US lowers flag to end Iraq war

 

The US military has formally shut down the war in Iraq, officially retiring the flag of US Forces-Iraq.

Troops lowered the flag and wrapped it in camouflage, formally "casing" it, according to Army tradition.

The Baghdad ceremony was attended by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who told troops they leave Iraq with "lasting pride".

Panetta said veterans of the nearly nine-year conflict can be "secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside".

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Lloyd Austin, the top US commander in Iraq, also spoke at the ceremony at Baghdad International Airport.

The nearly nine-year war has cost 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than 800 billion dollars (£516 billion).

Panetta stepped off his military plane in Baghdad as the leader of America's war in Iraq, but will leave as one of many top US and global officials who hope to work with the struggling nation as it tries to find its new place in the Middle East and the broader world.

He and several other US diplomatic, military and defence leaders participated in the highly symbolic ceremony.

The US Forces-Iraq flag will be brought back to the United States.

"You will leave with great pride - lasting pride," Panetta told the troops. "Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside and to offer hope for prosperity and peace to this country's future generations."

During several stops in Afghanistan this week, Panetta made it clear that the US can be proud of its accomplishments in Iraq.

"We spilled a lot of blood there," Panetta said. "But all of that has not been in vain. It's been to achieve a mission making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself."

That, he said, is "a tribute to everybody - everybody who fought in that war, everybody who spilled blood in that war, everybody who was dedicated to making sure we could achieve that mission".

Panetta echoed President Barack Obama's promise that 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.

As of today, there were two US bases and about 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 are due to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.

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

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 defence officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.

Still, despite 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 finalise the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this 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 the ceremony will allow the president to fulfil a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time.

Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.

Panetta acknowledged the difficulties for Iraq in the coming years, as the country tries to find its footing.

"They're going face challenges in the future," Panetta said on Wednesday during a visit to troops in Afghanistan.

"They'll face challenges from terrorism, they'll face challenges from those that would want to divide their country. They'll face challenges from just the test of democracy, a new democracy and trying to make it work. But the fact is, we have given them the opportunity to be able to succeed."

The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen Lloyd Austin, the top US commander in Iraq.

Austin is leading the massive logistical challenge of closing 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.

Over the coming days, the final few thousand US troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights - a marked contrast to the shock and awe that rocked the country on March 20, 2003, as the US invasion began.

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