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News, December 2011
US formally ends Iraq war with little fanfare
Dec 15, 11:59 AM EST
BAGHDAD (AP) --
BAGHDAD (AP) -- There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner. No victory parade down the center of this capital scarred and rearranged by nearly nine years of war. No crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.
Instead, the U.S. military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq on Thursday with a businesslike closing ceremony behind blast walls in a fortified compound at Baghdad airport. The flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up in a 45-minute ceremony. No senior Iraqi political figures attended.
With that, and brief words from top American officials who flew in under tight security still necessary because of the ongoing violence in Iraq, the U.S. drew the curtain on a war that left 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.
The conflict also left another 32,000 Americans and far more Iraqis wounded, drained more than $800 billion from America's treasury and soured a majority of Americans on a war many initially supported as a just extension of the fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, they leave behind a nation free of Saddam's tyranny but fractured by violence and fearful of the future. Bombings and gun battles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security forces' ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.
"You will leave with great pride - lasting pride," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the troops seated in front of a small domed building in the airport complex. "Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history."
Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain of how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on the last day of 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.
"With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim, a Shiite whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City. "The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind them, in fact they left a ruined country and a divided nation."
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited not welcome in a proud country.
"The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said lawmaker Amir al-Kinani, a member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
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.
The low-key nature of the ceremony 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. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.
The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
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 U.S. commander in Iraq.
Austin led the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year - while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.
The war "tested our military's strength and our ability to adapt and evolve," he said, noting the development of the new counterinsurgency doctrine.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and about 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 President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All U.S. troops are 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 total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit 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.
Despite President Barack 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.
Despite the war's toll and unpopularity, Panetta said earlier this week, it "has not been in vain."
During a stop in Afghanistan, Panetta described the Iraq mission as "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."
Iraqi citizens offered a more pessimistic assessment. "The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. "The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans."
The Iraq Body Count website says more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion. The vast majority were civilians.
Panetta echoed President Barack Obama's promise that the U.S. 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.
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.
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 Thursday's ceremony 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.
US forces hold ceremony to mark end of Iraq mission
By News Wires
France 24, December 15, 2011, AFP -
US forces held a formal ceremony to lower the flag in Iraq on Thursday, ahead of their withdrawal from the country nearly nine years after the controversial invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
The ceremony marking the closure of the US military's headquarters near Baghdad comes after US President Barack Obama hailed the "extraordinary achievement" of the war in a speech to welcome home some of the troops.
It was attended by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, General Lloyd Austin, the commander of American forces in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey.
Iraq was represented by military chief of staff Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari, and defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari.
There are a little more than 4,000 US soldiers in Iraq, but they will depart in the coming days, at which point almost no more American troops will remain in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 personnel on more than 500 bases.
Iraq after the US pull out By FRANCE 24
The withdrawal will end a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the 2003 US-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian fighting.
In an aircraft hangar at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Obama was cheered by soldiers as he honoured nearly nine years of "bleeding and building."
"Tomorrow (Thursday), the colors of United States Forces - Iraq, the colours you fought under, will be formally cased in a ceremony in Baghdad," he said.
"One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people. America's war in Iraq will be over."
On Wednesday, Panetta said in Afghanistan he was heading to Iraq for the ceremony to "encase the flag and mark the end of the combat effort that we've made as a country."
"Our mission there was to establish an Iraq that would be sovereign and independent, that would be able to govern and secure itself. And I think we've done a great job there in trying to achieve that mission," he said.
"It doesn't mean they're not gonna face challenges in the future. They're gonna face terrorism, they're gonna face challenges from those that will want to divide their country, they'll face challenges from just the test of.. a new democracy and trying to make it work.
But "the fact is that we've given them the opportunity to be able to succeed," said Panetta.
The military ceremony comes a day after hundreds of people in Fallujah marked the impending departure of American forces by burning US flags and shouting slogans in support of the "resistance."
Fallujah, a city of about half a million people west of Baghdad, remains deeply scarred by two American military offensives in 2004, the latter of which is considered one of the fiercest for the United States since Vietnam.
Obama's predecessor George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing its then leader Saddam Hussein was endangering the world with weapons of mass destruction programmes.
Saddam was toppled and later executed, but such arms were never found.
Obama made his political career by opposing the war. In late 2002, he said he was against "dumb wars" such as Iraq, and rode anti-war fervor to the White House by promising to bring troops home.
The war was launched in March 2003 with a massive "shock and awe" campaign, followed by eight-plus years in which a US-led coalition sought not only had to rebuild the Iraqi military from the ground up, but also to establish a new political system.
Iraq now has a parliament and regular elections, and is ruled by a Shiite-led government that replaced Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.
The pullout, enshrined in a 2008 bilateral pact, is the latest stage in the changing US role in Iraq, from 2003-2004 when American officials ran the country to 2009 when the United Nations mandate ended, and last summer when Washington officially ended combat operations.
Biden visits Iraq as US troop pullout nears
US Vice President Joe Biden (file photo) touched down in Baghdad on Tuesday for a visit that marks the fulfillment of President Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw US troops by the end of 2011. Biden will meet with US troops and Iraqi leaders.
By News Wires (text)
France 24, November 29, 2011, REUTERS -
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday in a visit to mark the end of the U.S. war in Iraq as troops complete withdrawal by year-end.
