US officially ends mission in Iraq
THOM SHANKER & MICHAEL S SCHMIDT
The United States military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq on Thursday even as violence continues to plague the country and the Muslim world remains distrustful of American power.
In a fortified concrete courtyard at the airport in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Leon E Panetta thanked the more than one million US service members who have served in Iraq for "the remarkable progress" made over the past nine years but acknowledged the severe challenges that face the struggling democracy.
"Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself," Panetta said. "Challenges remain, but the US will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation."
The muted ceremony stood in contrast to the start of the war in 2003 when the US, both frightened and emboldened by the attacks of September 11, 2001, sent columns of tanks north from Kuwait to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
As of last Friday, the war in Iraq had claimed 4,487 American lives, with another 32,226 Americans wounded in action, according to Pentagon statistics.
The tenor of the 45-minute farewell ceremony, officially called "Casing the Colors," was likely to sound an uncertain trumpet for a war that was started to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it did not have. It now ends without the sizable, enduring American military presence for which many officers had hoped.
Although Thursday's ceremony marked the end of the war, the military still has two bases in Iraq and roughly 4,000 troops, including several hundred who attended the ceremony. At the height of the war in 2007, there were 505 bases and more than 170,000 troops.