Soldiers carry Iraqi and American flags during a ceremony marking the end of US military engagement at a fortified concrete courtyard in Baghdad airport on Thursday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, Dec. 15: The US military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq today 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, US defence secretary Leon E. Panetta thanked the more than one million American 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 tenor of the farewell ceremony, officially called Casing the Colours, was likely to sound an uncertain trumpet for a war that was launched to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it did not have and now ends without the sizeable, enduring American military presence for which many officers had hoped.
The tone of the string of ceremonies culminating with the final withdrawal event today has been understated in keeping with an administration that campaigned to end an unpopular war it inherited.
Although the ceremony today marked the end of the war, the military still has two bases in Iraq and roughly 4,000 troops, including several hundred that attended the ceremony. At the height of the war in 2007 there were 505 bases and over 150,000 troops.
According to military officials, the remaining troops are still being attacked on a daily basis, mainly by indirect fire attacks on the bases and road side bomb explosions against convoys heading south through Iraq to bases in Kuwait.
Even after the last two bases are closed and the final American combat troops withdraw from Iraq by December 31 under rules of an agreement with the Baghdad government, a few hundred military personnel and Pentagon civilians will remain, working within the American embassy as part of an office of security cooperation to assist in arms sales and training.
But negotiations could resume next year on whether additional American military personnel can return to further assist their Iraqi counterparts. Senior American military officers have made no secret that they see key gaps in Iraqs ability to defend its sovereign soil and even to secure its oil platforms offshore in the Persian Gulf.
Air defences are seen as a critical gap in Iraqi capabilities, but American military officers also see significant shortcomings in Iraqs ability to sustain a military, whether moving food and fuel or servicing the armoured vehicles it is inheriting from Americans or the jet-fighters it is buying, and has shortfalls in military engineers, artillery and intelligence, as well.
The tenuous security atmosphere in Iraq was underscored by helicopters that hovered over the ceremony, scanning the ground for rocket attacks. Although there is far less violence across Iraq than at the height of the sectarian conflict in 2006 and 2007, but there are bombings on a nearly daily basis and Americans remain a target of Shia militants.
During a 45-minute ceremony that ended the military mission, Panetta acknowledged that the cost was high — in blood and treasure of the United States, and also for the Iraqi people. But those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.
The war was launched by the Bush administration in March 2003 on arguments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaida that might grow to an alliance threatening the US with a mass-casualty terror attack.
As the absence of stockpiles of unconventional weapons proved a humiliation for the administration and the intelligence community, the war effort was reframed as being about bringing democracy to West Asia.
And, indeed, there was euphoria among many Iraqis at an American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. But the support soon soured amid a growing sense of heavy-handed occupation fuelled by the unleashing of bloody sectarian and religious rivalries. The American presence also proved a magnet for militant fighters and an al Qaida-affiliated group took root among the Sunni population here.
While the terror organisation had been rendered ineffective by a punishing series of Special Operations raids that decapitated the organisation, intelligence specialists fear that it is in resurgence. The American military presence here, viewed as an occupation across the Muslim world, also hampered Washingtons ability to cast a narrative from the US in support of the Arab Spring uprisings this year.
Even handing bases over to the Iraqi government over recent months proved vexing for the military.