WASHINGTON – By declaring that the last American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, President Barack Obama signaled the official close to one of the longest, most politically contentious wars in U.S. history – and the end to an American attempt to transform the Middle East with military might.
The soldiers, sailors and Marines will leave behind a stumbling young democracy, still beset by sectarian violence and inching closer to its neighbor, Iran, a bitter U.S. foe.
They will return home to a country that has largely turned inward to face its own economic problems and which long ago lost heart for a war fought in the name of protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
Obama promised Friday that the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops would be “home for the holidays,” fulfilling a campaign promise but also acceding to the reality of a depleted treasury and the overwhelming sentiment of American public opinion. And it reflected the political fact that Iraq demanded an end to the U.S. presence.
The Iraq war will be remembered as a stubborn, shifting campaign to restructure a society that had been held together for decades by tyrannical force. It was set against an ever-dangerous landscape of remote-controlled bombs, unbearable heat and uncertain alliances.
Iraq brought a new lexicon to American English: “war of choice,” “shock and awe,” “IED,” “coalition of the willing,” “surge.” It gave new meaning to the term “mission accomplished,” which was emblazoned on a banner behind President George W. Bush as he welcomed home a returning aircraft carrier in May 2003, six weeks after the war had begun and when victory seemed at hand.
Eight years later, the war is ending after taking the lives more than 4,400 Americans, most of them killed after the initial invasion. Tens of thousands were injured, including legions of amputees and multitudes suffering from battle trauma. Estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 100,000 upward.
Estimates of the dollar cost vary, rising as high as a trillion dollars or more. The end of the war will leave the United States with one major theater of combat: Afghanistan, the only conflict in American history to last longer than Iraq.
And yet for the last several months, the administration sought to find a political formula with the Iraqi government that would keep a few thousand U.S. troops in the country. The talks foundered largely over Iraqi opposition to granting immunity from prosecution for American troops who would remain.
In Iraq, a war-weary population appears happy to see the United States leave.
The most ardent opponents of a continued U.S. presence are the followers of the virulently anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose former Mahdi Army militiamen fought ferociously against U.S. troops in Sadr City and elsewhere. But even some of Washington’s Kurdish allies say U.S. troops have worn out their welcome.
An Iraqi political analyst, Hiader Saeed, said the desire to see the U.S. troops depart is part of a prevalent culture of “antagonism” toward Washington, a legacy of the years of bloodshed.
“My concern is that the political class and the ruling class in Iraq don’t have a vision of a long-term relationship of partnership with the USA,” said Saeed. But, he said, “We have to remember that those who are ruling Iraq have an education of antagonism against America.”
But the decision to proceed with complete withdrawal also reflected the White House’s own ambivalence about keeping forces in Iraq, which White House aides feared would be seen as a betrayal of Obama’s promise, during his 2008 presidential campaign, to end the conflict and withdraw American combat troops.
Obama alluded to that in announcing the decision at the White House: “I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,” the president said after a video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
Declaring that the “tide of war is receding,” Obama and other administration officials sought to portray the move as a honorable completion of a long and difficult mission and part of a broader shift away from direct U.S. military involvement not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Libya.
Leading Republicans denounced the White House failure to reach an agreement with Iraq on allowing a small contingent of U.S. troops to remain. They argued that keeping some U.S. troops there would help preserve still-fragile security gains, enable continued training of Iraqi forces, prevent a resurgence of sectarian and ethnic violence, and serve as a deterrent to Iran.
Iraq’s neighbor and former enemy has sought influence for years by supplying weapons and training to Shiite militant groups.
U.S. officials said that more than 4,000 U.S. contractors would remain in Baghdad to provide security to the large American Embassy in Baghdad and to consulates in the cities of Basra and Irbil. A small contingent of U.S military personnel to oversee U.S. arms sales and limited training would remain in Iraq as a permanent part of the U.S. diplomatic mission, they said.
Bush launched the war against Iraq on March 19, 2003, after declaring that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and had forged links with al-Qaida terrorists. Both claims were later widely deemed to be false. Told they would be greeted as liberators, U.S. forces instead found themselves battling a violent insurgency.
Bush’s vision of a more democratic Middle East has, in some measure, come true, but through mostly peaceful means during the “Arab Spring” of earlier this year. The region is a very different place than it was in 2003, but the changes have not necessarily been favorable to U.S. interests.
U.S.-backed autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia fell in Arab Spring revolts, while Moammar Gadhafi – a long-term U.S. adversary who was more recently a Western ally – suffered an ignoble death this week in his hometown of Sirte. Another U.S. ally, Yemen, is teetering, while the Assad dynasty in Syria, long a foe of Washington, faces its stiffest challenge in decades.