Nightly News   |  August 18, 2010

Richard Engel rides with combat troops leaving Iraq

The last U.S. combat forces cross the border into Kuwait, bringing Operation Iraqi Freedom to a close after nearly 7½ years. NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, reports live from the border.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

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 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 .