BAGHDAD — The U.S. marked on Wednesday the transition to the final phase of the Iraq war, shifting the focus of the remaining 50,000 American troops from combat operations to preparing Iraqi security forces to protect the country on their own.
President Barack Obama set the tone for changing the role without fanfare, making clear in a major speech on Iraq on Tuesday that this was no victory celebration. A six-month stalemate over forming a new Iraqi government has raised concerns about the country's stability and questions over whether the leadership can cope with a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.
Meantime, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen presided over a military change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad that signaled the formal end of American combat operations in Iraq, 7½ years after the March 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Newly promoted Army Gen. Lloyd Austin maintained a somber tone as he took the reins of the some 50,000 American troops who remain in Iraq, with a deadline for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.
During the ceremony at the opulent al-Faw palace, a former hunting lodge for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Austin noted that "hostile enemies" continue to threaten Iraq and pledged that "our national commitment to Iraq will not change."
Austin, who most recently served in Iraq as commander of troop operations from 2008-09, replaces Gen. Ray Odierno, who is heading to Virginia to take over the Joint Forces Command after a total of about five years in Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country appreciates what the Americans did, but it is now time for Iraqis to secure their own future.
"As an Iraqi and a victim of Saddam Hussein, I can say that the war was worth it because it ended one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world," Zebari told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "We appreciate the sacrifices the U.S. military and the American people made while standing with us in these very, very difficult times," he added.
"The war for Iraq's future is ongoing and it should be fought and won by the Iraqi people and their leaders," Zebari said. "It's more or less the same war Americans fought against terrorist and extreme elements who want to undermine the democratic government. But it's our duty to fight it and win it."
Gates visit to Ramadi
Gates visited one of the U.S. military's new advisory brigades in Ramadi, which is in the heart of Anbar province — the cradle of the Sunni insurgency against the initial U.S. occupation.
He said history will judge whether the fight was worth it for the United States.
"The problem with this war, I think, for many Americans, is that the premise on which we justified going to war turned out not to be valid," he said. "Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it'll always be clouded by how it began."
Claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, then-President George W. Bush ordered the invasion with approval of a Congress that was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. But Bush's claims were based on faulty intelligence, and the weapons were never found.
Obama declared an end to combat in an Oval Office speech Tuesday night and praised American forces for their work. He acknowledged the ambiguous nature of the war in which American forces quickly ousted Saddam but were never able to fully control the Sunni Muslim insurgency against the Shiite-dominated establishment that even now threatens to re-ignite.
Still, he said the time had come to close this divisive chapter in U.S. history. "We have met our responsibility," Obama said. "Now it is time to turn the page."
Avoiding any hint of claiming victory in a war he once called a major mistake, the president recognized the sacrifices of America's military. More than 4,400 American troops and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis were killed and it cost billions of dollars.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Tuesday the end of combat operations as a return to sovereignty and independence for the hobbled country, and tried to reassure his people that their own security forces can defend them.
Iraqi forces on Wednesday appeared to be on heightened alert, spread out at checkpoints across the city intended to reassure the populace and ward off insurgent attacks.
Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq — down from a peak of about 170,000 at the height in 2007. Those forces will not be able to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces. The last combat brigade left Iraq earlier this month and the remaining units are being called advise and assist brigades by the U.S. military.
But drawing a line between what is and is not combat might not be easy. All American forces carry weapons, can protect themselves and their bases and still come under attack from insurgents near daily. Earlier this month, for example, Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart, 24, of Kirksville, Mo. was killed near the southern city of Basra on Aug. 22 — a few days after the last combat brigade rolled across the border into Kuwait.
But in Ramadi, the questions soldiers asked of the secretary illustrated the change from some of the worst years of fighting in that area. Some of their top concerns included health care, retirement and the state of combat pay now that the combat mission is officially over.
One soldier asked whether the U.S. might maintain a military presence in Iraq after 2012, when all U.S. forces are due to leave by agreement with the Iraqi leadership.
"Any such proposal would have to be at the initiative of the new Iraqi government," Gates replied. "We would obviously be willing to look at that."
He emphasized that the U.S. is still waiting for the formation of that new government before that idea can even be broached.
'Cant imagine' re-engagement
Lt. Col. Buddy Houston, deputy brigadier commander of the 4/3 Advise and Assist Brigade in Ramadi, said there have been no incidents in the last 14 months where Iraqis asked for direct combat help.
"I can't imagine a violent situation where we would have to go back in and re-engage," Houston said. He added that he didn't anticipate, "even under the worst-case scenario," that a civil war could break out in Iraq as U.S. troops leave.
But Iraq is also far from the stable democracy once depicted by the Bush administration and hoped for by Obama when he laid out his timeline for withdrawing American troops shortly after he took office in 2009.
Half a year has passed since Iraq's March 7 elections which failed to produce a clear winner, and the country's political leaders have so far failed to form a new government.
Anthony Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment in the Pentagon, warned in a new report that Iraq is at a critical time and its fate rests on a successful transition of power.
"The withdrawal is far from over, the Iraq War is not over, it is not 'won,' and any form of stable end state in Iraq is probably impossible before 2020," Cordesman warned.
While Iraqis are generally happy to see the U.S. military pulling back, they also feel that the troop withdrawal is premature because security forces are a top target for militants. Iraqis also say they fear their country will revert to a dictatorship or split along religious and ethnic fault lines without U.S. military support.
"I hope that the American troops will leave Iraq, but not for the time being," Baghdad resident Fadhil Hashim said Wednesday.
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