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Nearly nine years after the war in Iraq began, today, the U.S. officially marked the end of its military mission there. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was on hand in Baghdad for what's known as the casing of the colors. That's when the military's flag is put away and send back here to the U.S. It will then be retired and perhaps later go on display at the Pentagon. NPR's Kelly McEvers was in Baghdad and sent this report.
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KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Let's be clear. These ceremonies have been going on for weeks now in Iraq: closing bases, handing over equipments, sending soldiers home in planes and armored vehicles. Still, about 3,500 soldiers remain in Iraq. That's down from nearly 200,000 at the height of the war. Hundreds of soldiers are leaving Iraq each day.
At today's ceremony, Commanding General Lloyd Austin said the withdrawal will be completed in the coming days. He says it's a poignant moment for someone who was part of the initial invasion of Iraq.
GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: I gave the order for the lead elements of the division to cross the border. As fate would have it, I now give the order to case the colors today.
MCEVERS: Austin was joined by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who spoke to the small crowd of Iraqi and American officials and military personnel. Panetta assured those gathered that the nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis who lost their lives lost them for a good cause.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Those lives have not been lost in vain. They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq. And because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity.
MCEVERS: The ceremony was subdued, considering it's the end of nearly nine years at war. General Frank Helmick said that's the way the commanders wanted it.
LT. GENERAL FRANK HELMICK: You know, we don't want a lot of fanfare what we've done here. We pride ourselves on being quiet professionals, and that's what our military is made of, quiet professionals. No one, no one can do what the American military did in this country. No one.
MCEVERS: Whether what the military did in this country will be called a success, most here agree that's still a matter for debate. The dictator is gone. Iraq has an elected parliament. But the political system is deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iraqis still have only a few hours of electricity each day. The oil industry is only now coming online. And while violence is down from previous years, low-level attacks are still the norm. For their part, Iraqis haven't missed the chance to celebrate the departure of the Americans.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: In the infamous city of Fallujah, thousands of Iraqis recently gathered for what they called a day of victory. Speeches and songs celebrated those who fought and died in what Fallujis call the resistance against the American occupation.
In 2004, the U.S. fought two fierce battles in Fallujah, where hundreds of people died. The city is still battered and slowly trying to come back to life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: Iraq is beautiful, this man says in a speech to the crowd. Do not forget about its glory, even when it is facing a hard time. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.