(BAGHDAD, Iraq) — In the end, there was no decisive battle, no peace treaty. The United States’ bloodiest conflict since Vietnam ended with a border crossing.
After nearly nine years, $800 billion, 4,500 American dead and an estimated 100,000 Iraqi dead, the war in Iraq is over—at least for the U.S. military. Shortly after 7:30 a.m. local time, the last U.S. combat troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait along the same roads that the U.S. used to invade the country in 2003.
One and a half million American men and women served in Iraq since that first force arrived, back when the campaign was expected to be quick and greeted warmly. But even today, the legacy of the war is in many ways still unknown: The U.S. is leaving an Iraq where sectarian, regional, and political groups still show willingness—and sometimes a desire—to resolve their differences violently, and where many of the vital issues created by the invasion are still unsettled.
Saddam Hussein is gone and the country and its armed forces have improved in many ways since the peak of the war, in 2007. But Iraq is still struggling to shake off the weighty baggage of decades of dictatorship and conflict. Many Iraqis are hopeful for the future, but just as many are anxious, as their devastated country faces a power vacuum and an expected explosion of oil wealth and construction projects.
For the U.S., a war launched in the aftermath of 9/11 became one of its most controversial. Repeated and extended deployments strained the military and the country’s budget.
More recently, because of the costs and struggles of the Iraq war, the U.S. has changed how it intervenes overseas, shunning large-scale invasions for relatively small interventions that aid local insurgent groups.
Still, today the final commander in Iraq said the war was worth it.
“If you’re a loved one of someone that was killed in action or seriously wounded in action, there are no words that can make you ever believe that this was worth it,” Gen. Lloyd Austin said Saturday in Camp Adder, from where the final combat troops left.
“However, if you really think about what’s happened here—we removed a brutal dictator that killed, tortured hundreds of thousands of people over time and it provided the Iraqi people opportunities that they have not seen in their lifetime,” Austin said. “If you consider the fact that we have a young democracy in a very critical region, a region that’s critical to the United States of America—yes, it was worth it.”
Inside the seat of power in Baghdad—the same heavily fortified Green Zone that the U.S. made its headquarters after the invasion—the government expressed thanks for the sacrifices of U.S. troops. But it is struggling with sectarian tensions and a tenuous power-sharing agreement that reflect the fragility of the political process here.
As the U.S. departed Iraq, a line of more than 100 U.S. vehicles, and nearly 500 soldiers headed out to make history.
Some of the soldiers were on their fourth deployments to Iraq, but many more on their first.
A significant number of the soldiers were just children when the war began.
As the troops crossed the border, they were greeted with the rising sun in Kuwait.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish since I’ve been here, and my time here, my first deployment, it’s nice to be going home, especially before the holidays,” said Specialist David Trudeau.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Kareem Khadder, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Steve Almasy, CNN
Camille Verdier, Steve Visser and Margot Haddad, CNN