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.
“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.