CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – December was the first month since the Iraq war began in which there were no American combat deaths, a milestone hailed by military officials Friday as they inaugurated a new name for the U.S. force at the start of the year that will see the war wind down in earnest.
Henceforth, the Multinational Force-Iraq will officially be called the United States Force-Iraq, in belated recognition of the fact that for some time there have been no other nations serving alongside U.S. troops in the nearly 7-year-old conflict.
British, Australian and Romanian soldiers pulled out in July, leaving Americans as the last surviving members of what former President George W. Bush once called “the coalition of the willing.” A small number of foreigners are serving with a NATO training mission, but they were not part of the multinational force.
At its peak, the coalition included 32 nations, but the expression often drew snickers because many of its members, such as Estonia and Tonga, were among America’s smallest allies and they contributed fewer than 100 troops.
And now the U.S. is preparing to pull out, too, adding an end-of-era feel to the renaming ceremony held at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces on the sprawling Camp Victory complex outside Baghdad that serves as the military’s headquarters.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the service members and diplomats assembled in the palace’s marbled foyer that the new name signaled a new phase for the U.S. military as it prepares to halt all combat operations and draw down from the current level of 110,000 troops to fewer than 50,000 by August.
The remaining U.S. troops, who will provide support and training, are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.
Although challenges remain, in the form of a continued al-Qaida in Iraq presence and Iranian-sponsored Shiite Muslim militias, Petraeus said, “there has been sustained progress.”
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, hailed the absence of American casualties in December as “a significant milestone” in the U.S. efforts to leave behind a stable country.
The Iraqi government Friday released figures showing that 3,454 Iraqis died in violence in 2009, the lowest level since the war began in March 2003.
“Iraq has moved out of the darkness toward the light of hope,” Odierno told the crowd. “Two years from today U.S. forces will have completed their redeployment and Iraqi security forces will be fully in charge of their country.”
But there were reminders of the toll exacted by the war, in which 4,371 U.S. servicemen and 318 coalition members have lost their lives, according to the independent Web site icasualties.org.
In seats of honor in the front rows sat five soldiers who had been wounded in action, returning to Iraq for the first time since they were injured. The face of one of the men was severely disfigured. Another had hooks in place of his hands and appeared to be missing most of his nose. After Petraeus pointed them out, they received a warm round of applause.