Eight years in coming, a ceremony Tuesday marked the conclusion of an American military mission that was alternately labeled a breeze, a mistake, a civil war, and a quagmire.
Today, “after a great deal of blood spilled by the Iraqis and the Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real,” he added.
The uncertainty remains, US officials warn, but from the perspective of US troops here, “This actually represents an end,” said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq. He spoke in the hours before what was dubbed the official “End of Mission” ceremony here.
More than eight years later, from a stage set up steps away from the flight line of Baghdad International Airport where US troops are now boarding the last flights out of the country, General Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, reflected on the course of a war that has cost the lives of 4,485 US troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians.
“Iraq has been a defining part of our professional and personal lives,” he said. “The road we have traveled was long and tough. Our journey was a lesson in courage, a test of our character, an affirmation of shared sacrifice, and a monument to sheer will.”
At the height of the surge here, there were 177,000 US troops in the country and 505 American military bases. By 2010, the number of bases was down to 92.
Now there are some 4,000 US forces left in the country – forces that will alternately be flying and convoying home in the days to come.
For these final movements, “security will be incredible,” says a US officer here. As the convoys have rolled towards Kuwait, there have been roadside bomb attacks south of Baghdad, says Buchanan.
None have resulted in injuries, according to the US military.
To ensure that remains the case, US officials have hired Iraqi tribesman, ostensibly “to keep litter off the highways, but really what we’re doing is looking for anything that might cause a threat,” Buchanan notes.
The security patrols continued as US troops drilled for the the end-of-mission ceremony, repeating their measured and precise steps in a march to the podium.
As Dempsey looked out on the assembled troops, he also spoke to the small handful of Iraqi dignitaries who attended.
“Every day required us to balance conflict and compassion. Every step was a singular act of moral and physical courage,” he said. “We learned the power of relationships rooted in trust and respect,” he added, “We lived among you.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was invited, say US officials, but did not attend the ceremony.
Mr. Panetta, for his part, tackled a question in the course of his remarks that US troops will continue to wrestle with long after the war has come to an end: Was the sacrifice worth the cost?
He assured those forces assembled that it was. “Those lives were not lost in vain,” he said. “They gave birth to an independent, free, and sovereign Iraq.”
Yet along with the assurances, Panetta issued a warning as well. “Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by those who would seek to divide,” he said. And “by the demands of democracy itself.”
For US soldiers here, the ceremony marked the end of years of deployments and separation from family.
As ceremonial troops retired unit flags for the last time to the strains of, “Off We Go, into the Wild Blue Yonder,” one airman reflected on the flight that she soon would be taking, bound for home. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this," she said.