U.S. officials in Baghdad have spoken of the sacrifices made by both Americans and Iraqis at a formal ceremony marking the end of U.S. military operations in Iraq after nearly nine years of war.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that "after a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real."
"Challenges remain," Panetta said, "but the United States will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation."
The ceremony in Baghdad consisted of the lowering of the U.S. flag as officials closed the U.S. military's headquarters.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also paid tribute to both Iraqis and Americans as U.S. soldiers rolled up the flag and slipped it into a camouflage-colored sleeve.
"We look back at the sacrifices made by so many Americans and so many Iraqis," Jeffrey said. "But we also look forward to an Iraq that is sovereign, secure, and self-reliant -- an Iraq with whom the United States government will continue to work in every way possible."
More than 100,000 Iraqis and some 4,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
An estimated 1.75 million Iraqis also have been displaced amid sectarian fighting that was unleashed by the collapse of the regime of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.
Large Logistical Move
The final few thousand U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq by December 31, leaving behind a detachment of about 200 soldiers who will provide security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Another 700 civilian trainers are to keep working in the country to prepare Iraqi forces to use new U.S. military hardware that Baghdad has purchased -- from F-16 fighter aircraft to Abrams tanks.
At its peak, the United States had about 165,000 troops in Iraq. At the start of 2011, logistics experts calculated there were still nearly 3 million pieces of equipment to be moved.
The U.S. withdrawal has been under way in earnest since last summer when Washington officially ended combat operations -- leaving about 50,000 troops to support Iraqi forces with training, aerial surveillance, tactical advice, logistics, and intelligence.
"This was one of the most complex logistical undertakings in U.S. military history," Panetta said. "Fifty thousand U.S. troops withdrawn seamlessly, dozens of bases closed or handed over, millions of pieces of equipment that had to be transferred, all while maintaining the security of our forces and the security of the Iraqi people."
On December 14 -- in an aircraft hanger at Fort Bragg in North Carolina -- U.S. President Barack Obama was cheered by soldiers
who had just returned to the United States from Iraq as he honored what he called their "extraordinary achievement."
"As your commander in chief, on behalf of a grateful nation," Obama said, "I am proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: Welcome home! Welcome home! Welcome home!"
The U.S. president told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki this week that Washington will remain a loyal partner after the last troops roll across the Kuwaiti border.
U.S. officials had asked for around 3,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, but Maliki's government did not have the political capital to push any agreement on soldiers' immunity from prosecution through parliament.
In Fallujah -- a city west of Baghdad that remains deeply scarred by two U.S. military offensives in 2004 -- hundreds of residents on December 14 marked the impending departure of U.S. forces by burning American flags and shouting slogans in support of the "resistance."
Written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports