Elated, Last U.S. Troops Leave Iraq, Ending War

The last U.S. soldiers rolled out of Iraq across the border into neighboring Kuwait at daybreak Sunday, 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 and struggling to recover.

The war cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The question of whether it was worth it all - or whether the new government the Americans leave behind will remain a steadfast U.S. ally - is yet unanswered.

The 5-hour drive by the last convoy of MRAPS, heavily armored personnel carries, took place under cover of darkness and under strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks on the withdrawing troops. The 500 soldiers didn't even tell their Iraqi partners they were leaving before they slipped out of the last American base and started down the barren desert highway to the Kuwaiti border before dawn Sunday.

The atmosphere was subdued inside one of the vehicles as it streamed down the highway, with little visible in the blackness outside through the MRAP's small windows. 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."

But after crossing the berm at the Kuwaiti border, lit with floodlights and ringed with barbed wire, the troops from the 3rd brigade of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division were elated. They cheered, pumped fists in the air and gave each other chest bumps and bear hugs. "We're on top of the world!" shouted one soldier from the turret of his vehicle.

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

The quiet withdrawal was a stark 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 Hussein was believed to be hiding, the opening shot in the famed "shock and awe" bombardment. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed from Kuwait across the featureless deserts of southern Iraq toward the capital.

Saddam and his regime fell within weeks, and the dictator was captured by the end of the year - to be executed by Iraq's new Shiite rulers in 2006. But Saddam's end only opened the door to years more of conflict as Iraq was plunged into a vicious sectarian war between its Shiite and Sunni communities. The near civil war devastated the country, and its legacy includes thousands of widows and orphans, a people deeply divided along sectarian lines and infrastructure that remains largely in ruins.

In the past two years, violence has dropped dramatically, and Iraqi security forces that U.S. troops struggled for years to train have improved. But the sectarian wounds remain unhealed. Even as U.S. troops were leaving, the main Sunni-backed political bloc announced Sunday it was suspending its participation in parliament to protest the monopoly on government posts by Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

President Barack Obama stopped short of calling the U.S. 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, U.S. 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?

"We are glad to see the last U.S. 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 U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.

Iraq's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari said Sunday that his troops were up to the task of uprooting militant groups. Sunni militants continue to carry out bombing and shooting against police, soldiers and civilians, and Shiite militias continue to operate.

"There are only scattered terrorists hiding here and there and we are seeking intelligence information to eliminate them," Zebari said. "We are confident that there will be no danger."

The U.S. convoys Sunday were the last of a massive operation pulling out American forces that has lasted for months to meet the end-of-the-year deadline agreed with the Iraqis during the administration of President George W. Bush.

As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and less than 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq - a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by Bush in 2007, when violence was at its worst. As of Saturday night, that was down to one base - Camp Adder - and the final 500 soldiers.

On Saturday evening at Camp Adder, 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.

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."

He added a warning to watch out for any final attacks. "Laser focus. Laser focus. You've got time, hours of road to go. There are people out there who still want to hurt you."

Early Saturday morning, the brigade's remaining interpreters made their routine calls to the local tribal sheiks and government leaders that the troops deal with, so that they would assume that it was just a normal day.

"The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there," said Spc. Joseph, an Iraqi American who emigrated from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted. He asked that his full name be withheld to protect his family.

In a guard tower overlooking a now empty checkpoint at the base, Sgt. Ashley Vorhees and another soldier talked about what they looked forward to most in getting home. The 29-year-old Vorhees planned to go for Mexican food at Rosa's, a restaurant in Killeen, Texas. Another joy of home, she said: you don't have to bring your weapon when you go to the bathroom.

At its height, Camp Adder boasted a Taco Bell, a KFC, an Italian restaurant and two Green Beans coffee shops. On Saturday, it felt empty, with abandoned volleyball and basketball courts and a gym called "House of Pain." Hundreds of vehicles - trucks, buses - waited in a lot to be handed over to the Iraqi military, which is taking over the site. With the Americans gone, the base reverts to its former name, Imam Ali Air Base.

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 could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

The U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, hoping to foster a lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region. Obama met in Washington with Prime Minister al-Maliki last week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship.

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

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."

