Last US troops elated to leave Iraq

 

The last US soldiers rolled out of Iraq across the border into neighboring Kuwait at daybreak today, whooping, fist bumping and hugging each other in a burst of joy and relief. Their convoy's exit marked the end of a bitterly divisive war that raged for nearly nine years and left Iraq shattered, with troubling questions lingering over whether the Arab nation will remain a steadfast US ally.

The mission cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the US Treasury. The question of whether it was worth it all is yet unanswered.

After a ceremony on Thursday in Baghdad formally marking the end of the war, the timing and all other details of the departure of the last convoy were kept under tight secrecy out of security concerns for about 500 troops and more than 110 vehicles that were part of it. The low-key end to the war was just another reminder of how dangerous Iraq remains, even though violence is lower now than at any other time since the 2003 invasion.

The last convoy of MRAPs, heavily armored personnel carriers, made a largely uneventful journey out except for a few equipment malfunctions along the way. It was dark and little was visible through the MRAP windows as they cruised through the southern Iraqi desert. The 210-mile trip from a base in southern Iraq took about five hours.

When the convoy crossed the border into Kuwait around 7:45 a.m. local time, the atmosphere was subdued inside one of the vehicles, with no shouting or yelling. Along the road, a small group of Iraqi soldiers waved to the departing American troops.

"My heart goes out to the Iraqis," said Warrant Officer John Jewell, acknowledging the challenges ahead. "The innocent always pay the bill."

Soldiers standing just inside the crossing on the Kuwaiti side of the border waved and snapped photos as the final trucks rumbled over.

"I'm pretty excited," said Sgt. Ashley Vorhees. "I'm out of Iraq. It's all smooth sailing from here."

The war that began in a blaze of aerial bombardment meant to shock and awe the dictator Saddam Hussein and his loyalists ended quietly and with minimal fanfare.

President Barack Obama stopped short of calling the US effort in Iraq a victory in an interview taped Thursday with ABC News' Barbara Walters.

"I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future," Obama said.

In the final days, US officials acknowledged the cost in blood and dollars was high, but tried to paint a picture of victory — for both the troops and the Iraqi people now freed of a dictator and on a path to democracy. But gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?

Many Iraqis, however, are nervous and uncertain about the future. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on Dec. 30 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.

Some criticized the Americans for leaving behind a destroyed country with thousands of widows and orphans, a people deeply divided along sectarian lines and without rebuilding the devastated infrastructure.

"We are glad to see the last US soldier leaving the country today. It is an important day in Iraq's history, but the most important thing now is the future of Iraq," said 25-year-old Said Hassan, the owner of money exchange shop in Baghdad. "The Americans have left behind them a country that is s falling apart and an Iraqi army and security forces that have a long way ahead to be able to defend the nation and the people."

Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country.

Others said that while grateful for US help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.

The quiet exit stood in sharp contrast to the high-octane start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. US and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.

The last few thousand US troops left in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights. They pulled out at night in hopes it would be more secure and left in time for at least some of the troops to join families at home for the Christmas holidays.

The final convoys began to leave on Saturday evening from Camp Adder base near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. The vehicles lined up in an open field to prepare and soldiers went through last-minute equipment checks to make sure radios, weapons and other gear were working.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commanding general for Iraq, walked through the rows of vehicles, talking to soldiers over the low hum of the engines. He thanked them for their service and reminded them to stay vigilant on their final mission.

"I wanted to remind them that we have an important mission left in the country of Iraq. We want to stay focused and we want to make sure that we're doing the right things to protect ourselves," Austin said.

Austin also presided over the last casing ceremony in Iraq for the battalion that made up the bulk of the people leaving on the last convoys. In the ceremony, the unit puts away their flags or "cases" them in preparation for departure.

After the ceremony on Saturday evening, the commander of the Special Troops Battalion, Lt. Col. Jack Vantress told his soldiers:

"We are closing the book on an operation that has brought freedom to a country that was repressed. When the sun comes up, we'll be across the berm. Laser focus. Laser focus. You've got time, hours of road to go. There are people out there who still want to hurt you."

The final troops completed the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 US troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.

As of Thursday, there were two US bases and less than 4,000 US troops in Iraq — a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All US troops were slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.

"The biggest thing about going home is just that it's home," Staff Sgt. Daniel Gaumer, 37, from Ft. Hood, Texas said before the convoy left Camp Adder. "It's civilization as I know it, the Western world, not sand and dust and the occasional rain here and there. It's home."

Spc. Jesse Jones, a 23-year-old who volunteered to be on the last convoy, said: "It's just an honor to be able to serve your country and say that you helped close out the war in Iraq. ... Not a lot of people can say that they did huge things like that that will probably be in the history books."

The total US departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence-sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult region.

Obama's earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

The US plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.

US officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. US defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.

Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship.

Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration and will allow the president to fulfill a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is roiling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.

Capt. Mark Askew, a 28-year-old from Tampa, Florida who was among the last soldiers to leave, said the answer to the question of whether the Iraq war was worth the cost will depend on what type of country and government Iraq ends up with years from now, whether they are democratic, respect human rights and are considered an American ally.

"It depends on what Iraq does after we leave," he said, speaking before the final convoy departed. "I don't expect them to turn into South Korea or Japan overnight."

AP

Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
Arts and Entertainment
Tulisa as a judge on the X Factor in 2012
tvLouis Walsh confirms star's return
Life and Style
fashionClothes shop opens on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAS Developer - DI Studio - Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Developer, Chester, Banking, DI Studio, £450-...

Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40 - £50K first year: SThree: SThree Group an...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone