After nearly nine years of war, the last convoy of US troops left Iraq, completing their withdrawal from the country. About 100 armoured vehicles carrying 500 soldiers crossed the southern Iraqi border into Kuwait overnight. (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk)
There is a sharp contrast between the low-key exit and the start of the war, before dawn on March 20, 2003. The war began with an air strike in southern Baghdad where Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding.
In 2003 US troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, who was hanged at the end of 2006.
Since the beginning of the US-led campaign nearly 4,500 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.
There were 170,000 US troops and more than 500 bases in Iraq at the peak of the operation (see below), which has cost nearly $1 trillion to Washington.
Over the last year the final troops had to complete the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts. They also methodically moved more than 50,000 US troops and their equipment out of Iraq.
However combat missions in Iraq ended in 2010 and US forces had already handed over much of their security role.
“(It’s) a good feeling… knowing this is going to be the last mission out of here,” said Private First Class Martin Lamb, part of the final “tactical road march” out of Iraq.
“Part of history, you know – we’re the last ones out.”
Although the US wanted to leave a small training and counter-terrorism presence in Iraq, they were unable to strike a deal with Baghdad due to legal issues like immunity for troops.
Therefore only 157 US soldiers remain in Iraq now, responsible for training at the US embassy, as well as a small contingent of marines protecting the diplomatic mission.
In October US president Barack Obama announced that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. He then marked the end of the war during his meeting with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week (photo, from aljazeera.com).
The date of the troops withdrawal was previously agreed by former president George W. Bush in 2008.
President Obama recently paid tribute to the soldiers who had served in Iraq during a speech at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
After acknowledging that the war had been controversial he told returning troops that they were leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.
The end of the war in Iraq allows president Obama to fulfil an important campaign promise, less than a year before the next US presidential election.
Now Washington plans to maintain a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, encourage a bilateral relationship with Baghdad and keep a strong military force in the region.
However fears remain concerning the Iraqis ability to forge their new government amid sectarian clashes.
While US troops withdrew, Iraq is going through renewed political deadlock. A lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc, which won the elections in March 2010 drawing most of its support from minority Sunnis, has said it has suspended its participation in parliament in order to protest the control of key posts by PM Nouri al-Maliki.
On Sunday Hamid al-Mutlaq said the decision was due to the Shia-dominated government’s failure to share more
powers with the Sunni-backed bloc.
And though the parliamentary elections took place two years ago, Iraq still has no defence or interior minister.
As a result, although many Iraqis are nervous and uncertain about their country’s future.
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, while others said that although they were relieved at the end of Saddam Hussein, the war went on too long.
Other criticised the Americans for leaving a destroyed Iraq with thousands of widows and orphans, without rebuilding the devastated infrastructures, and with a people deeply divided along sectarian lines.