Panetta formally shuts down US war in IraqBAGHDAD (AP) — After nearly nine years, 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than $800 billion, U.S. officials formally shut down the war in Iraq — a conflict that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said was worth the price in blood and money, as it set Iraq on a path to democracy.
BAGHDAD (AP) — After nearly nine years, 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than $800 billion, U.S. officials formally shut down the war in Iraq — a conflict that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said was worth the price in blood and money, as it set Iraq on a path to democracy.
Panetta stepped off his military plane in Baghdad Thursday as the leader of America's war in Iraq, but will leave as one of many top U.S. and global officials who hope to work with the struggling nation as it tries to find its new place in the Middle East and the broader world.
More than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003, according to the Iraq Body Count website. Bombings and gun battles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security force's ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.
Still, Panetta said earlier this week, the war "has not been in vain."
Panetta and several other U.S. diplomatic, military and defense leaders participated Thursday in a symbolic ceremony during which the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq was officially retired, or "cased," according to Army tradition. The U.S. Forces-Iraq flag was furled — or wrapped — around a flagpole and covered in camouflage. It will be brought back to the United States.
"You will leave with great pride — lasting pride," Panetta told the troops. "Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history."
During a stop in Afghanistan this week, Panetta described the mission as "making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself."
That, he said, is "a tribute to everybody — everybody who fought in that war, everybody who spilled blood in that war, everybody who was dedicated to making sure we could achieve that mission."
Iraqi citizens offered a more pessimistic assessment. "The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. "The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans."
A member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr saw another message in the U.S. withdrawal. "The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.
Panetta echoed President Barack Obama's promise that the U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and about 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All U.S. troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.
The total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult neighborhood.
U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.