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Iraq war ‘not in vain,’ Panetta says at withdrawal ceremony

After nearly nine years of war, the loss of more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the U.S. military mission in Iraq has formally ended.

But violence continues to roil the Mideast nation, and its political destiny is far from certain.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and other top U.S. officials conducted a low-key ceremony on a military base at the Baghdad airport Thursday, furling the flag to signal the official conclusion of one of the most divisive wars in American history.

PHOTOS: U.S. military formally ends mission in Iraq

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Panetta did not address the controversial origins of the conflict or Iraq’s continuing troubles. Instead, he paid tribute to the sacrifices of U.S. troops, nearly 4,500 of whom were killed and 32,200 wounded since President George W. Bush ordered the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people,” Panetta told about 200 troops and a few Iraqi officials during the 45-minute ceremony. “But those lives were not lost in vain: They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”

Only two U.S. bases and about 4,000 troops remain in Iraq, the rear guard of a force that was more than 170,000 strong at the height of the war and once controlled hundreds of bases. The last of the troops will leave this weekend, officials said.

About 200 U.S. military personnel will stay in Baghdad to administer arms sales and other limited military exchanges as members of the U.S. diplomatic mission.

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After more than eight years of security efforts, employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad say they still find it too dangerous to work in the country outside the campus-like Green Zone, a fortified area hidden behind a series of towering walls.

But there is no sanctuary from the sectarian divisions that remain a source of instability.

The Shiite Muslim-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is riddled with corruption, divided and often dysfunctional. Resentment continues to simmer among the Sunni Arab minority that ran Iraq during Hussein’s days and is now politically marginalized.

Some Sunnis are urging secession, or at least a state within a state similar to the Kurdish-controlled region in northern Iraq.

The government also faces continuing problems with private Shiite militias, some with close ties to Shiite-run Iran. Muqtada Sadr, the virulently anti-American cleric whose militiamen have fought and killed U.S. troops, controls the Promised Day Brigade in open defiance of Iraq’s new constitution. His party holds 40 seats in parliament.

“They threaten the use of that militia if they don’t get their way,” Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, says of the Sadrists. “It’s an affront to Iraq’s sovereignty. And potentially what you have is a government within a government.”

The violence also goes on — by some estimates, an average of 30 bombings and other attacks each week and about 10 deaths a day. That death toll is roughly 20% of what it was during the worst days of the

Shiite-Sunni warfare in 2006.

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More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, according to Iraq Body Count, a website that has tracked the war. About 12% died at the hands of American forces and the rest in terrorist attacks, sectarian violence and extrajudicial executions.

The security of civilians is now the responsibility of Iraqi troops and police, visible on virtually every major street in Baghdad, searching passing cars and patrolling avenues. More than a year ago, they took over security responsibilities after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq’s cities.

With the Americans gone, it is up to men like Cpl. Hatim Abdul Kareem to help control the country’s endemic violence. He has his doubts. A Shiite, he lost a cousin to sectarian violence. He fears more bloodletting after U.S. troops leave.

“After the Americans are gone, there will be war in the streets,” he said. “This is not just me saying this. Other soldiers are saying this. My family, my friends, they’re all saying the violence will get worse.”

When American diplomats venture out, it’s with the equivalent of a platoon of armored vehicles and gun-toting guards. Now their chief protector, the U.S. military, is gone. An army of private guards has taken its place.

Of the 16,000 employees expected to be working at the embassy next year, only 1,500 to 2,000 will be State Department staffers. Many of the rest will be security contractors.

Just as U.S. troops were pulling out this month, the embassy issued a series of chilling warnings about the threat of kidnapping. Under tightened security procedures, even walking across the secured Green Zone grounds requires an armed escort.

For the Obama administration, the departure fulfills the president’s pledge to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq, a move that polls suggest is supported by many Americans. As a candidate, Obama once called the Iraq conflict a “dumb war.” But the continuing violence and fears that Iran is usurping American influence in postwar Iraq — a scenario that critics forecast before Bush launched the invasion — has made the administration sensitive to political claims that it has “lost” Iraq.

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As a result, the administration made great efforts to keep a significant troop presence in Iraq, conceding to the inevitability of full withdrawal only after the Iraqis refused to grant U.S. troops immunity to legal prosecution.

Even so, U.S. involvement in Iraq is not over. This week, Maliki met with Obama in Washington, where they pledged to proceed with a new, vaguely defined “equal partnership” between the nations.

Iraq has requested more U.S. military training, the details of which will be negotiated next year. Meanwhile, American military and civilian trainers with the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy train Iraqis to use warplanes and tanks purchased from the U.S.

Iraq is now the fourth-largest buyer of U.S. military hardware in the Middle East.

“We need to stop thinking about Dec. 31 as the end,” said Colin H. Kahl, deputy assistant Defense secretary for the Middle East. “It’s not the end. It’s the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship with Iraq.”

But the fragility of Iraq’s security was symbolized by the venue for the American departure ceremony: a domed, glass-clad structure known as the Glass House.

The building near the Baghdad airport runway was a VIP lounge under Hussein. Many of the glass panels were shattered and its reception rooms lay in ruins after U.S. troops stormed the airport in 2003, but even today the building is patched with plywood and camouflage netting, and protected behind blast walls.

There was no mention during the ceremony of Hussein’s purported pursuit of weapons of mass destruction or his ties to Al Qaeda — the Bush administration’s since discredited reasons for invading Iraq.

Hussein had no such weapons. And he despised the Islamic extremism of Al Qaeda, whose members only flowed into Iraq in the chaos following the American-led invasion.

In the brief ceremony, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, furled his flag, terminating his command. He recalled giving the command that sent the 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq in 2003 and the surge of U.S. forces in 2007 that he said helped stop the war’s “downward spiral.”

“We paid a great price here,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was commander of the 1st Armored Division in 2006 when Sunni-Shiite violence erupted in and around Baghdad, leading to the toughest fighting of the war. “And it was a price worth paying.”

The Obama administration has adopted its own version of the Bush administration claim that the conflict was worth the cost because it helped free Iraq from Hussein.

But officials also acknowledge that Iraq faces formidable challenges.

“Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide,” Panetta said.

david.cloud@latimes.com

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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