THE US yesterday moved into the final phase of its military involvement in Iraq, with administration officials saying the war was ending even as the new commander of the remaining 50,000 troops warned of the ongoing threat from “hostile elements”.
The transfer of authority came a day after President Barack Obama announced the shift from combat operations to preparing Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for their own security. Obama made clear in Tuesday’s speech that this was no victory celebration.
A six-month stalemate over forming a new Iraqi government has raised concerns about the country’s stability and questions over whether the leadership can cope with a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.
Newly promoted Army Gen Lloyd Austin also maintained a sombre tone as he took the reins of the some 50,000 American troops who remain in Iraq, with a deadline for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.
He noted “hostile enemies” continue to threaten Iraq and pledged that “our national commitment to Iraq will not change”.
Austin, who most recently served in Iraq as commander of troop operations from 2008-09, replaces Gen Ray Odierno, who is heading to Virginia to take over the Joint Forces Command after about five years in Iraq.
“This period in Iraq’s history will probably be remembered for sacrifice, resilience and change,” Odierno said.
“However, I remember it as a time in which the Iraqi people stood up against tyranny, terrorism and extremism, and decided to determine their own destiny as a people and as a democratic state.”
Vice-President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm Mike Mullen presided over the ceremony, which was held at the main US military headquarters on the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad.
Gates, visiting troops in the city of Ramadi yesterday, said history will judge whether the fight was worth it for the United States.
“The problem with this war, I think, for many Americans, is that the premise on which we justified going to war turned out not to be valid,” he said. “Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it’ll always be clouded by how it began.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country is grateful for what the Americans have done, but it is now time for Iraqis to secure their own future.
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