U.S. Changes Military Commanders In Iraq

At a ceremony at Saddam Hussein's once-glorious Al Faw Palace, Operation Iraqi Freedom officially ends, and Operation New Dawn begins. Gen. Ray Odierno handed over command of all U.S. forces in Iraq to General Lloyd Austin, who headed the 10th Mountain, 18th Airborne, and was chief of staff at Centcom.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Iraq today, one of Saddam Hussein's lavish palaces served as the setting for a ceremony signaling a new moment for the country. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were on hand for the event. They were marking what the Obama administration calls the end of combat operations. In a moment, we'll get a picture of life in Iraq today beyond ceremonies and beyond the capital.

First to NPR's Kelly McEvers in Baghdad.

KELLY McEVERS: Officials in Washington and commanders here say the end of the U.S. combat mission means the beginning of a new era, when Iraqis will take charge of their own security. But today's ceremony was most certainly about America.

(Soundbite of song, "Marines' Hymn")

McEVERS: Under a chandelier the size of an SUV and a massive banner bearing the insignia of U.S. Forces-Iraq, it was American officials who made the speeches and gave the salutes.

Vice President Biden even began his remarks in a way that made a few Iraqis in the audience uneasy.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: The last several years, every time I've been in this old palace, I can't but help think of the irony, that we are here today occupying a palace for a noble reason that was once occupied by Saddam Hussein.

McEVERS: Biden did pay tribute to what he said were tens of thousands of Iraqis who've lost their lives and more than 4,000 Americans who died since the American invasion in 2003.

Next to take the stage was General Ray Odierno, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces whose troops trained and fought with Iraqi soldiers through some of the worst years of the war.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commanding General, United States Forces, Iraq): We fought together, we laughed together and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together.

McEVERS: Odierno has been succeeded by General Lloyd Austin, who served as Odierno's second in command. Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, in what the military is calling an advise-and-assist role. Under the current security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all those troops must be gone by the end of next year.

But Lieutenant General Michael Barbero said that agreement might be subject to change. He spoke to a few reporters before the ceremony.

Lieutenant General MICHAEL BARBERO (Deputy Commander, United States Forces, Iraq): Well, I know that the Iraqis are looking at some of the gaps they're going to have in their capabilities in December 2011, and they're concerned about it. So I would predict that they're going to ask for some assistance.

McEVERS: Post 2011?

Lt. Gen. BARBERO: 2011, yeah.

McEVERS: Another general, when asked if today is a milestone or just another step in an ongoing war, paused and said we'll wait for the historians to decide.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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