IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER, Kuwait - The last U.S. forces left Iraq and entered Kuwait on Dec. 18, nearly nine years after launching a divisive war to oust Saddam Hussein, and just as the oil-rich country grapples with renewed political deadlock.
SOLDIERS WAVE TO those arriving in the last American military convoy to depart Iraq after crossing over the border into Kuwait on Dec. 18 in Camp Virginia, Kuwait. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
The last of roughly 110 vehicles carrying 500-odd troops mostly from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, crossed the border at 7:38 a.m., leaving just 157 military trainers at the U.S. embassy, in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 troops on 505 bases. It ended a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced, after the U.S.-led invasion unleashed brutal sectarian killing.
"It feels good, it feels real good" to be out of Iraq, Sgt. Duane Austin told AFP after getting out of his vehicle in Kuwait. "It's been a pretty long year - it's time to go home now."
The 27-year-old father-of-two, who completed three tours in Iraq, added: "It's been a long time, coming and going. It's been pretty hard on all of us ... (It will) be a nice break to get back, knowing that it's over with now."
The last vehicles transporting U.S. troops out of Iraq left the recently handed over Imam Ali Base outside the southern city of Nasiriyah at 2:30 a.m. to make the 220-mile journey south to the Kuwaiti border.
They travelled down a mostly deserted route, which U.S. forces paid Shiite tribal sheikhs to inspect regularly to ensure no attacks could take place. Five hours later, they crossed a berm at the Kuwaiti border lit with floodlights and ringed with barbed wire.
"I am proud - all Iraqis should be proud, like all those whose country has been freed," 26-year-old baker Safa, who did not want to give his real name, told AFP in Baghdad. "The Americans toppled Saddam, but our lives since then have gone backward."
A 50-year-old mother-of-four who gave her name only as Umm Mohammed, or mother of Mohammed, added: "I don't think we can ever forgive the Americans for what they did to us."
The withdrawal comes as Iraq struggles with renewed political deadlock as its main Sunni-backed bloc said it was boycotting parliament and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, moved to oust one of his deputies, a Sunni Arab.
Maliki sent an official letter to parliament urging MPs to withdraw confidence in Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, a member of the secular Iraqiya party, after Mutlak accused him of being "worse than Saddam," an aide to the premier said.
Later on Dec. 18, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, also a Sunni and an Iraqiya member, was escorted off a plane at Baghdad airport as security forces arrested two of his bodyguards on "terrorism charges," officials and a witnesses said.
Earlier, a security official told AFP that 10 of Hashemi's guards had been detained and were being questioned in connection with terror attacks.
A day earlier, Iraqiya, which emerged as the largest bloc in inconclusive 2010 polls but was unable to form a government, said it was boycotting parliament in protest at what it said was Maliki's centralization of power.
Iraqiya, which controls 82 of the 325 seats in parliament and nine ministerial posts, has not, however, pulled out of Iraq's national unity government.
It said the government's actions, which it claimed included stationing tanks and armored vehicles outside the houses of its leaders in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, "drives people to want to rid themselves of the strong arm of central power as far as the constitution allows them to."
Provincial authorities in three Sunni-majority provinces north and west of Baghdad have all moved take up the option of similar autonomy to that enjoyed by Kurds in north Iraq, drawing an angry response from Maliki.
Key political issues such as reform of the mostly state-run economy and a law to regulate and organize the lucrative energy sector also remain unresolved, to say nothing of an explosive territorial dispute between Arabs and Kurds centered around the northern oil hub of Kirkuk.
Dec. 18's completion of the withdrawal brings to a close nearly nine years of American military involvement in Iraq, beginning with a "shock and awe" campaign in 2003 to oust Saddam, which many in Washington believed would see U.S. forces conclude their mission within months.
But key decisions taken at the time have since been widely criticized as fuelling what became a bloody Sunni Arab insurgency, in particular dissolving the Iraqi army and purging the civil service of all members of Saddam's Baath Party, including lower-rankers.
The insurgency eventually sparked communal bloodshed, particularly after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra by al-Qaida. More than 100,000 Iraqis have been reported killed in violence since the invasion, according to British NGO Iraq Body Count.
The bloodshed was only quelled when then-U.S. president George W. Bush ordered a "surge" of American troops to Iraq, and Sunni tribal militias sided with U.S. forces against al-Qaida.
Baghdad and Washington signed a 2008 pact that called for the withdrawal by the end of this year, and in the summer of last year, the U.S. declared a formal end to combat operations while maintaining fewer than 50,000 troops in Iraq.
The U.S. embassy will now retain just 157 U.S. soldiers, for training Iraqi forces, and a group of Marines for security.
Attacks in Iraq remain common but violence has declined significantly since its peak.
Iraq has a 900,000-strong security force that many believe is capable of maintaining internal security but lacks the means to defend its borders, airspace and territorial waters.
Some also fear a return to bloody sectarianism, doubt the strength of Iraq's political structures, and feel that Maliki has entrenched his powerbase to the detriment of Iraq's minorities.