But gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
“We are glad to see the last U.S. soldier leaving the country today. It is an important day in Iraq’s history, but the most important thing now is the future of Iraq,” said 25-year-old Said Hassan, the owner of a money-exchange shop in Baghdad.
“The Americans have left behind them a country that is falling apart and an Iraqi army and security forces that have a long way ahead to be able to defend the nation and the people.”
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country. Others said that while grateful for U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.
Iraq’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, said Sunday that his troops were up to the task of uprooting militant groups. Sunni militants continue to carry out bombing and shooting against police, soldiers and civilians, and Shiite militias continue to operate.
“There are only scattered terrorists hiding here and there, and we are seeking intelligence information to eliminate them,” Gen. Zebari said. “We are confident that there will be no danger.”
The U.S. convoys Sunday were the last of a massive operation pulling out American forces that has lasted for months to meet the end-of-the-year deadline agreed with the Iraqis during the administration of President George W. Bush.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and less than 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 Bush in 2007, when violence was at its worst. As of Saturday night, that was down to one base — Camp Adder — and the final 500 soldiers.
On Saturday evening at Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, the vehicles lined up in an open field to prepare, and soldiers went through last-minute equipment checks to make sure radios, weapons and other gear were working.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commanding general for Iraq, walked through the rows of vehicles, talking to soldiers over the low hum of the engines. He thanked them for their service and reminded them to stay vigilant on their final mission.
“I wanted to remind them that we have an important mission left in the country of Iraq. We want to stay focused, and we want to make sure that we’re doing the right things to protect ourselves,” Gen. Austin said.
The commander of the Special Troops Battalion, Lt. Col. Jack Vantress, told his soldiers: “We are closing the book on an operation that has brought freedom to a country that was repressed. When the sun comes up, we’ll be across the berm.”
He added a warning to watch out for any final attacks. “Laser focus. Laser focus. You’ve got time, hours of road to go. There are people out there who still want to hurt you.”
Early Saturday morning, the brigade’s remaining interpreters made their routine calls to the local tribal sheiks and government leaders that the troops deal with so that they would assume that it was just a normal day.
“The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning, and nobody will be there,” said Spc. Joseph, an Iraqi American who emigrated from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted. He asked that his full name be withheld to protect his family.View Entire Story
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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