By LOLITA C. BALDOR and REBECCA SANTANA
BAGHDAD — Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict here Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives is yet unanswered.
While many of the speeches painted a picture of victory — for both the troops and the Iraqi people now set on a path for democracy — the gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes. And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats.
Stark reminders of the fragile and often violent nature of the situation in Iraq engulfed the 45-minute ceremony. It was tucked into fortified corner of the airport, ringed with concrete blast walls. And on the chairs — nearly empty of Iraqis — were tags that listed not only the name of the VIP assigned to the seat, but the bunker they should move to in case of an attack.
The speeches touched on the success of the mission as well as its losses: Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis killed. Another 32,000 American and tens of thousands Iraqis wounded. And $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury.
On the other side of the ledger, an Iraq free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, inching forward toward democracy and vowing to be a good neighbor in the region.
“To be sure the cost was high — in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the roughly 200 troops and others in attendance. “Those lives have not been lost in vain -- they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the Iraqi people now have an unprecedented opportunity to live in a relatively peaceful environment, but he also acknowledged it will be a challenging time. And he urged Iraqi leaders to make good choices based on what is best for their people.
“Violence and prosperity cannot co-exist,” said Austin, who eight years, eight months and 26 days ago gave the order for U.S. troops to storm across the border into Iraq. And on Thursday he gave the order to retire the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq.
The flag was then rolled up, covered by a camouflage colored sheath and will be brought back to the U.S.
Speaking to the troops in the audience, Panetta lauded their service and their bravery, adding, “You will leave with great pride — lasting pride — secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history.”
Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain of how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on the last day of 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.
“With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country,” said Mariam Khazim, a Shiite whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City. “The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind them, in fact they left a ruined country and a divided nation.”
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country.
“The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people,” said lawmaker Amir al-Kinani, a member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Others said that while grateful for U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.
The low-key nature of the ceremony stood in sharp contrast to the high octane start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.
The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
Austin led the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.
The war “tested our military’s strength and our ability to adapt and evolve,” he said, noting the development of the new counterinsurgency doctrine.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and less than 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All U.S. troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.
The total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence-sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult region.
Despite President Barack Obama’s earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.
Obama stopped short of calling the U.S. effort in Iraq a victory in an interview taped Thursday with ABC News’ Barbara Walters.
“I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future,” Obama said.
Despite the war’s toll and unpopularity, Panetta insisted that it “has not been in vain.”
Iraqi citizens offered a more pessimistic assessment. “The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country,” said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. “The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans.”
The Iraq Body Count website says more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion. The vast majority were civilians.
Panetta echoed Obama’s promise that the U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.
U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.
Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship. Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration, and Thursday’s ceremony will allow the president to fulfill a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is roiling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.