18 Dec 2011

Last US troops leave Iraq

Iraq faces an uncertain future as the last US military units hand over control to local forces, amid continuing political uncertainty and sectarian violence.

Iraq’s defence chief has insisted his forces are strong enough to cope with the threat from insurgents as the last US troops left the country after nine years.

The last columns rolled out of Iraq into neighbouring Kuwait without incident at daybreak on Sunday, marking the end of a war that cost nearly 4,500 American and 100,000 Iraqi lives.

The departure is slightly earlier than planned and some critics have said the Iraqi security forces will struggle to cope.

The US plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.

At least 4,000 US forces will remain in Kuwait for some month and could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

There is no doubt or fear about the readiness of the Iraqi forces to maintain internal security. Babakir Zebari

Iraq’s defence chief, Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari, said: “There is no doubt or fear about the readiness of the Iraqi forces to maintain internal security, because the US troops have gradually pulled out from all their bases over more than one-and-a-half years and we have taken over the responsibilities of all these bases.

“The Iraqi army and police have been conducting operations against al-Qaeda and terrorism.”

Iraq is deeply divided across sectarian and ethnic lines and still struggling with an insurgency and political uncertainty after sectarian slaughter drove the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-7.

But some Iraqis directly accuse the US invasion of stirring up sectarian divisions in a country where Saddam, from the minority Sunni sect, ruthlessly crushed any signs of Shia dissent but minimised sectarian divisions in daily life.

Baghdad resident Abu Issam said: “There were no Sunnis and Shias before the Americans. There was no sectarianism.

“I am a Shia and my two sons are married to Sunni women.”

Jabbar Karim, from the southern city of Basra, said: “It is a victory day for the Iraqi people because the Iraqi people have waited for such a historical moment.

“Thank God, we got rid of the Americans. God willing, we, the Iraqi people will improve ourselves.”

Another Basra resident, Haider Ismael, said: “The US forces have caused many troubles and difficulties in the country and it left nothing but black prints on this land.”

There were few complaints about the prospect of leaving Iraq from US soldiers.

Specialist Elias from 62nd Engineer Battalion, Fort Carson Colorado, said: “I am excited to go home. It had ups and downs, but, it was challenging, but I am just glad that you know everybody came back home safe and we are just you know on the way back, safe and sound.

“I believe we’ve done a good job and I think, at least in our unit, our mission was accomplished.”

Staff Sergeant Christian Schultz said: “I was here when it first started and I’ve seen a lot of progress in this country, a lot of changes.

“I’ve got a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories here, so I’ve kind of got mixed feelings about it but it’s fulfilling, definitely.”