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  • by Back Location: Gvlle on Dec 19, 2011 at 07:56 AM
    Some of you people seem to be confused. 1)After 9/11 you were screaminig at Bush to do whatever it took so it would not ever happen again. Now you are solely blaming him for doing what you asked of him? 2)Members of congress, rep. & dem., approved the war. 3)We went after a dictator that was killing his own countrymen with WMD(gassing Kurds), but yet it is ok to be in Lybia because of the same reason? So explain to me why obama is not to share the blame when ending the war immediately was one of his campaign platforms? I wonder why he has waited until now? I wonder why the blind sheep refuse to accept facts until they benefit them or their arguments? Hum.
  • by porkchop Location: g'ville on Dec 19, 2011 at 06:26 AM
    Now we must build a memorial in Washington, DC, displaying the names of the dead.
  • by Lavon Location: Goldsboro on Dec 19, 2011 at 06:21 AM
    Look at first you were mad because Obama wouldn't bring the Troops home and now your mad because he's bringing them home. Now which position are you going to take? Do you want them home or not? Talk about hypocrites I tell you. You people are pathetic!
  • by Audra Location: SoCal, unfortunately on Dec 19, 2011 at 04:11 AM
    Well isn't that just special. Just in time to create a hoopla right as the election year rolls in. What a coincidence. Four years in office and gracious me, it just so happened to happen now... how nice for him. I bet he's just tickled pink.
  • by me Location: gville on Dec 18, 2011 at 04:40 PM
    What about the troops in Afghanistan, Lybia, etc..
    • reply
      by 40some on Dec 18, 2011 at 09:50 PM in reply to me
      They're still there.
  • by Grumpy Location: G'Vegas on Dec 18, 2011 at 02:57 PM
    We came to the rescue of our ally Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was told what it would take for us to back off, he agreed but went back on his word. We finished what the UN was unable or unwilling to do. God Bless George Bush. Obama would still be talking just like he is doing with Iran. We will live to regret Iran decisions, mark my word. Nuff Said.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Dec 19, 2011 at 01:11 AM in reply to Grumpy
      You would just love that woundnt you? Idiot.
      • reply
        by ? on Dec 19, 2011 at 08:36 AM in reply to
        Considering Iran has been giving the world the middle finger for about twenty-five years now, with their illegal nuclear programs, their components for ICBMs that they just got (also illegal), and their general distaste (outright hate) for anything American or Christian, I’d say it’s only a matter of time before we go to war with Iran. And more then likely will be started by Obama once he get’s re-elected and I’m sure everyone who voted for him will give him their full support while blaming Bush, Bush senior, Reagan, or basically anyone not a Liberal Democrat for whatever’s popular at the time. That’s what this has turned into, a blame game, give Obama all the credit and blame everything on Bush without looking at any facts. Seriously, you guys give Obama way too much credit for things, whether it’s Osama (a big thank you to the Navy and CIA for that one), Kaddafi (Good job to the Rebels for that), and now this, which is when we had to leave by anyway, guaranteed by Bush and Congress just so you know (if anything Obama just keeping a promise to Iraq, not the American people).
        • reply
          by Anon on Dec 19, 2011 at 10:15 AM in reply to ?
          Very well said and many facts that are verifiable "?" but the liberal idiots on this site will come back and say you are lying anyway, you are a FOX news watcher. They can't handle the facts, they would rather live wearing their rose colored glasses and collecting their welfare checks.
        • reply
          by ? on Dec 19, 2011 at 11:35 AM in reply to ?
          to Anon: Which is rather funny considering I don't watch Fox News at all, in fact I consider myself a Liberal Conservative. I always love how people jump to conclusions; on this site alone I’ve been called both a Libterd and a Repug, sometimes in the same topic, I always get a good laugh every time come to this site.
        • reply
          by Anon on Dec 19, 2011 at 12:49 PM in reply to ?
          To ?: I understand completely, I am an independent and have voted both sides of the fence for my 50 plus years depending on what the candidates stand for and what their record is. I have probably been called more names on this site than I have elsewhere over my lifetime. I am sorry to say, sometimes it gets the best of me and I return the "favor" in kind but at the end of the day this site means nothing. Obama will be out of office in 2012, due to his own actions (or should I say inactions) and this country will move forward and leave the nightmare of the last 3 year (4 by the time he is gone) behind us. I do sometimes watch FOX News, honestly, I find it more reliable and trustworthy. Maybe that is why it has won numerous awards? However, I also watch ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, etc.. whatever channel happens to be on when the news comes on. Reading and researching also tends to be informative. I wish more on this site would do just that, find the facts for themselves, never believe any media outlet to tell you the whole truth, have intelligent conversation and leave the mud slinging to the politicians.
        • reply
          by ? on Dec 19, 2011 at 01:19 PM in reply to ?
          to Anon: Excellently put! I couldn’t agree more!!
  • by Cyndi Location: nc on Dec 18, 2011 at 01:08 PM
