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Iraq war 'not in vain,' Panetta says at withdrawal ceremony

After nine years, the U.S. military mission in Iraq formally ends.

December 15, 2011|By David S. Cloud and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Troops march in Baghdad during the ceremony marking the end of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
Troops march in Baghdad during the ceremony marking the end of the U.S. military… (Khalid Mohammed, Associated…)

Reporting from Baghdad — After nearly nine years of war, the loss of more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the U.S. military mission in Iraq has formally ended.

But violence continues to roil the Mideast nation, and its political destiny is far from certain.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other top U.S. officials conducted a low-key ceremony on a military base at the Baghdad airport Thursday, furling the flag to signal the official conclusion of one of the most divisive wars in American history.

PHOTOS: U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq

Panetta did not address the controversial origins of the conflict or Iraq's continuing troubles. Instead, he paid tribute to the sacrifices of U.S. troops, nearly 4,500 of whom were killed and 32,200 wounded since President George W. Bush ordered the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

"To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people," Panetta told about 200 troops and a few Iraqi officials during the 45-minute ceremony. "But those lives were not lost in vain: They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq."

Only two U.S. bases and about 4,000 troops remain in Iraq, the rear guard of a force that was more than 170,000 strong at the height of the war and once controlled hundreds of bases. The last of the troops will leave this weekend, officials said.

About 200 U.S. military personnel will stay in Baghdad to administer arms sales and other limited military exchanges as members of the U.S. diplomatic mission.

After more than eight years of security efforts, employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad say they still find it too dangerous to work in the country outside the campus-like Green Zone, a fortified area hidden behind a series of towering walls.

But there is no sanctuary from the sectarian divisions that remain a source of instability.

The Shiite Muslim-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is riddled with corruption, divided and often dysfunctional. Resentment continues to simmer among the Sunni Arab minority that ran Iraq during Hussein's days and is now politically marginalized.

Some Sunnis are urging secession, or at least a state within a state similar to the Kurdish-controlled region in northern Iraq.

The government also faces continuing problems with private Shiite militias, some with close ties to Shiite-run Iran. Muqtada Sadr, the virulently anti-American cleric whose militiamen have fought and killed U.S. troops, controls the Promised Day Brigade in open defiance of Iraq's new constitution. His party holds 40 seats in parliament.

"They threaten the use of that militia if they don't get their way," Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, says of the Sadrists. "It's an affront to Iraq's sovereignty. And potentially what you have is a government within a government."

The violence also goes on — by some estimates, an average of 30 bombings and other attacks each week and about 10 deaths a day. That death toll is roughly 20% of what it was during the worst days of the

Shiite-Sunni warfare in 2006.

More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, according to Iraq Body Count, a website that has tracked the war. About 12% died at the hands of American forces and the rest in terrorist attacks, sectarian violence and extrajudicial executions.

The security of civilians is now the responsibility of Iraqi troops and police, visible on virtually every major street in Baghdad, searching passing cars and patrolling avenues. More than a year ago, they took over security responsibilities after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq's cities.

With the Americans gone, it is up to men like Cpl. Hatim Abdul Kareem to help control the country's endemic violence. He has his doubts. A Shiite, he lost a cousin to sectarian violence. He fears more bloodletting after U.S. troops leave.

"After the Americans are gone, there will be war in the streets," he said. "This is not just me saying this. Other soldiers are saying this. My family, my friends, they're all saying the violence will get worse."

When American diplomats venture out, it's with the equivalent of a platoon of armored vehicles and gun-toting guards. Now their chief protector, the U.S. military, is gone. An army of private guards has taken its place.

Of the 16,000 employees expected to be working at the embassy next year, only 1,500 to 2,000 will be State Department staffers. Many of the rest will be security contractors.

Just as U.S. troops were pulling out this month, the embassy issued a series of chilling warnings about the threat of kidnapping. Under tightened security procedures, even walking across the secured Green Zone grounds requires an armed escort.

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