Baghdad Ceremony Formally Ends Iraq War

U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of this month, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Baghdad to mark the occasion. He said the conflict was worth the price in blood and money, as it set Iraq on a path to democracy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. On what was once one of America's busiest bases in Iraq, the flag of U.S. forces was rolled up this morning, ready to be sent home to America. It's a ceremony known as the casing of the colors. And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was there, marking the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. We reached NPR's Kelly McEvers at that ceremony. And, Kelly, describe where you are.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We are actually out at the airport, the Baghdad Airport, at a place that up until very recently was called the Victory Base. This was the largest U.S. base in Iraq and was recently handed over. The Americans no longer control this base. It now belongs to the Iraqi government. This particular portion of the base is actually been handed over to the U.S. Embassy here. The U.S. Embassy is planning to be the largest U.S. - American Embassy in the world, their efforts going forward to have a large diplomatic mission. But I have to say, driving out here was really striking, because, you know, here with this base, it was almost like a ghost town. You had these empty trailers, empty shipping containers, empty checkpoints, where, you know, it used to be populated with American soldiers everywhere, and now they're just gone.

MONTAGNE: What is the feeling there this morning?

MCEVERS: You know, there's a sense here in Iraq amid - this so-called drawdown has been going on for sometime. We've had lots of base closures over the last several weeks. There's a sense almost that it's going out with a whimper, not with a bang. There's no mission accomplished flag being unfurled here today. It's a very respectful, sort of quiet, actually kind of small ceremony to honor the men and women who lost their lives here, and to, you know, sort of wish Iraq well as it moves forward.

MONTAGNE: What is the Iraqi reaction to the end of troops there?

MCEVERS: Well, most Iraqis you talk to have to say that they're glad to see what they consider an occupying force leave. This notion that Americans could come in and own this property, own these bases and call them their land, I mean, this is something that Iraqis definitely want to see end. And yesterday, in the western city of Fallujah, which, of course, was a, you know, the site of much fighting between American forces and Iraqi insurgents back in 2004, thousands of people took to the street to rally in celebration of the end of what they call the occupation. If you listen to this here, you'll hear the sounds of a protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: The people of Fallujah there, talking about the martyrs, the people who lost their lives in this conflict over the years. The other thing, though, privately, a lot of Iraqis do say that they're worried, they're concerned. They're concerned that the security in this country isn't up to par yet. That they're very worried that, you know, that what they saw was a mediating force between the many different ethnic groups and sects is leaving, and they're nervous about what might happen next.

MONTAGNE: And this departure, of course, seems to be happening sooner than perhaps was expected not too long ago.

MCEVERS: Right. You know, at one point, it was thought that a contingent of several thousand American troops was going to remain in Iraq into next year, sort of, beyond the agreed upon deadline, as a force of trainers to train Iraqi security forces, to help get the security back up to speed. But, you know, there was a - the talks between the Americans and the Iraqis pretty much broke down sometime this fall over the question of immunity. American soldiers, if they wanted to stay in Iraq, wanted to know that they would be immune from prosecution under Iraqi law. And the Iraqis, frankly, after eight years of war and more than 100,000 people dead, just weren't willing to grant that.

MONTAGNE: So how many U.S. troops are remaining in Iraq at this point?

MCEVERS: Right now, there are about 4,000 American troops here in Iraq, and that is down from almost 200,000 at the height of the war. The American forces are down to two bases in Iraq. That's down from, you know, 500 at the height, 100 a year ago. Hundreds of troops are leaving every day. Millions of pieces of equipment have been moved out. It's a logistical wonder to see this whole thing happening. But it's going to be wound down by the end of the month.

MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us this morning from Baghdad.

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