Biden’s trip spotlights the fulfillment of a key pledge by President Barack Obama as he campaigns for re-election in 2012, winding down an unpopular war at a time when most Americans are preoccupied with the weak economy back home.
Marking the end of the drawdown, Biden will address U.S. forces in a ceremony to “commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops,” a White House official said. He will also meet with Iraqi leaders during the visit that ends Thursday.
“Over nearly three years in office, the administration has kept its promises on Iraq,” the official told reporters traveling with Biden.
Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion more than 8 ½ years ago, based on claims of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
From a peak above 170,000 troops in the 2007 surge, some 14,500 remain and nearly all will be gone by Dec. 31. Obama decided to pull them out on schedule after failing to agree terms with Baghdad to leave several thousand in place.
Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically compared to the darkest days of its civil war in 2006 and 2007, but the country remains unstable.
There have been a spate of deadly attacks in recent days and Obama has been criticized for not pushing harder to get agreement for many more U.S. troops to stay.
Ending U.S. involvement
Sectarian and ethnic conflicts between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds have impeded political progress and economic growth, and U.S. conservatives fear the troop pullout will also allow Iran to extend influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, heading a coalition including politicians vehemently opposed to foreign troops, backed a U.S. training presence but rejected any legal immunity for American forces, terms deemed unacceptable in Washington.
Maliki will visit Obama at the White House on Dec. 12.
U.S. voters are paying little attention to foreign affairs amid a tough economy back home and next November’s U.S. election will be primarily fought over the ability of Obama to spur growth and bring down painfully high unemployment.
The savings from ending the war in Iraq, as well as from drawing down troops in Afghanistan, will help Obama with the U.S. deficit in the face of severe budget constraints, as the president tries to persuade Congress to spend on jobs.
The cost to the U.S. taxpayer for the Iraq war in military spending alone is over $700 billion.
Fewer than 200 U.S. soldiers are expected to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31, part of a State Department task force responsible for military sales and, to some extent, advising Iraq’s security forces.
About 700 U.S. mostly civilian trainers will also stay, far fewer than the several thousand troops and contractors once under discussion.
The White House wants to underscore Obama’s national security track record, defending the Democratic president from Republican criticism by pointing to the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Washington’s help in overthrowing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from costly foreign wars.
Security experts, meanwhile, warn against thinking al Qaeda has been permanently dismantled in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are to leave by the end of 2014. They say the group may seek to recruit new supporters by proclaiming that it forced the United States out of both countries.
Deadly bombings continue to rock Iraq
By News Wires
France 24, November 28, 2011, AP -
A series of blasts struck an area west of Baghdad on Saturday where day laborers gather to find work, as well as a music and clothes market in the capital, killing at least 15 people, officials said.
The second day of major attacks this week in Iraq underscored the challenges still facing the country’s security forces as they approach a particularly fragile time. All American troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq in a matter of weeks, leaving Iraqi security forces with sole responsibility for securing the country.
The first two bombs exploded in the early morning in an area where day laborers wait for work in the mostly Sunni village of al-Zaidan, near the town of Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. They killed seven people and wounded 11 others, the officials said.
Hours later, three bombs exploded near the kiosks of vendors selling CDs and military uniforms in central Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharqi market district, killing eight people and wounding 19.
“I went outside my shop and saw people running in all directions trying to leave the market area. I saw several bodies and wounded people on the ground,” said Mohammed Youssef, who owns a clothing shop in the area.
Iraqi military commanders ordered all the vendors selling products in the area to close their kiosks and move, in an attempt to clear out the area and make it harder for insurgents to hide bombs.
Health officials at Abu Ghraib’s general hospital and at three hospitals in Baghdad confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Violence has ebbed across Iraq, but deadly bombings and shootings still occur almost daily as U.S. troops prepare to leave by the end of the year. Iraqi security officials maintain that they are fully prepared for the withdrawal, which is required under a 2008 security pact between the U.S. and Iraq.
On Thursday, three bombs struck the southern city of Basra, killing 19 people.
Earlier this week, the top U.S. general in Iraq, Lloyd Austin, said that there would likely be some “turbulence” after American troops depart, as insurgents try to strengthen their positions. But he did not think there would be a wholesale disintegration of security.
One key area of concern has been the ability of Iraqi security forces to gather intelligence on insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq after the American forces leave. The U.S. military has been instrumental in helping Iraqi security forces gather intelligence on various militant targets which Iraqi security forces then use to find and arrest them.
Predominantly Shiite Bab al-Sharqi until recently had been surrounded by blast walls, which were removed as a result of the improved security situation, said Qassim al-Moussawi, the military spokesman for Baghdad.
The bombers “try to prove their presence and hinder our efforts to remove all the concrete walls, but we will continue removing them and keeping control,” he said.
Baghdad is crisscrossed with concrete blast walls that both reassure and frustrate residents. The walls helped reduce violence and protect areas such as markets or major buildings. But they also create huge traffic jams and hurt the economy.
The Iraqi security forces have been slowly removing the blast walls, but some people in the market area Saturday said they wanted them back.
“We have been expecting something bad in the market after the security forces removed the blast barriers a few days ago,” said Youssef, the clothing shop owner.
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