Video: Last U.S. combat troops leave Iraq

  1. Transcript of: Last U.S. combat troops leave Iraq

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And it's gone on longer than the Civil War , longer than World War II . Tonight US combat troops are pulling out of Iraq . It's been about seven and a half years since that first late-night airstrike decimated the Iraqi government and lit up American television screens. Saddam Hussein is now dead. The new Iraqi government is still taking tentative steps. And the toll on the United

    States has been substantial: 4,415 American service members died in Iraq , close to 32,000 Americans wounded. We watched the invasion happen on live television thanks to some brand-new at the time exclusive technology, and tonight, once again, we watch the pull-out of these combat troops the very same way. Though as you watch, remember, 50,000 Americans in uniform will remain behind in Iraq in what's being called a noncombat role. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel , who's covered this war for so many years for us, with us from a moving convoy in the Iraqi desert tonight. And, Richard , I understand your reporting of this at this hour tonight constitutes the official Pentagon announcement. Correct?

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Yes, it is. Right now we are with the last American combat troops who -- and they are in the process of leaving this country right now. We are with the 4-2 Stryker Brigade . I'm broadcasting right now live from the top of a Stryker fighting vehicle . There are 440 American troops in this convoy ,

    traveling in 60......as soon as they cross the border into Kuwait . And it is not far to the border, just about 30 miles from here. As soon as all these soldiers leave Iraq , Operation Iraqi Freedom , the combat mission in Iraq , will be over. Combat soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade suit up tonight for their final mission . Their vehicles are all pointing south to Kuwait . They head out in darkness. The soldiers have just left Camp Liberty in Baghdad . It's about 2:00 in the morning. They'll be driving for seven hours in the night, then take a break before pushing on to the border. The troops scan the roads, but it's mostly a precaution. The threat of attack is considered low. Sunrise comes early here, just 5 AM . They've been driving through the night. Daylight gives us our first clear view of the road. The Strykers are traveling on Iraq 's main north /south highway, smooth wide blacktop. What a difference to how American troops entered Iraq . In 2003 , American forces crashed through the desert to stay unpredictable to the Iraqi army . Also different today, the helicopters over the convoy aren't there to provide overwatch. They're carrying reporters, flying low to take pictures. Our own video is broadcast by a satellite truck we affectionately call "The Bloom-mobile."

    Mr. DAVID BLOOM: Because it's an armored vehicle ...

    ENGEL: It was named after NBC correspondent David Bloom . In 2003 , Bloom used it to do the first live television reports ever from a moving battlefield. Sadly, Bloom died of a blood clot before reaching Baghdad . On the convoy today, Lieutenant Steven DeWitt from San Jose , California , knows he's taking part in a turning point for American troops and the United States .

    Lieutenant STEVEN DeWITT: When they told us we were going to do this, you didn't really grasp how important it was, you know, how big a deal this actually was to be driving out of here, you know, as the last combat battalion in Iraq . And it feels pretty good to be a part of it right now.

    ENGEL: We're driving down a main highway in and amongst traffic.

    Lt. DeWITT: Exactly. And you see, you know, even a year and a half ago, two years ago, you wouldn't have had traffic passing the convoy .

    ENGEL: For the last few days, the lights of Stryker vehicles have been breaking the darkness as they cross into Kuwait , a brigadier general standing to salute every arriving soldier.

    Unidentified Soldier #1: Good job, guys.

    Unidentified Soldier #2: Hooah.

    Soldier #1: Hooah.

    Unidentified Soldier #3: We're going home .

    First Sergeant MARK OHMY (United States Army): To be able to cross that border and know that I've made it with all of my guys, which I could not say before, it's tremendously good feeling.

    ENGEL: Some second thoughts from Private 1st Class Joshua Ablar , who just became a US citizen while serving in Baghdad .

    Private 1st Class JOSHUA ABLAR: Feel kind of sad because we got a bond between the people in Iraq .

    ENGEL: Finally time to take off their flak jackets and break down their weapons, and pause to take in a moment of history. We are traveling quite quickly to the border, Brian . We're moving around 45 miles an hour. So this vehicle and the rest of the convoy should be through into Kuwait in just a couple of hours. And quite appropriately, Brian , this mission is code named The Last Patrol .

    WILLIAMS: Richard , we realize your signal is dicey. It's a lot to ask technically, but we'll try to keep this going while we can. What about those left behind and the situation, now in your rearview mirror, back in Iraq ? A lot of Americans will be asking under what possible conditions would American soldiers ever go back in?