    Lets not play the blame game...I feel that what was done kept the war from being here on our home land. so I for one thank our troops and the men and women who gave their lives to save ours and God Bless the USA.
  • by Tim Location: Greenville on Dec 18, 2011 at 11:34 AM
    God bless the troops and Obama for ending this nightmare of a war.
    • reply
      by obamanot on Dec 18, 2011 at 01:06 PM in reply to Tim
      I like your name spelled backwards.Mit(t).
      • reply
        by Tim on Dec 18, 2011 at 02:55 PM in reply to obamanot
        Can you leave the bi-partisan feelings at the door for once and be happy for the troops and this decision? Did'nt think so. And you have already said that comment once to me before. I bet you think that is the wittiest reply ever.
    • reply
      by Cyndi on Dec 18, 2011 at 01:15 PM in reply to Tim
      Obama has not ended anything. He cares less for the troops than any President. He is only doing this because he thinks it will win him the election again and if he does win everyone needs to drop to their knees and pray to God for guidance and his help, because God will be the only one that can save this country.
      • reply
        by Tim on Dec 18, 2011 at 02:52 PM in reply to Cyndi
        Please elaborate Cyndi. How does he care less for the troops? By raising their pay? By getting them out of Iraq? You just do not like him, that is all.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 03:25 PM in reply to Cyndi
        Save your bible thumping rhetoric for church.
      • reply
        by gethimout on Dec 18, 2011 at 04:38 PM in reply to Cyndi
        You right Cyndi.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 05:02 PM in reply to Cyndi
        I bet you $10,000.00 you watch Fox news, and listen to Beck and Rush! Your mother should be very proud she raised such an intelligent daughter.
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Dec 19, 2011 at 01:17 AM in reply to
          She raised an Idiot, a booming Idiot.
      • reply
        by Jim on Dec 18, 2011 at 11:15 PM in reply to Cyndi
        The media has done a good job of not highlighting the fact that we HAVE TO LEAVE IRAQ. We are being THROWN OUT OF IRAQ. No soldiers can be in Iraq after midnight Dec. 31th. Only those Marines required to guard our enbassy can remain. We fought their war and lost our lives and now they kick us out.
      • reply
        by Congrats on Dec 19, 2011 at 01:16 AM in reply to Cyndi
        Cyndi, you are the babble queeen of the week. Don't knock, no body home upstairs.
      • reply
        by Correct Cyndi on Dec 19, 2011 at 07:24 AM in reply to Cyndi
        You are correct Cyndi. What these liberal media sheep don't seem to understand or comprehend is that Bush had set the withdraw in place before he left office and thanks to Obama's policies if anyone stayed they would not have diplomatic ammunity. Obama had no choice unless he wanted to leave our military totally unprotected and frankly I am surprised that wasn't his choice! Not to worry, Obama WILL be voted OUT in 2012 and we will have at least some sense of intelligence back in the white house!!
      • reply
        by jenny on Dec 21, 2011 at 02:18 PM in reply to Cyndi
        have you ever seen or spoken to god and is god a womn
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Dec 19, 2011 at 08:07 AM in reply to Tim
      It was Bush who signed the agreement that our troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Not Obama.
  • by anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 11:21 AM
    Obamanot can we atleast let our troops savor the taste of safety before we so quickly jump to send them somewhere else to risk their lives for us? Are you in any danger at this point in time from the mexican border no I dont think so. The problem we have in this country is we all are so quick to judge and place blame on anyone or anything for the way our economy is the way our society is and in Eastern North Carolina it is placed on the hispanics. Can we atleast thank our troops for their hard work, time, and many hard sacrifices? Why start a war when we are already involved in so many. Our troops cant even come home yet they are sitting in Kuwait in case Iraq errupts into utter chaos. Lets give them a chance to come home before we send them somewhere else. Remember we lost many locally to this war lets honor them today! Thanks to the troops! And god bless the USA!
    • reply
      by Chuck on Dec 18, 2011 at 11:46 AM in reply to anonymous
      Regardless of what Obama thinks,I do not think Congress will let us get involved in another war. I hope everyone who "Runs" this country has learned a lesson. I Blame Bush for the 3500 young men & Women who died serving this counry in this war USA should have never been involved in.Bush got the USA involved in Iraq because he was mad at Iraq for upsetting his daddy. These Nuts in Iraq & Iran & Other middle east countries will never change their thinking & Will always be fighting each other. I Pray that the USA will stay out of this mess over there. It is time for the USA to look out for its own citizens. I Pray for all the solders who died invain for Bushs stupid decisions. May they rest in peace.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 04:58 PM in reply to Chuck
        I AGREE!!!
      • reply
        by ? on Dec 19, 2011 at 08:09 AM in reply to Chuck
        Wait til they nuke us then you'll be singing a different tune, just like after 9/11.
  • by Demosthenes on Dec 18, 2011 at 10:19 AM
    Remember Ashraf. Those blood of those 3500 souls will be on all our hands.
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