US Exit from Iraq: 'This is Not a Withdrawal, This is an Act on a Stage'

US soldiers hold the US and Iraqi flags during the symbolic flag-lowering ceremony marking the end of the US mission in Iraq. (Photograph: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)

US Exit from Iraq: 'This is Not a Withdrawal, This is an Act on a Stage'

Iraqi people greet pullout ceremony with ambivalence mixed with concern over an uncertain future

There was no triumphalism and certainly no shock or awe. The end of the war in Iraq was subdued and simple: a small band playing as the US forces flag was furled with 200 troops watching on quietly.

In a makeshift parade ground in a corner of Baghdad airport, time was called on the war just after 1pm on Thursday, eight years, eight months and 26 days after its far more dramatic opening in March 2003. Nearby a plane was waiting to take home the US high command. And in southern Iraq, the 4,000 US troops who remain were steadily streaming towards Kuwait.

By Sunday all the troops will be gone, called home for Christmas by an administration that decided there was little point sticking to the original end date of 31 December. The Iraqi government had made clear that it no longer wanted a US presence here and any soldier who stayed behind would not be granted legal immunity.

To the end, the relationship between Iraq and the departing US commanders remained difficult to gauge. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the president, Jalal Talabani, did not turn up to the ceremony, with uniformed US soldiers belatedly moved into seats carrying the two Iraqi leaders' names.

Some of the soldiers who will soon cross the border will remain in Kuwait for several months more. But the vast majority of people in a country that has seen about 1.5 million US soldiers rotate through are unlikely to ever see another. Only 159 uniformed troops and officers as well as a marine guard corps will remain in the US embassy in the heart of Baghdad's green zone.

"You came to this land between the rivers again and again and again," said the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who arrived from Afghanistan just over an hour before the ceremony began. "You will leave with great pride, lasting pride."

Minutes earlier, the last US commanding general in Iraq, Lloyd J Austin III helped wrap the USFI banner around a flagpole, then cover it in camouflage.

Panetta, previously CIA chief, said the war was worth the enormous price in blood and treasure - about $750bn (PS484bn), 4,500 dead, 32,000 wounded, and that's just on the American side.

Iraqi casualties are far higher, with civilian deaths well over 100,000, many more maimed and up to several million people displaced at the height of what became a vicious two-year sectarian war.

What will now become of Iraq is preoccupying its people. There are many here who had grown accustomed to the safety net of US forces, which despite Thursday's formal departure had rarely been seen on the streets of the country's cities since mid-2009 when a joint security pact came into effect. Many Iraqis fear profound uncertainty ahead and a reluctance to face up to yet another jolt to Iraq's power dynamic. Panetta, as well as the commander of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, framed the past two years as a steady withdrawal that had led to Thursday's highly symbolic moment. Both men set an optimistic tone for what they see as a country that found its feet and no longer needed them.

On the streets of Baghdad, the ceremony caused little fuss. It was carried live by state television, but groups of men in several coffee halls in the city's eastern suburbs largely remained ambivalent.

Assad Mohammed, 48, a spare parts shop owner said. "I don't have any emotions about the events of today. I'm not happy and I'm not sad.

"Whether they are here or not, it's the same. Stability isn't in the hands of the government, or the Americans. It's in the hands of the Iraqi people.

"Sovereignty is not something that will be given to us. Sovereignty is when the people step forward and take it."

Another man, Mundhar Kamel, 65, said the departure changed little. "This move is them exiting from one door and entering from another. In the embassy they still have 15,000 people and there is talk about 3,000 more [military] trainers. This is not a withdrawal, this is an act on a stage.

"We haven't gained anything from the country. They destroyed the country and now they are leaving."

Adham Abul Razzak, 30, saw hope in the withdrawal. "I am very happy because of this withdrawal. I wish that this step would be the first towards unifying Iraqis and expelling sectarianism.

"The effect of the occupation is still with us because of the relations between the two sides and the presence of such a large embassy. I don't think there will be violence after the withdrawal, the opposite in fact. But only if the neighbouring countries do not interfere in our business."

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