U.S. Combat Mission in Iraq is Finally Over

Almost seven and a half years ago, President George W. Bush launched a blistering “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq. The goal was to eliminate a perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction while replacing a hostile, tyrannical regime with a friendly democracy in the heat of the Middle East. The quick removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ushered in years of grinding sectarian violence, war, terrorist attacks and, according to some observers, increased Iranian influence in the region. But it also paved the way for nationwide elections and increasing economic development. Whether the war was worth the price remains a subject of debate both at home and abroad, but both nations are hopeful that a transition in American control will stem into a brighter future for Iraq.

The equipment which was vital to the US Army during its campaign in Iraq is being shipped out of the country as the operation comes to an end. Tons of gear and hundreds of vehicles are being steadily loaded onto massive container ships at Kuwait’s al-Shualba port. NCO John Kelly said the logistical challenge would mean around 12 to 15 ships would be loaded up with equipment to return to the US every month for some time.

50,000 troops are staying on to train and advise Iraqi security forces. A much reduced force is still based at Forward Operating Base Warrior in the northern city of Kirkuk. As of Wednesday, U.S. soldiers will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions unless asked and accompanied by Iraqi soldiers. The combat mission formally ended at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Hundreds of U.S. bases have already been turned over to the Iraqi military and most U.S. soldiers have returned home. The remaining U.S. troops in Iraq are due to leave by the end of 2011, and it is not unlikely that they will see more combat before then.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq to mark the end of the U.S. combat role, and he was appealing to Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to break the political deadlock. Biden’s national security adviser Tony Blinken assured that the United States would come through with its promise of full withdrawal by the end of 2011. “We committed to the Iraqis to be out of Iraq’s cities last summer on a deadline, and we were. We committed to change the mission, end our combat mission and be down to 50,000 troops by August 31, and we are. And we have an agreement with the government of Iraq to remove our forces, all of our forces from Iraq, at the end of 2011, and we will. We are bound by that agreement and we will make good on it.” (Washington Post)

Mr. al-Maliki proclaimed Iraq as “sovereign and independent” during a national address Tuesday to mark the official end of the U.S. combat mission. Al-Maliki praised the strides made by Iraqi forces in fighting terrorism, attributing their efforts to making the U.S. drawdown possible. “If these achievements were not real, we would not have been able to move to executing the bigger and more important step, which is the withdrawal of American forces that is happening today,” he said. “We do not view the withdrawal as an accomplishment of one person, or one party or one sect or one ethnicity; it is an achievement for all and a starting point to build Iraq after decades of destruction and suffering,” he said. (CNN)

Al-Maliki also sought to assure Iraqis that the country’s security forces are ready to secure Iraq, vowing that the country will not slip back into the sectarian war that has gripped it for years. He addressed doubts about the U.S. withdrawal and capabilities of security forces, calling those who make such statements “enemies of Iraq.” Al-Maliki maintained that his forces were able to protect the country. “I assure you that Iraqi security troops are capable and qualified to shoulder the responsibility and the cowardly terrorist acts that targeted civilian and state institutions that are but a desperate attempt by al-Qaeda and remnants of the former regime to prove their presence,” he said. “We promise you a full withdrawal next year.” (The Globe & Mail)

United States President Barack Obama spent the day meeting with troops at Fort Bliss, Texas – a base which has supplied soldiers at all stages of the conflict. Obama called Bush for a “few minutes” from Air Force One while en route to Texas, according to White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton.

Addressing the country from the Oval Office for the second time since coming into power over a year ago, President Obama began his speech by assuring Americans that the future is optimistic. “This milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape; if we move forward with confidence and commitment. It should also serve as a message to the war that the United States of America intends to sustain and strengthen our leadership in this young country… If there has been one constant amidst these changing times; at every turn, America’s men and women in uniform served with courage and resolve. As commander in chief, I am incredibly proud of their service.” (CNN)

Speaking to the issue of Iraqi leadership Obama said, “Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over. The Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country… Tonight, I encourage Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency; to form an inclusive government that is just representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people.” Obama promised that, “Our combat mission has ended, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” (CNN)

Many still feel that the American mission is not yet complete. Former national security adviser Michael O’Hanlon said a sigh of relief of Iraq came a couple of years ago, when the Bush era’s surge started to bring more stability to the country. “Americans have moved on,” said O’Hanlon. “We’ve got bigger problems.” (CBC) O’Hanlon said Obama leads the U.S. out of Iraq leaving a more sophisticated political culture behind as alliances are no longer drawn exclusively along sectarian lines. However, O’Hanlon is worried because of the fact that six months after a parliamentary election, there is still no government in place. “The wounds of sectarian war are still healing,” he said. “So any kind of political dynamic that leads to suspicion of renewed sectarian competition or potential for violence is very, very destructive.” (CBC)

While the U.S. is shifting its attention to the situation in Afghanistan, some Iraqis are worried about the future. “They should go, but the security situation is too fragile for the Americans to withdraw now,” said Mohammed Hussein Abbas, a Shia resident of the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad. “They should wait for the government to be formed and then withdraw.” (CBC)

Other Iraqis are concerned that the U.S. departure will leave a power vacuum that will be filled by Iraq’s neighbours, mainly Iran. “The U.S. withdrawal will put Iraq into the lap of Iran,” said Baghdad engineer Ali Mussa, 46. (CBC)

Top Republicans were reluctant to give the Obama White House any credit for Tuesday’s milestone. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a speech delivered Tuesday to the American Legion in Milwaukee Wisconsin, that “some leaders who opposed, criticized, and fought tooth-and-nail to stop the surge strategy now proudly claim credit for their results.” (CNN)

“If the war is ‘over,’ what happens if a Black Hawk goes down net week, God forbid?” asked Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate.

As the U.S. military has been scaling down, the U.S. civilian presence has been ramping up. Iraqi officials are struggling to form a new ruling coalition in the wake of last March’s closely contested national elections. Al-Maliki warned last Friday of the likelihood of continuing attacks across the country. His warning came two days after a wave of 20 bomb attacks struck 13 Iraqi cities, mostly targeting police. The bombs killed 48 and wounded at least 286. Al-Maliki said there were indications that “al-Qaeda and remnants of (Saddam Hussein’s) Baath party with foreign backing are planning to carry out a series of bombings in Baghdad and the other provinces.” (CNN)

Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party crowed that the U.S. pullback was a result of “devastating” strikes against U.S. troops by Iraqi resistance fighters. “They withdrew dragging tails of failure and defeat, leaving by the same roads they used as invaders,” it said in a statement carried by Iraqi websites. “The end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is a useless attempt to save face, if any is left.” (New York Times)

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, asserted during a speech Tuesday to the American Legion that, despite the recent spate of attacks in Iraq, “overall levels of violence this year remain at their lowest point since the beginning of the war in 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been largely cut off from its masters abroad.” (CNN) But Gates stressed that he was not “saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq. Sectarian tensions remain a  fact of life. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone. This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation,” he said. (CNN) Mr. Gates’ voice seemed to choke as he said, “The courage of (our) men and women, their determination, their sacrifice – and that of their families – along with the service of so many others in uniform, have made this day, this transition, possible. And we must never forget.” (New York Times)

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