U.S. officially ends nearly nine-year-long war in Iraq

December 15th, 2011 - 11:19 pm ICT by BNO News  

BAGHDAD (BNO NEWS) — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday officially ended the U.S.-led war in Iraq during a highly symbolic ceremony in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. It brings to an end nearly nine years of U.S. presence in the war-torn country.

Panetta was joined by a number of other U.S. officials, including Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, and Ambassador James Jeffrey. A range of Iraqi officials were also present.

“No words, no ceremony can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that have brought this day to pass,” Panetta said at the ceremony, during which he paid tribute to the Iraqi government and their security forces. “Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now a reality,” he said.

U.S. and British troops, along with troops from several other countries, invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein within a month. Coalition leaders said the reasons for the invasion were to disarm Iraq of alleged weapons of mass destruction, end Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for terrorism and to ‘free’ the Iraqi people.

But weapons of mass destruction were never found, and tens of thousands of civilians were killed as insurgents carried out attacks across the country. A total of 4,802 coalition service members were killed during the war, of whom 4,484 were Americans, 179 were Britons and 139 others were from other nations such as Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, Spain and Ukraine.

Panetta recognized that the cost of the war has been high for both the Iraqi people and the United States. “But because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity,” the secretary said. About 5,500 U.S. troops are still in Iraq but will leave by December 31.

The country has witnessed a resurgence in militant attacks in recent months, but violence has dropped significantly since its peak in 2006 and 2007. “The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt. Violence levels are down, al-Qaeda weakened, rule of law strengthened, educational opportunities expanded and economic growth expanding,” Panetta said. “And this progress has been sustained even as we have withdrawn nearly 150,000 U.S. combat forces from the country.”

With the casing of the U.S. Forces-Iraq flag during Thursday’s ceremony, the war officially ended although combat operations already came to an end in September 2010. At that time, the operational name for U.S. involvement in Iraq changed from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to “Operation New Dawn.”

After the casing of the flag on Thursday, Panetta met with about 100 service members who are still in Iraq to thank them for their service during the war. “It’s because of you [..] that we are able to be here today to mark the end of this war,” he told the service members.

In a statement, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the ceremony closes ‘an important chapter’ in Iraq’s recent history. “We remember those British, American and other coalition military personnel who were killed or injured in Iraq, and the great suffering among ordinary Iraqis as the country has struggled to overcome terrorism and insurgency,” he said.

Hague added: “Looking to the future, I hope to see continued improvements in security and the strengthening of Iraq’s young democracy. We will continue to work with the Government and people of Iraq to that end, supporting all Iraqis in the political, social and economic development of their country.”

On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to several thousand American troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He spoke in advance of Thursday’s ceremony in Baghdad to thank those who previously served in Iraq.

“Those last American troops [who are still in Iraq] will move south on desert sands, and then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high,” Obama said. “One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over.”

Obama recognized Iraq has many challenges ahead, but he said he believes the United States is leaving behind a ’sovereign, stable and self-reliant’ country with a representative government which was elected by its people. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success,” the U.S. president said.

Obama added: “We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was ‘too soon to tell’ what Americans accomplished in Iraq. “I believe that it’s going to be some years before we can make a final judgment,” she said. “But having spent the last two days working on Iraq, meeting with [Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki, with various ministers of his government [..], it is a functioning state, it is a democratically elected leadership, it is able to protect its own internal security, mostly, although they face a lot of challenges, and there is a great commitment to investment and trade that they have made.”

When asked if the war was worth the U.S. lives and resources, Clinton said “that’ll be a retrospective for historians.” “But the Iraqi people now have a chance to chart their own future, which they didn’t have before,” she said. Some observers fear a sudden resurgence in militant attacks in the months ahead now the last U.S. troops are leaving.

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