Top American and Iraqi leaders today marked the end of the US military presence in Iraq, after a costly war that brought down a tyrant, but also left a trail of destruction of 4,500 American lives, and many, many more Iraqis killed.
A moment of silence was observed for "martyrs" of the war.
Vice President Joseph Biden said the United States had set Iraq on a democratic path. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani expressed gratitude for the American role, despite widespread uncertainty among Iraqis about their future – and doubts about the price they've already paid.
"We're gathered here to thank the armed forces of Iraq and America, and to honor your sacrifice, to honor your success, as well as your commitment," Mr. Biden told scores of US and Iraqi military officers at the ceremony.
"Because of you ... and the work those of you in uniform have done, we are now able to end this war," said Biden. "We learned in over eight years in Iraq that this country's independent spirit is stitched into its national fabric.... The Iraqi people have not and will not yield again to any kind of external domination."
Biden said the foundation had been laid for an Iraq that, "against all odds, can serve as a source of stability not only for its people, but here in the region, and for year to come."
Biden added that "it's fair to say, almost no one thought that was possible a few years ago."
Home by Christmas?
The remaining 13,800 US troops in Iraq are exiting in coming weeks, and all will depart the seven remaining bases – down from a high of some 171,000 troops on 500 bases – by an end-of-year deadline.
Even as officials sought to close this chapter, reminders of the dangers facing Iraq were clear: 18 people were killed in Diyala Province today, most victims of a car bomb.
Mr. Talabani, a pro-US Kurdish politician, thanked American forces as "friends" who changed history for the better, and far beyond Iraq's borders. He sought to cast the US role in Iraq as a critical forerunner to the people-power Arab Spring revolutions that have so far this year toppled three dictatorial regimes, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
"The fair reviewer of history will record that collapsing dictatorship in our country was not only a turning point in Iraq," Talabani said, "but was the beginning of the uprising of nations against their oppressors in our region, and their demand for dignity, justice and equality, and participation in determining their destiny."
Mr. Maliki likewise thanked the Americans. But he described the moment as the day that Iraq reclaimed all its national sovereignty. He said the disbanded Baath Party of Saddam Hussein bore "full responsibility" for losing it.
"The withdrawal of the friendly American forces will establish a new stage in the relations between Iraq and the United States," Maliki said.
"Completing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi lands will lift the cover [under which] the terrorist Al Qaeda organization, and the men of the dictator regime, and the rest of the insurgent groups, have conducted terrorist operations, for which the Iraqi people paid an expensive price in souls, property, and infrastructure," said Maliki.
Death and paralysis
His government has been fraught with divisions since March 2010 parliamentary elections, and political paralysis – along with a continuing toll from violence that claimed 258 lives in October alone – have left some Iraqis pessimistic about the future.
Such levels of violence are far lower, however, than they were during the 2006-2007 peak of the insurgency that targeted US forces and Iraq's nascent government, and the sectarian killing that brought ethnic cleansing to Baghdad's neighborhoods and Iraqi provinces.
Some of those months saw a Baghdad death toll of more than 3,000 per month.
The handover ceremony was greeted with little interest by most Iraqis, who could only watch proceedings on television hours after the ceremony. Loyalists of the anti-American cleric Muktada al-Sadr staged small protest rallies.
Half-page color advertisements have been running on the front pages of some Iraqi newspapers, highlighting the date the US withdrawal would be complete, and declaring that the Iraqi government and people, had worked as "one hand to kick out the occupiers."
Bahaa al-Araji, the head of the powerful bloc of Sadr loyalists in parliament, said in a statement that Biden's secret arrival was "not legal" and that he should be prosecuted for "acting as if [Iraq] were still an occupied state."
"Biden's visit is not welcome – especially at this time because it will influence the decisions of some of the political leaders...and give rise to discord amongst the parties," Araji said in a statement.
Acknowledging the political and sectarian divisions that remain in Iraq, even as American forces leave, the Iraqi premier called for unity.
Maliki said: "On this occasion, I call on all the political powers – clerics, sheikhs of tribes, intellectuals, artists, journalists and civil society groups – to stand alongside our security forces and our political process in this sensitive stage that we are passing through."
The Iraqi government has announced that the conclusion of the final US troop withdrawal will be known as the "Day of Loyalty."
No press, please
Journalists in Baghdad were not allowed to attend the ceremony, due to a last minute Iraqi decision, made near midnight, which overruled the efforts of US military and Embassy press officials to organize the Baghdad press corps.
Details of journalists, translators and drivers – including press card and national identity document details, and car license plates – were requested days in advance.
Journalists were to arrive at Entry Check Point 14 at Victory Base, hours beforehand, to go through rigorous security checks.
But then an e-mail alert came through from the US military, which said in capital letters that "no Western media will be allowed to attend" the ceremony. Only journalists traveling with Biden from Washington would cover it.
"For further information, please direct your questions to the Government of Iraq," the e-mail said. "Do not proceed to ECP-14 in the morning. You will not be granted admittance..."
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