President Obama announces the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in the… (Shawn Thew / EPA )
Reporting from Washington and Beirut — By declaring that the last American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, President Obama signaled the official close to one of the longest, most politically contentious wars in U.S. history — and the end to an American attempt to transform the Middle East with military might.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will leave behind a stumbling young democracy, still beset by sectarian violence and tilting closer to its neighbor, Iran, a bitter U.S. foe.
They will return home to a country that has largely turned inward to face its own economic problems, and which long ago lost heart in a war fought in the name of protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
Obama promised Friday that the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops would be "home for the holidays," fulfilling a campaign promise but also acceding to the reality of a depleted treasury and overwhelming American public opinion. And the step reflected the political fact that Iraq demanded an end to the U.S. presence.
The Iraq war will be remembered as a stubborn, shifting campaign to restructure a society that had been held together for decades through tyrannical force. It was set against an ever-dangerous landscape of remote-controlled bombs, unbearable heat and uncertain alliances.
Iraq brought a new lexicon to American English: "war of choice," "shock and awe," "IED," "coalition of the willing," "surge." It gave new meaning to the term "mission accomplished," which was emblazoned on a banner behind President George W. Bush as he welcomed home a returning aircraft carrier in May 2003, six weeks after the war had begun and when victory seemed at hand.
More than eight years later, the war is ending after taking the lives of more than 4,400 American troops, most of them killed after the initial invasion. Tens of thousands were injured, including legions of amputees and multitudes suffering from battle trauma. Estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 100,000 upward.
Estimates of the dollar cost vary, rising as high as $1 trillion or more. The end of the war will leave the United States with one major theater of combat: Afghanistan, the only conflict in American history to last longer than Iraq.
And yet for the last several months, the Obama administration sought to find a political formula with the Iraqi government that would keep a few thousand U.S. troops in the country. The talks foundered largely over Iraqi opposition to granting immunity from prosecution for Americans troops who would remain.
In Iraq, a war-weary population appears happy to see the United States leave.
The most ardent opponents of a continued U.S. presence are the followers of the virulently anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose former Mahdi Army militiamen fought ferociously against U.S. troops in Baghdad's Sadr City and elsewhere. But even some of Washington's Kurdish allies say that U.S. troops have worn out their welcome.
An Iraqi political analyst, Haider Saeed, said the desire to see the U.S. troops depart is part of a prevalent culture of "antagonism" toward Washington, a legacy of the years of bloodshed.
"My concern is that the political class and the ruling class in Iraq don't have a vision of a long-term relationship of partnership with the U.S.A.," Saeed said. But, he added, "We have to remember that those who are ruling Iraq have an education of antagonism against America."
But the decision to proceed with complete withdrawal also reflected the White House's own ambivalence about keeping forces in Iraq, which administration aides feared would be seen as a betrayal of Obama's promise, during his 2008 presidential campaign, to end the conflict and withdraw American combat troops.
Obama alluded to that in announcing the decision at the White House: "I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year," the president said after a videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. "After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over."
Declaring that the "tide of war is receding," Obama and other administration officials sought to portray the move as an honorable completion of a long and difficult mission and part of a broader shift away from direct U.S. military involvement not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and Libya as well.
Leading Republicans denounced the White House failure to reach an agreement with Iraq on allowing a small contingent of U.S. troops to remain. They argued that keeping some U.S. troops there would help preserve still fragile security gains, enable continued training of Iraqi forces, prevent a resurgence of sectarian and ethnic violence, and serve as a deterrent to Iran.
Iraq's neighbor and former enemy has sought influence for years by supplying weapons and training to Shiite Muslim militant groups.