BAGHDAD — The United States marked the official end of its combat role in the seven-year Iraq war Wednesday, acknowledging the immense sacrifices of a war that has divided Americans as well as Iraqis and pledging to help the country move forward.
"We fought together, we laughed together, and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together," Gen. Ray Odierno told Iraqi military leaders and hundreds of American soldiers and officers gathered in the marble foyer of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "It was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice."
At the ceremony, which took place at Camp Victory on Baghdad's outskirts, Vice President Joe Biden said it was "no secret" that the war had divided Americans, but it was time to put those differences aside. He paid tribute to the more than 4,400 servicemen and women who had been killed here and the tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces and civilians who had lost their lives.
"I truly believe the darkest days are behind us," he said, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen. Huge U.S. flags marked the marble staircases where soldiers living in the palace hung their laundry to dry in 2003.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over but American engagement with Iraq will continue," Biden added.
WHAT THE U.S. IS LEAVING BEHIND IN IRAQ
The ceremony marked not only the formal end of U.S. combat operations, but the change of command from General Odierno to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who will oversee the withdrawal of all U.S. troops next year.
President Barack Obama made it a campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by Sept 1. Under a status of forces agreement negotiated with Iraq, the remaining 50,000 troops are to leave by the end of next year.
Despite Biden's upbeat assessment on what was billed as a historic day, many of the comments struck a somber tone.
"The problem with this war for many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid," Gates told reporters while visiting troops in Ramadi west of Baghdad.
"Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States it will always be clouded by how it began," he said, referring to the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for invading Iraq.
Odierno, who was a main architect of the military surge that helped end Iraq's civil war, was also a division commander when U.S. forces under his command captured Saddam Hussein.
"When I return to the United States... I know that many people will ask was it worth it? What was it all for?" said Odierno, his voice booming through the marble hall to a rapt audience. He said he would respond with the worlds of George C. Marshall, who led the Allied victory in World World II, that democracy was the means to a better way of life and unlimited progress.
"We have sacrificed our nations most precious resource - our sons and daughters - to give the Iraqi people an opportunity for a better future," said Odierno, whose own son lost an arm while serving in Iraq.
Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, credited Odierno with helping to cultivate Iraqi security forces and said the ceremony marked a new phase of America's engagement with Iraq.
"General Odierno is an American hero but he is a hero to many Iraqis as well," he told the Monitor. "He is the one who got Saddam and he is someone who really worked tirelessly to let Iraqi security forces come of age - he helped build confidence between Kurds and Arabs ... many of us here in Iraq ... owe a great deal to these men and women in uniform."
CAN IRAQ DEFEND ITS BORDERS?
While Iraqis are no longer under the grip of Saddam Hussein or grappling with dozens of attacks a day that followed, the country's future is still murky.
Almost six months after Iraqis voted in national elections, there is still no new government. The Iraqi Army, disbanded by U.S. occupation authorities in 2003, is being rebuilt but is unlikely to be able to defend its borders by December 2011, when the remaining 50,000 American troops are due to leave.
Negotiating a new agreement for some American forces to stay behind will depend entirely on what kind of new Iraqi government takes shape but one seen as necessary by most Iraqi military leaders to defend Iraq's porous borders, including its longest one, with Iran.
"From now until (the end of 2011) we will be able to depend upon ourselves to fight terrorism and that period will show whether we need help from the Americans," Gen. Ali Ghadan, commander of Iraqi ground forces, told the Monitor. "But maybe after 2011, 2012, something may come up and we may need them to defend the country from external threats."
'A HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY FOR US'
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who is fighting to retain his job in a new government, has declared the end of the combat mission a historic day for Iraq and its new-found sovereignty. But there was no celebration in the streets, where security forces were on high alert in anticipation of attacks aimed at the high-level visitors.
The U.S. embassy has been bracing for increased rocket attacks fired at it amid a spike in increasingly accurate rockets and mortars fired at the protected green zone.
At least two rockets landed in the Green Zone Monday, one of them seriously injuring two security contractors - reportedly a Ugandan and a Peruvian. As the U.S. has cut back soldiers, it has increased the number of private contractors protecting the embassy and other buildings.
While U.S. helicopters flew overhead, Iraqi soldiers and police manned increased checkpoints throughout the city and patrolled streets with explosive detectors. Shiny new billboards showed Iraqi soldiers with raised M-16 rifles, newly purchased from the United States, and the logo, "We are always vigilant."
"We can all go and debate endlessly the mistakes that have taken place after the war - there were many mistakes by Americans and by Iraqis - but at the end of the day this is our country we have to accept responsibility for our fate," said Salih. "This is a historic opportunity for us and I hope we can live up to the challenge."
(McClatchy and the Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad)