- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2011

BAGHDAD After nearly nine years, 4,500 American dead and 100,000 Iraqi dead, U.S. officials formally shut down the war in Iraq - a conflict that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said was worth the American sacrifice because it set Iraq on a path to democracy.

Mr. Panetta stepped off his military plane in Baghdad Thursday as the leader of America’s war in Iraq, but departed as one of many U.S. and global officials who hope to work with the struggling nation as it tries to find its new place in the Middle East and the broader world.

Bombings and gunbattles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security force’s ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.

In addition to the dead, the war left 32,000 Americans wounded and cost the U.S. more than $800 billion.

Still, Mr. Panetta said earlier this week, it “has not been in vain.”

Mr. Panetta and several other U.S. diplomatic, military and defense leaders participated Thursday in a symbolic ceremony during which the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq was officially retired, or “cased,” according to Army tradition.

“You will leave with great pride - lasting pride,” Mr. Panetta told the troops. “Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history.”

During a stop in Afghanistan this week, Mr. Panetta described the 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 in 2003.

A member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr saw another message in the U.S. withdrawal. “The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people,” said Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.

Mr. Panetta echoed President 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.

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 neighborhood.

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