    ENGEL: The soldiers that are staying behind are on a training mission , and the difference is these soldiers right now are on a combat mission . They have combat power. If the orders came -- and they'd have to come very quickly now -- to send these troops to go take an objective, to go take a town, they would do that. That is what they are in Iraq to do. The 50,000 that will remain will be working mostly in offices, teaching basic skills to the Iraqi army and police. And they don't have the mandate to go out into a fight. Sure, they're mid -- there might still be some fighting. If American trainers do get shot at, they will fight back, but they will not be doing combat missions , trying to take objectives. That's what these soldiers do, and they're leaving.

    WILLIAMS: And, Richard , of course, as you pointed out, Iraq has always had two-laned paved highways with painted markers and road signs , but it's not the way the US came in. It must be a very eerie feeling to be the way these combat forces are leaving.

    ENGEL: It is a very strange experience, particularly when we were driving earlier in the daylight hours and vehicles were moving in and around the convoy . When the invasion began in '03, it was -- there was so much secrecy, they were going through the desert, that left hook to Baghdad to make sure that no one knew where they were going to be going. Now we were getting waved at by Iraqi police . There were people sometimes lined up along......moving around the convoy , a completely different experience. It almost felt like we were a line of taxis heading out of Iraq .

    WILLIAMS: Richard Engel reporting from a moving convoy as it leaves the Iraqi desert into Kuwait .

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 8/19/2010 10:53:26 AM ET 2010-08-19T14:53:26

IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER — The last U.S. combat troops crossed the border into Kuwait on Thursday morning, bringing to a close the active combat phase of a 7½-year war that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, forever defined the presidency of George W. Bush and left more than 4,400 American service members and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead.

The final convoy of the Army’s 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., began entering Kuwait about 1:30 a.m. (6:30 p.m. Wednesday ET), carrying the last of the 14,000 U.S. combat forces in Iraq, said NBC’s Richard Engel, who has been traveling with the brigade as it moved out this week.

NBC News video showed the last Stryker vehicles rolling up to the gate. A guard pulled it back, and the vehicles drove through. The gate closed behind them.

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the State Department, told msnbc TV that while the departure is “an historic moment,” he said, it is not the end of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

“We are ending the war ... but we are not ending our work in Iraq,” he said. “We have a long-term commitment to Iraq.”

The White House website first trumpeted the "End of Combat in Iraq" before backtracking to note that the official end of combat operations is Aug. 31.  

Still, and as the last soldiers reached Kuwait after midnight, they said they were proud of their effort.

“We are done with operations,” Lt. Steven DeWitt of San Jose, Calif., said as his vehicle reached Khabari Crossing on the border.

“This was a professional soldier’s job,” he said, describing “a war that has defined this generation of military men and women.

“And today it’s over,” he said.

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Brig. Gen. Nick Tooliatos, deputy commanding general for First Theater Sustainment Command in Kuwait, stood at the border saluting each soldier as he or she crossed.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better honor than to greet some soldiers who have done great work for a year fighting our nation’s war, and to just be here and render honors to them and welcome them and thank them for a job well done,” Tooliatos said.

“It’s a historic event,” he said. “In 2003, we rolled across this berm into Iraq, and now as we get ready to transition the security of Iraq to Iraq’s own forces, this is a significant retrograde of a combat unit.”

50,000 advisers to remain
The timing of the final departure was a closely held secret, and the end came in dramatic fashion two weeks ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline President Barack Obama had set to withdraw combat forces and close Operation Iraqi Freedom, which the U.S.-led multinational coalition began March 20, 2003, in the belief that Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that threatened the West.

In a statement, Obama called the troops’ withdrawal a “milestone in the Iraq war” and said, “I hope you’ll join me in thanking them, and all of our troops and military families, for their service.”

At one point, the United States had blanketed the country with nearly a quarter-million-strong combat force; by the end of the month, Obama said, about 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in the country, in a non-combat role providing support and training for the Iraqi military.

“This is an extremely interesting night to see these pictures, but I think people need to understand ... this is a transition from one that is military over seven years to one that is a transition to diplomacy,” Crowley said.

“It’s still a dangerous place,” he said.

Christopher R. Hill, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, said it was now Iraq’s responsibility to form a stable long-term government and Washington’s responsibility to “see Iraq as a country and not as a war.”

In remarks Wednesday to the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, Hill said he was optimistic about the prospects of a stable government, but he added, “If it’s instant gratification you’re looking for, you had better look elsewhere.”

The new U.S. ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, presented his credentials to President Jalal Talabani on Wednesday.

In those 7½ years, 4,415 U.S. service members lost their lives.

Estimates of the number of Iraqis who were killed are more problematic, complicated by difficulties in determining which combatants were from Iraq or were sympathizers from other countries in the region, by deciding whether to include victims of bombings and other attacks by anti-coalition elements, and by the biases of who is doing the reporting.

