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BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta paid solemn tribute on Thursday to an “independent, free and sovereign Iraq” and declared the official end to the Iraq war, formally wrapping up the U.S. military’s mission in the country after almost nine years.
“After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real,” Panetta said at a ceremony held under tight security at Baghdad’s international airport. “To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure for the United States, and for the Iraqi people. Those lives were not lost in vain.”
The 1:15 p.m. ceremony (5:15 a.m. in Washington) effectively ended the war two weeks earlier than was necessary under the terms of the security agreement signed by the U.S. and Iraqi governments in 2008, which stipulated that the troops must be gone by Dec. 31.
But commanders decided there was no need to keep troops in Iraq through the Christmas holidays given that talks on maintaining a U.S. presence beyond the deadline had failed. The date of the final ceremony had been kept secret for weeks, so as not to give insurgents or militias an opportunity to stage attacks.
Dignitaries and a small crowd of military personnel in fatigues gathered at a terminal in the Baghdad airport, which until now had been operated by the U.S. military. In the future, it will be overseen by the State Department, which is assuming responsibility for a massive, $6 billion civilian effort to sustain American influence in Iraq beyond the troops’ departure.
The white flag of United States Force-Iraq was carefully folded and put away, and Panetta took the podium.
“No words, no ceremony can provide full tribute to the sacrifices which have brought this day to pass,” the defense secretary said. “I’m reminded of what President Lincoln said in Gettysburg, about a different war, in a different time. His words echo through the years as we pay tribute to the fallen in this war: ‘The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ ”
In his speech, Panetta singled out U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, for overseeing the rapid withdrawal of 50,000 troops in recent months and the closure of dozens of bases.
But he paid special tribute to the more than 1 million U.S. troops who have served war duty in Iraq since 2003, including about 4,487 who were killed and some 30,000 who were wounded.
“You have done everything your nation has asked you to do and more,” he said. “You came to this ‘Land Between the Rivers’ again and again and again.You did not know whether you’d return to your loved ones.
“You will leave with great pride, lasting pride, secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.”
Panetta also paid homage to military families who, “through deployment after deployment after deployment ... withstood the strain, the sacrifice and the heartbreak of watching their loved ones go off to war.”
“Together with the Iraqi people,” he added, “the United States welcomes the next stage in U.S.-Iraqi relations.”
And with that, the U.S. military’s mission was declared over, eight years, eight months and 25 days after it began.
Panetta arrived in Baghdad after a two-day stop to visit troops in Afghanistan. He was making his first visit to Iraq since becoming defense secretary in July, although he also visited the country during his tenure as CIA director and prior to that as a member of the Iraq Study Group, an advisory panel of foreign policy veterans that sought to change the Bush administration’s approach to the war.
In recent days, during visits to Djibouti and Afghanistan, Panetta refrained from declaring victory in Iraq or “mission accomplished,” as the Bush administration did prematurely in 2003. Instead, he has acknowledged divisions and regrets among U.S. lawmakers and the American people in general, while trying to frame Iraq’s future in a guarded sense of optimism.
“In many ways I think we can all take some satisfaction — regardless of whether you are for or against how we got into Iraq, the fact is we can take some satisfaction in the fact that we are now heading them in the right direction,” Panetta told an audience of U.S. diplomats Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
In the end, Panetta described the purpose of the war as an attempt to turn Iraq into a stable, self-governing democracy after decades of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. During his trip to Afghanistan, he did not name Hussein directly and made no mention of the failed search for weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration had cited as justification for the 2003 invasion.
“It’s a mission whose goal was to establish an Iraq that could govern and secure itself,” Panetta said Wednesday. “And we have done that. We are giving Iraq an opportunity to be able to govern itself and to secure itself into the future, and to enjoy, hopefully, the benefits of a democracy.”
“It won’t be easy. There will be challenges. They’ll face the challenges of terrorism. They’ll face the challenges of those that would want to divide that country. They’ll face the challenges, the test of democracy,” he said. “They have the opportunity to be able to do that. And because of the blood that was spilled by Americans, because of the blood that was spilled by Iraqis, they now have that chance.”
Many Iraqis still find it hard to believe that the U.S. troops are actually leaving, after a war in which more than 100,000 Iraqi lives were lost and more than $800 billion was spent by U.S. taxpayers on the military effort and reconstruction. At the war’s peak in 2007, there were 170,000 U.S soldiers in Iraq, although that number had dwindled to 50,000 over the past year.
The withdrawal will have little immediate impact on the lives of most Iraqis. U.S. troops pulled out of the cities in 2009 and halted combat operations a year later. For more than a year, they have been training the Iraqi security forces on military bases, largely out of public sight, although Special Forces have continued to conduct counterterrorism operations.
Many Iraqis were unaware that the departure was imminent, although in recent days, the domestic press has been speculating that it might take place sooner than anticipated.
On Wednesday, thousands of people in the mostly Sunni town of Fallujah, where Marines fought the biggest battle of the war in 2004, took to the streets to celebrate. They burned American and Israeli flags, and carried a banner declaring Fallujah to be “the city of resistance.”
Some residents, nevertheless, expressed misgivings, even as they said they were glad to see the Americans go. Bashar al-Nadeq, 32, said he could not help but be happy because he spent two years in the Camp Bucca prison camp after a cousin to whom he owed money told the U.S. military that he was a terrorist.
But he fears simmering sectarian tensions could erupt in violence once again, and he does not plan to celebrate.
“What’s the point of lighting a candle at the beginning of a tunnel when you know you will be walking in darkness?” he said at his car wash, near the center of the battle-scarred town. “I am happy they are going, but I know my happiness won’t last for long.”