Iraq War Draws to a Close

NY Times

Almost nine years after the first American tanks began massing on the Iraq border, the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission here, closing a troubled conflict that helped reshape American politics and left a bitter legacy of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.

As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta marked the occasion with a speech in a fortified concrete courtyard at the Baghdad airport, helicopters hovered above, underscoring the challenges facing a country where insurgents continue to attack American soldiers and where militants with Al Qaeda still regularly carry out devastating attacks against civilians.

“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,” Mr. Panetta said. “Challenges remain, but the U.S. will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.”

Those words sounded an uncertain trumpet for a war that was begun in 2003 to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that proved illusory. The conflict was also cast as an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East — another pretext that rang hollow during Iraq’s worst sectarian bloodletting, and that hampered Washington’s efforts in the past year to support the peaceful protesters of the Arab Spring.

The American withdrawal opens a new chapter for Iraq, a nation forged less than a century ago by British colonialists and tortured ever since by rebellions, wars and brutal dictatorship. Long a borderland between Persian and Arab empires, the country still struggles to balance the ambitions of Iran, the powerful theocratic neighbor whose nuclear program has become a profound concern to the United States and its allies.

For Americans, the ceremony on Thursday marked an uneasy moment of closure, with no clear sense of what has been won and lost. As of last Friday, the war had claimed 4,487 American lives, with 32,226 more Americans wounded in action, according to Pentagon statistics.

Those losses — and the humiliating collapse of American claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — helped turn sentiment at home against the war, contributing to a crash in the popularity of President George W. Bush during his second term and to the election of Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion in 2003.

For the Pentagon, the Iraq war — in combination with the continuing deployment in Afghanistan — forced a painful rethinking of how to fight insurgencies and to interact with civilians. Under Gen. David H. Petraeus, American commanders learned valuable lessons in the Iraqi deserts of Anbar Province as they worked with local tribal leaders and turned the tide against Qaeda insurgents in 2007. Those lessons were later employed in Afghanistan.

But the broader effort to build institutions that can maintain rule of law amid Iraq’s sectarian stresses has proved more challenging, both for the military and its civilian partners, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Security and International Studies. As the Pentagon draws down its forces, the strains of a decade of war have underscored both the limits of an all-volunteer force and the critical need to train Iraqi (and Afghan) forces who can keep the peace.

Many American officers, fearing Iraq’s instability, had hoped to leave a larger, more enduring military presence than the one allowed for under the agreement reached this year with the government in Baghdad.

Although Thursday’s ceremony represented the official 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.

Those troops that remain are still being attacked daily, mainly by artillery or mortar fire on the bases, and roadside bombs aimed at convoys heading south toward Kuwait.

Even after the last two bases are closed and the final American combat troops withdraw from Iraq by Dec. 31, 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 to the Iraqis.

But negotiations could resume next year on whether additional American military personnel can return to assist their Iraqi counterparts further.

Iraq’s military has critical weaknesses in a number of areas, from air defenses to basic logistical tasks like moving food and fuel and servicing the armored vehicles it is inheriting from the Americans and the jets it is buying. There are shortfalls in military engineers, artillery and intelligence.

“From a standpoint of being able to defend against an external threat, they have very limited to little capability, quite frankly,” Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the departing American commander in Iraq, said in an interview after the ceremony.

Although the American withdrawal has removed one central motive for the jihadis who flooded into Iraq after the invasion in 2003, Al Qaeda’s Iraqi arm has carried out a number of spectacular bombings over the past year, and some intelligence analysts fear it is in resurgence.

Even in its twilight days, the American military here has suffered humiliating attacks that complicated the handover. In the spring, commanders stopped holding large base-closing ceremonies because insurgents were taking advantage of them to strike at troops.

“We were having ceremonies and announcing it publicly and having a little formal process, but a couple of days before the base was to close, we would start to receive significant indirect fire attacks on the location,” said Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the military in Iraq. “We were suffering attacks, so we stopped.”

Since then, the closing of bases has been a quiet, closed-door meeting, where American and Iraqi military officials have signed documents that legally give the Iraqis control of the bases, exchanged handshakes and turned over keys.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey of the Army, has served two command tours in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, and he noted during the ceremony that the next time he comes to Iraq he will have to be officially invited.

“We will stand with you against terrorists and others that threaten to undo what we have accomplished together,” General Dempsey said during the end-of-mission ceremony. “We will work with you to secure our common interests in a more peaceful and prosperous region.”


  • Time will tell

    So now I get it.

    The Muslim world was left with anti-US feelings because of Iraq.

    They then hopped into a time machine and flew straight into the World Trade Center.

  • Milhouse

    The war in Iraq ended in victory. US troops are leaving because they’re no longer needed. This should be a huge celebration, with appropriate thanks and acknowledgment to President Bush who conducted it, and who set the withdrawal schedule that the current president has carried out. But the current president is jealous of his predecessor’s success, and won’t let the word “victory” pass his lips. Instead of returning in triumph after a job well done, he wants to give the impression that the USA is leaving with its tail between its legs, a defeated nation that only he saved from worse.