And that was it. No pronouncements of victory, no cheers or jubilation — only a profound sense that the war’s real reckoning is yet to come, even as the American part in it draws to a close.
No senior Iraqi government officials showed up for the event, though the name tags attached to two chairs in the front row indicated American hopes that they might. One was labeled for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the other for President Jalal Talabani.
The only prominent Iraqis to attend were a former defense minister and three generals who have worked closely alongside U.S. forces and have often expressed hope that they would remain.
It was a reminder that for all the declarations of progress, the troops are leaving primarily because most Iraqis wanted them to go, despite the significant lingering concerns about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and the country’s still-precarious political balance.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the sixth and last general to command American forces in Iraq, alluded to those uncertainties when he spoke of the “opportunities” U.S. troops had created for Iraqis to live freely and prosper, without sounding at all sure that they will.
But he also warned that militant groups may yet disrupt the gains the Iraqi security forces have made in recent years, at a time when the turmoil of the Arab revolts threatens to reignite Iraq’s sectarian tensions and fuel regional rivalries.
“There’s no doubt this is a challenging time for Iraq and its neighbors,” Austin told a small group of U.S. troops and dignitaries gather within an encirclement of fortified concrete. “But Iraq has the opportunity to assume a position of leadership if it follows the right path.’’
For many Iraqis, too, it was an ambivalent conclusion to the upheaval of the past eight years, which has transformed their country beyond recognition without, in the eyes of many, significantly improving their lives. More than 100,000 Iraqis died in the bloodshed that followed the invasion, and though violence is greatly reduced, bombings and assassinations remain a daily occurrence.
On the streets of Baghdad, residents overwhelmingly said that they were glad the U.S. troops were going home, but some also seemed nervous that the departure of the Americans could rekindle latent power struggles and perhaps intensify the violence.
“Sooner or later, the American flag had to be taken down because it is unacceptable to live in the shadow of their flag,” said businessman Qais al-Lami, 39. “So I’m happy they’re leaving because they are occupiers.