Iraq Body Count, a non-governmental organization based in Germany whose tallies are commonly reported by Western news agencies, puts the current toll at 97,000 to 106,000. By contrast, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Al Mustansirya University in Baghdad said in a report heavily criticized by U.S. officials that more than 650,000 Iraqis were killed in “war-related activities” just in the period from 2003 through 2006.

A spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq said Iraqi police and the country's military were up to the task of keeping the country secure after U.S. combat troops completed their withdrawal, but he added that the sooner the government was formed the calmer the country will be.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza told CBS' "The Early Show" that Iraqi security forces had shown professionalism and the will to improve and had made strong progress since 2003.

Struggle continues in Afghanistan
The 4th Stryker Brigade, a unit of the 2nd Infantry Division that is known as the Raiders, arrived a year ago to provide security for the Iraqi elections on March 7 and to help coordinate the transition of command to the Iraqi military.

The formal handover actually took place Aug. 7, when three Raider soldiers and two Iraqi soldiers pulled down the the brigade’s colors at Forward Operating Base Constitution, leaving only the flags of the Iraqi government and the 6th Iraqi Army Division flying.

Still, the departure means the end of only some combat operations in the greater region. As many as 100,000 U.S. combat forces are still operating in Afghanistan, which they are not tentatively to conclude until next July.

“I think the biggest challenge is the combination of running two theaters,” Tooliatos said, “not only drawing down things in Iraq but working to get things into Afghanistan to the right place at the right time so that the soldier on the ground has what he needs to fight, win and survive on the battlefield.”

Pfc. Timothy Berrena of Fairfield, Conn., is likely to be one of those soldiers. After 12 months on this tour in Iraq, he has re-enlisted.

“I’m hoping to do one more [tour] before I get out. I’m sure the next one will be Afghanistan if it’s anywhere,” Berrena said.

“It’s another chapter in the book,” he said. “It’s a good experience — met a lot of great kids here. You’ve got kids in the military who can’t even buy a pack of cigarettes yet, but they can come over here and fight for their country. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

‘No one else is going to get hurt’
For others, like Pvt. Nicholas Kelly of Seattle, the day meant “I’m on my way home now.”

“It was a great feeling, you know, being in the country for 12 months,” Kelly said. But “finally getting out is a great feeling.”

Staff Sgt. Steven Bearor of Merrimac, N.H., said he, too, was looking forward to “going home to the family. I like it.”

But the best part, he said, is knowing that “no one else is going to get hurt.”

The Iraqi security forces “are ready to go, Bearor said. “I have all of faith and confidence they will be able to pull off the job.”

By Richard Engel and Charlene Gubash of NBC News on the Iraq-Kuwait border and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com.

Photos: Leaving Iraq

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  1. U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicles cross the border from Iraq into Kuwait on Wednesday, Aug. 18. The U.S. Army's 4th Stryker Brigade is the last combat unit to leave Iraq as part of the drawdown of U.S. forces. President Barack Obama had set a goal of reducing the number of American troops in Iraq to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A U.S. soldier waves from his Stryker armored vehicle after crossing the border into Kuwait. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A soldier dismantles a machine gun mounted on his Stryker immediately after crossing the border on Aug. 16. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. U.S. Army soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade race toward the border on Aug. 18. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Stryker armored vehicles through southern Iraq en route to Kuwait on Aug. 15. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Soldiers from C Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division gather before the convoy to Kuwait. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A member of the U.S. Army's 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, carries an American flag after a departure ceremony at Forward Operating Base Constitution in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, on Aug. 7. (Moises Saman / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division band plays during a ceremony marking the formal withdrawal from the last checkpoints they helped staff in the Green Zone of Baghdad on June 1. (Holly Pickett / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. U.S. military Humvees are ready to be shipped out of Iraq at a staging yard at Camp Victory on July 6 in Baghdad. Everything from helicopters to printer cartridges are being wrapped and stamped and shipped out of Iraq in one of the most monumental withdrawal operations the American military has ever carried out. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Workers sort through broken computer equipment that will be destroyed at a demilitarizing facility for unusable, un-transportable U.S. military equipment at Camp Victory on June 24 in Baghdad. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Workers operate machinery that destroys damaged concrete blast walls at the U.S. Joint Base Balad, north of Baghdad, on July 3. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, clear their weapons before boarding a military aircraft in Baghdad, as they begin their journey home on Aug. 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Air Force airman talks on a radio as Army soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division prepare to board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug 13. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Soldiers from 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, are seen on board a military aircraft in Baghdad on Aug. 13, as they begin their journey home. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. U.S. Army soldiers carry the flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of a U.S. soldier out of a C-17 during a dignified transfer on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 17 in Dover, Del. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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