After nearly nine years of war in Iraq, a subdued flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday marked the official end of one of the longest the U.S. military missions in American history.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched over what’s known as the casing of the colors — when the U.S. military flag is put away and sent back to the United States. The flag will then be retired and perhaps later go on display at the Pentagon.
For weeks now, in the lead-up to the final ceremony, various events have been taking place across the country: the closure of bases, handing over of equipment, the departure of soldiers via planes and armored vehicles.
Still, 4,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. That’s down from about 170,000 at the height of the war.
Troops are now leaving each day. At Thursday’s ceremony, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the withdrawal will be complete in the coming days. He said it’s a poignant moment for someone who was part of the initial invasion of Iraq.
“I gave the order for the lead elements of the division to cross the border. As fate would have it, I now give the order to case the colors today,” he said.
Austin was joined by Panetta, who spoke to the small crowd of Iraqi and American officials and military personnel.
Panetta assured those gathered that the nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis who lost their lives had served an important cause.
“Those lives have not been lost in vain. They gave life to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq. And because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity,” Panetta said.
The ceremony was subdued, considering it’s the end of nearly nine years at war. Gen. Frank Helmick said that’s the way the commanders wanted it.
“We don’t want a lot of fanfare here. We pride ourselves on being quiet professionals. And that’s what our military is made of — quiet professionals. No one — no one — can do what the American military did in this country,” Helmick said.
An Uncertain Future
As to whether what the military did in Iraq will be called a success, most in Iraq agree that’s still a matter for debate.
Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, is gone. Iraq has an elected parliament. But the political system is deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iraqis still only have a few hours of electricity each day. The oil industry is only now coming online. And while violence is down from previous years, low-level attacks are still common.
For their part, Iraqis haven’t missed the chance to celebrate the American’s departure.
In the city of Fallujah, thousands of Iraqis recently gathered for what they called a day of resistance and victory. Speeches and songs celebrated those who fought and died in what residents call the resistance against the American occupation.
The U.S. fought two fierce battles in Fallujah in 2004, during which hundreds of people died. The city — like the country — is still battered and slowly trying to come back to life.