Elated, the last U.S. troops leave Iraq, ending war

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KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait (AP) — The last U.S. soldiers rolled out of Iraq across the border into neighboring Kuwait at daybreak Sunday, whooping, fist bumping and hugging one another in a burst of joy and relief. Their convoy’s exit marked the end of a bitterly divisive war that raged for nearly nine years and left Iraq shattered and struggling to recover.

The war cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The question of whether it was worth it all — or whether the new government the Americans leave behind will remain a steadfast U.S. ally — is yet unanswered.

The five-hour drive by the last convoy of MRAPS, heavily armored personnel carriers, took place under cover of darkness and under strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks on the withdrawing troops. The 500 soldiers didn’t even tell their Iraqi partners they were leaving before they slipped out of the last American base and started down the barren desert highway to the Kuwaiti border before dawn Sunday.

The atmosphere was subdued inside one of the vehicles as it streamed down the highway, with little visible in the blackness outside through the MRAP’s small windows. Along the road, a small group of Iraqi soldiers waved to the departing American troops.

“My heart goes out to the Iraqis,” said Warrant Officer John Jewell, acknowledging the challenges ahead. “The innocent always pay the bill.”

A Kuwaiti border guard watches a convoy from the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crossing the border from Iraq into Kuwait, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011. The brigade's special troops battalion are the last American soldiers to leave Iraq. The U.S. military says the last American troops have left Iraq as the nearly nine-year war ends. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

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A Kuwaiti border guard watches a convoy from the U.S. Army’s 3rd ... more >

But after crossing the berm at the Kuwaiti border, lit with floodlights and ringed with barbed wire, the troops from the 3rd Brigade of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were elated. They cheered, pumped fists in the air and gave each other chest bumps and bear hugs. “We’re on top of the world!” shouted one soldier from the turret of his vehicle.

“It’s just an honor to be able to serve your country and say that you helped close out the war in Iraq,” said Spc. Jesse Jones, a 23-year-old who volunteered to be in the last convoy. “Not a lot of people can say that they did huge things like that that will probably be in the history books.”

Spc. Brittany Hampton joked that no one was going to believe her back home when she told them she was in the very last of the 110 vehicles in the convoy to exit.

“But we really truly were the last soldiers in Iraq, so it’s pretty awesome,” she said.

The quiet withdrawal was a stark 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 Hussein was believed to be hiding, the opening shot in the famed “shock and awe” bombardment. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed from Kuwait across the featureless deserts of southern Iraq toward the capital.

Saddam and his regime fell within weeks, and the dictator was captured by the end of the year — to be executed by Iraq’s new Shiite rulers in 2006. But Saddam’s end only opened the door to years more of conflict as Iraq was plunged into a vicious sectarian war between its Shiite and Sunni communities. The near civil war devastated the country, and its legacy includes thousands of widows and orphans, a people deeply divided along sectarian lines, and infrastructure that remains largely in ruins.

In the past two years, violence has dropped dramatically, and Iraqi security forces that U.S. troops struggled for years to train have improved. But the sectarian wounds remain unhealed. Even as U.S. troops were leaving, the main Sunni-backed political bloc announced Sunday it was suspending its participation in parliament to protest the monopoly on government posts by Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

President Obama stopped short of calling the U.S. effort in Iraq a victory in an interview taped Thursday with ABC News’ Barbara Walters.

“I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future,” Mr. Obama said.

In the final days, U.S. officials acknowledged the cost in blood and dollars was high, but they tried to paint a picture of victory — for both the troops and the Iraqi people now freed of a dictator and on a path to democracy.

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