US military marks end to nearly nine bloody years in Iraq

BAGHDAD,  (Reuters) – U.S. forces formally ended  almost nine years of war in Iraq yesterday with a modest  flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, while to the north flickering  violence highlighted ethnic and sectarian strains threatening  the country in years ahead.

“After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the  mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has  become real,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the  ceremony at Baghdad’s still heavily-fortified airport.

Almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis  lost their lives in the war that began with a “Shock and Awe”  campaign of missiles pounding Baghdad and descended into  sectarian strife and a surge in U.S. troop numbers.

U.S. soldiers lowered the flag of American forces in Iraq  and slipped it into a camouflage-coloured sleeve in a brief  outdoor ceremony, symbolically ending the most unpopular U.S.  military venture since the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s.

The remaining 4,000 American troops will leave by the end of  the year.

The ‘’Hands of Victory’‘ memorial rises over an empty parade ground in the Green Zone of Baghdad yesterday. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is dead, executed in  2006, and the worst sectarian violence has, at least for now,  passed. But Iraq still struggles with insurgents, a fragile  power-sharing government and an oil-reliant economy plagued by  power shortages and corruption.

“Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by  those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues,”  Panetta told the rows of assembled U.S. soldiers and embassy  officials at the ceremony. “Challenges remain, but the United  States will be there to stand by the Iraqi people.”

In Falluja, the former heartland of an al Qaeda insurgency  that suffered some of the most vicious fighting in the war,  several thousand Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal on Wednesday,  some burning U.S. flags and waving pictures of dead relatives.

Falluja became more than any other Iraqi city a symbol  for the brutality of the war after the 2003 invasion.

Ali al-Falluji’s building lies with its ceiling  collapsed, debris scattered across a Falluja roadside just as  the Iraqi businessman left it in 2004 when U.S. bombs punctured  its roof.      “This scene must remain like it is as a testimony to the  brutality of the Americans,” said Falluji.

It took two U.S. incursions into Falluja in 2004, and  weeks of devastating house-to-house fighting, to subdue the  city.
“I feel how my son Ibrahim grieves. He was injured in  his head by a U.S. bullet in April 2004 and it paralyzed him,”  said Mudhafer Ali, a Falluja retiree. “The Americans have left,  but they left us for our sorrow, pains and destroyed the  future.”

Elsewhere, around 2,500 mainly Shi’ite Muslim residents of  the northern territory of Diyala protested in front of the  provincial council building for a second day against a move to  declare autonomy from mainly Sunni Muslim Salahuddin province.

Police used batons and water cannon to disperse  demonstrators who tried to storm the council headquarters,  witnesses said. Some protesters climbed to the roof of the  building and raised green and black Shi’ite flags.

Some parts of Diyala are territories disputed between the  minority Kurds in the north and the Arab, Shi’ite-led government  in Baghdad. The long-standing row over land, oil and power could  trigger further conflict in Iraq after American troops depart.

Iraq’s neighbours will watch how Baghdad tackles its  sectarian and ethnic division without the U.S. military. Events  there could be influenced by conflict in neighbouring Syria that  has taken on a sectarian hue in recent weeks.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who made an election promise in  2008 to bring troops home from Iraq, told Iraqi Prime Minister  Nuri al-Maliki that Washington will remain a loyal partner after  the last troops roll across the Kuwaiti border.

 “WE NEED TO BE SAFE”     
Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership presents the withdrawal as a new  start for the country’s sovereignty, but many Iraqis question  which direction the nation will take without U.S. troops.

“I am happy they are leaving. This is my country and they  should leave,” said Samer Saad, a soccer coach. “But I am  worried because we need to be safe. We are worried because all  the militias will start to come back.”  Some like Saad fear more sectarian strife or an al Qaeda  return to the cities.

Violence has ebbed since the bloodier days of sectarian  slaughter when suicide bombers and hit squads claimed hundreds  of victims a day at times as the country descended into  tit-for-tat killings between the Sunni and Shi’ite communities.

In 2006 alone, 17,800 Iraqi military and civilians were  killed in violence.

Iraqi security forces are generally seen as capable of  containing the remaining Sunni Islamist insurgency and the rival  Shi’ite militias that U.S. officials say are backed by Iran.

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