By Greg Jaffe and and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 2, 2010; A8
BAGHDAD - The U.S. military's war is officially over in Iraq, even as the future of the country remains undecided. The signs of the end were everywhere Wednesday, despite the presence of about 49,000 American troops who remain mostly sequestered on large U.S. bases.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates touched down in the morning at al-Asad Air Base, which was once home to 22,000 Marines and now serves primarily as a takeoff point for planes ferrying troops home from Iraq. He took questions from troops who pressed him with queries about their retirement and health benefits and barely mentioned the war. By afternoon, Gates and Vice President Biden were presiding over what will likely be the war's last four-star change of command.
The events served to amplify President Obama's message Tuesday that it was time for the United States to "turn the page" in Iraq.
The U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 was followed by a series of American blunders, such as the failure to plan for the postwar occupation, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the often heavy-handed use of force, which fed the chaos and unrest that enveloped the country after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Even as Gates praised U.S. troops who fought in Iraq, the defense secretary declined to say whether he thought the war's ambiguous outcome was worth the cost in American money and lives. "I think that it really requires a historian's perspective in terms of what happens here in the long term," Gates said.
Gates's remarks reflected the American ambivalence about a war launched on the faulty intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The war "will always be clouded by how it began," Gates said.
The war's outcome is also far from certain. Nearly six months after its most recent national election, Iraq's political parties remain incapable of forming a coalition government. Remnants of the insurgency remain and are capable of pulling off horrific attacks. There are also unresolved disputes between Arabs and Kurds over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq that could spur further unrest.
"Our men and women in uniform . . . have accomplished something extraordinary," Gates said. "How it weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen."
Senior U.S. officials sent a strong message to the Iraqis on Wednesday that they would have to solve the country's internal problems increasingly on their own. "It is time for Iraq to move forward," the outgoing U.S. commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, said at his change-of-command ceremony at Camp Victory, the once-bustling hub of U.S. military forces in Iraq. Odierno turned over his command to Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, an unusually low-key, behind-the-scenes commander.
In a sign of the changes to come, Biden used the change-of-command ceremony, held beneath the glittering chandeliers of one of Hussein's palaces, to press Iraqi leaders to resolve the political stalemate that is paralyzing the country. "The Iraqi people voted in large numbers and expect a government that reflects their votes," he said.
Even as the American military presence in Iraq dwindles, the United States is still engaged in what amounts to a major nation-building effort there. That effort, Biden said, will be increasingly led by the State Department and not the military, which is still taking casualties in the country. On average, about 12 to 15 U.S. troops are wounded each month.
The change in mission for the military is evident in the somewhat awkward new terminology that U.S. military commanders have concocted to describe their new role. In briefings, commanders have jettisoned the word "combat" and routinely refer to their troops' activities as "partnership" operations. Gates on Wednesday presided over a first-ever "Responsible Drawdown of Forces Ceremony," in which he passed out 20 awards to U.S. service members in Iraq.
One of the biggest questions facing the United States is whether Congress will foot the bill for a civilian-led nation-building effort. Although lawmakers have been reluctant to cut funding to U.S. combat troops, they seem far more willing to cut aid to the Iraqis. The Obama administration's request for $2 billion to train and equip Iraqi army and police forces was recently cut in half by the Senate.
Another big question is what kind of presence the United States will have in Iraq after the end of 2011, when all U.S. forces are supposed to have left. It is possible that the new Iraqi government could ask U.S. troops to remain in some capacity to help safeguard Iraq from its neighbors.
In Baghdad, Obama's pledge to "turn the page" on Iraq drew mixed responses from Iraqis. "They said, 'We are leaving,'â" said Hussein Ali, a resident of the Adhamiya area. "What have they left behind them besides widows, orphans, poverty, a destroyed infrastructure, no government, and martyrs?"
Others welcomed the departure. "We can take care of our problems," said Omar Ahmed, a 30-year-old student. "We can deal with it better than them."