US military personnel in Baghdad bow their heads during a flag-lowering ceremony marking the end of the US mission in Iraq Thursday, nearly nine years after the controversial invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Photo: AFP
Doubts over the future of Iraq rose yesterday as the US formally announced the end of its war there. However, analysts downplayed the possibility of terrorist groups regaining a foothold in the country.
"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a ceremony in Baghdad, marking the closure of the US military headquarters near the capital.
"Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead - by terrorism, by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues and by the demands of democracy itself," Panetta said, adding the US will stand with the Iraqi people as they navigate these challenges.
The last 4,000 American troops will return home by Christmas, nearly nine years after the invasion started. The war has claimed the lives of 4,487 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis at a total cost of nearly $1 trillion.
Yesterday's announcement came shortly after US President Barack Obama hailed the "extraordinary achievement" of the war in a speech to welcome home some of the troops on Wednesday.
The war had been "a source of great controversy," but it has helped to build "a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people," and the troops are leaving with "heads held high," the BBC quoted the president as saying.
However, not many people share Obama's optimism.
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month, 60 percent of US respondents now believe the withdrawal will lead to "all-out civil war" in Iraq, compared with 54% in February 2009.
In Fallujah, the former heartland of an al Qaeda insurgency and scene of some of the worst fighting, several thousand Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal Wednesday with some burning US flags and waving pictures of dead relatives, Reuters reported.
Gao Zugui, a researcher with the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, told the Global Times that Washington would maintain close cooperation with Iraqi authorities to ward off insurgency or terrorism threats.
"The Iraqi army and police are generally capable of dealing with the threats, and Washington must have made many security arrangements before the withdrawal," Gao said, adding that the US has successfully turned Iraq into its strategic pivot point in the Gulf.
According to Reuters, some US troops were supposed to stay on as part of a deal to train Iraqi armed forces. Washington had asked Iraq to allow at least 3,000 troops to remain in the country, but talks over immunity from prosecution for US soldiers fell apart.
Ahamed Tayee, a businessman in Baghdad, told the Global Times that as long as oil pumps out of Iraqi oilfields, the Americans will not pull out completely and abandon the hard-won fruits of the costly war.
"There are still some 15,000 US personnel serving at their embassy in Baghdad, including military trainers and security contractors. Our airspace is also under their control," Tayee said.
Zhang Jiadong, an analyst with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times with Washington pulling back its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, China needs to play a more important role in the fight against terrorism in Central Asia.
"The burden will be heavier for China to deal with the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism in the region. But the reduction of the US presence also leaves room for Beijing to carry out some economic and political gains," Zhang said.
Meanwhile, analysts suggested the withdrawal represented a mission accomplished for Obama, who had vowed to end the war even before winning the presidency.
According to the AP, Obama's approval rating on handling the situation in Iraq has stayed above 50 percent since last fall. In a new AP-GfK poll, this has ticked up four points since October to 55 percent.
"Americans expect the valor of the troops to be lauded no matter what they thought of the war itself, and Obama is very sensitive to that," Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told the AP. "That's one big part of what he is doing."
His other focus, Jillson said, has been to keep his campaign pledge and bring the war to a close as best as possible.
"Saying the troops performed nobly is easy. The more difficult task is to make the case that the resources were well expended and the future of Iraq looks bright," Jillson added.