Operations officially end two weeks ahead of Barack Obama’s deadline, leaving 56,000 service personnel in the country
Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Link to this video
The last American combat troops left Iraq today, seven-and-a-half years after the US-led invasion, and two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama’s 31 August deadline for withdrawal from the country.
The final troops to leave, 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, rolled in convoy across the border and into Kuwait this morning, officially ending combat operations, which began in March 2003.
Former president George Bush launched the invasion, saying: “This will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory.”
The war saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but became increasingly unpopular against a backdrop of heavy civilian and troop casualties, arguments over the legality of the conflict and a growing sectarian battle in Iraq.
NBC News video this morning showed the last Stryker armoured vehicles rolling through the border gate into Kuwait, officially ending US combat presence in Iraq.
PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, said that despite the departure being “an historic moment”, the US mission in Iraq continued.
“We are ending the war … but we are not ending our work in Iraq,” he said. “We have a long-term commitment to Iraq.”
NBC News said that the last soldiers to reach Kuwait were proud of the collective effort in Iraq.
“We are done with operations,” said Lieutenant Steven DeWitt of San José, California, as his vehicle reached the Khabari crossing on the border.
“This was a professional soldier’s job,” he said, describing “a war that has defined this generation of military men and women”.
“And today it’s over,” he added.
The Obama administration had pledged to reduce overall troops numbers to 50,000 by 31 August. CNN, however, said that according to the US military there were still 56,000 US non-combat troops in Iraq, meaning another 6,000 must leave if the president is to meet his own deadline.
“Over the last 18 months, over 90,000 US troops have left Iraq,” the president said in an emailed statement published by the Huffington Post.
“By the end of this month, 50,000 troops will be serving in Iraq. As Iraqi security forces take responsibility for securing their country, our troops will move to an advise-and-assist role.
“And, consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all of our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year.
“Meanwhile, we will continue to build a strong partnership with the Iraqi people with an increased civilian commitment and diplomatic effort.”
Months of preparation were required before the convoy set off on the 300-mile drive through potentially dangerous parts of the country. The Strykers travelled by night because of security concerns, before finally crossing into Kuwait.
The withdrawal comes in a week when a suicide bomber killed at least 60 army recruits in central Baghdad, highlighting the shaky reality US troops are leaving behind, and the fears that al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback.
There is unlikely to be much change on the ground in the country after the end of the month, as most US military units actually began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police more than a year ago, when they pulled out of Iraqi urban centres on 30 June 2009.
“Those that remain are conventional combat brigades reconfigured slightly and rebranded ‘advise and assist brigades’,” said the Washington Post. “The primary mission of those units and the roughly 4,500 US special operations forces that will stay behind will be to train Iraqi troops.”
However despite the 56,000 service personnel remaining, The New York Times reported this morning that a “remarkable civilian effort” would be required to fill the void left by the withdrawal, and suggested the number of private security guards could double in the country over the next 18 months.
The state department will assume responsibility for training Iraqi police by October next year.
“I don’t think [the] state [department] has ever operated on its own, independent of the US military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale,” James Dobbins, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia, told the paper. “It is unprecedented in scale.”
More than 4,400 US troops have been killed in Iraq so far. The current deadline for a full withdrawal of all US forces is the end of 2011, although last week Iraqi Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari said the US would need to maintain a presence in the country beyond then.
“If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” he said.
Iraq and the US are yet to structure an agreement spelling out future defence arrangements beyond the end of next year, but both sides have indicated that future bilateral ties could extend to border patrols as well as ongoing training and mentoring.