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."