“What’s the point of lighting a candle at the beginning of a tunnel when you know you will be walking in darkness?” asked Bashar al-Nadeq, 32, explaining why he won’t celebrate the departure of the troops, even as he rejoices that they are going.
The persistent dangers were underscored by the strict security measures surrounding the U.S. ceremony and the small scale of the farewell pageantry. Visitors’ badges carried numbers identifying which bunkers they should access in the event of a rocket attack. The date was kept secret for months to prevent insurgents from targeting the site.
U.S. commanders had openly urged Iraqi leaders to extend the American military’s presence beyond the agreed Dec. 31 deadline, so that they could continue to train the Iraqi security forces, build the country’s almost-nonexistent conventional defenses and allow more time for the wobbly political consensus forged after elections last year to solidify.
But in a rare display of consensus, Iraq’s usually squabbling factions united to insist that U.S. troops could stay only if they were subject to Iraqi law, a condition that the American military had made clear from the outset would not be acceptable.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the most senior U.S. official at the ceremony, told those who attended that America’s role in Iraq is by no means over. He referred to a $6 billion effort being undertaken by the State Department to sustain U.S. influence now that the military role has ended.
“Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation,” he told the gathering.
A newly established Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSCI), under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy, will retain 157 military personnel to continue to help train the Iraqi security forces. The State Department will also employ thousands of private security contractors to assume many of the functions that had been performed by the military and cannot be dispensed with given the dangerous conditions.
The air terminal where the ceremony was held is a former military facility that henceforth will be operated by the embassy. The State Department will also run a fleet of 80 MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) armored fighting vehicles to transport diplomats, using civilians who have been taught by the military to drive them.
The ceremony effectively ends the war two weeks earlier than was necessary under the terms of the security agreement signed by the U.S. and Iraqi governments in 2008, which stipulated that the troops must be gone by Dec. 31.
But U.S. commanders decided that there was no need to keep soldiers in Iraq through the Christmas holidays once the talks on extending the American troop presence beyond the deadline failed. Within days, all of the 4,500 troops who remain — most of them only to guard the ceremony and the exit routes out of the country — will be gone.