(BAGHDAD) — The United States will lower its flag in Iraq Thursday, symbolizing the end of the nearly nine year war there.
At its peak in 2007, 170,000 American troops occupied the Middle Eastern country. Now, only 4,000 soldiers remain, but they soon will be going home as the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline approaches, following a timeline first set by former President George W. Bush
To mark the culmination of Operation New Dawn, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Baghdad Thursday for the official “end of mission” ceremony. Speaking along with several U.S. military officials, Panetta honored the troops who put their lives on the line during the costly war.
We will never “forget the sacrifices of the more than one million men and women of the United States armed forces who served in Iraq, and the sacrifices of their families. …[I]n particular, we remember the nearly 4,500 brave Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, as well as the more than 30,000 wounded warriors who suffered — many of whom still struggle with serious, life-altering injuries,” he said.
“Your dedication, your commitment to this mission has been the driving force behind the remarkable progress we have seen here in Baghdad and across this country,” Panetta went on to say, addressing, “all of the men and women in uniform today.”
The Defense Secretary thanked the Iraqi government and military for their friendship and, “loyalty to the future of Iraq,” and noted how far the country has come since U.S. forces entered.
“[A]fter a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real: the Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt; violence levels are down; al Qaeda weakened; rule of law strengthened; educational opportunities expanded; and economic growth expanding,” he said. “And this progress has been sustained even as we have withdrawn nearly 150,000 U.S. combat forces from the country.”
Panetta warned, however, that, “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead — by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide it, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself.” To that end, he asserted that the U.S. will remain by the Iraqi people’s side as they fend off these troubles.
“The U.S. will maintain a significant diplomatic presence in Iraq. We will continue to help Iraq address violent extremism and defend against external threats. We will continue to have a robust and enduring military presence across the Middle East,” he said.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Rafael Romo and Patrick Gillespie, CNN
Don Melvin and Greg Botelho, CNN Newswire