had divided Americans but it was time to put those differences aside. He paid tribute to the more than 4,400 servicemen and women who had been killed here and the tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces and civilians who had lost their lives.

“I truly believe the darkest days are behind us,” he said, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen. Huge US flags marked the marble staircases where soldiers living in the palace hung their laundry to dry in 2003.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is over but American engagement with Iraq will continue," Mr. Biden added.

SPECIAL FEATURE: What the US is leaving behind in Iraq

The ceremony marked not only the formal end of US combat operations, but the change of command from General Odierno to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who will oversee the withdrawal of all US troops next year.

President Barack Obama made it a campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by Sept 1. Under a status of forces agreement negotiated with Iraq, the remaining 50,000 troops are to leave by the end of next year.

Somber tone

Despite Biden’s upbeat assessment on what was billed as a historic day, many of the comments struck a somber tone.

“The problem with this war for many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid,” Gates told reporters while visiting troops in Ramadi west of Baghdad.

“Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States it will always be clouded by how it began,” he said, referring to the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for invading Iraq.

Odierno, who was a main architect of the military surge that helped end Iraq’s civil war, was also a division commander when US forces under his command captured Saddam Hussein.

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