Last US combat troops leave Iraq

 

The US military is holding steady in its aim to reduce troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by August 31st, when the 7-1/2 year US combat mission launched by former president George W Bush comes to an official close.

The last US brigade officially classed as a combat unit formally handed over responsibilities to its Iraqi counterparts on August 7th, but US troops have been steadily flowing out of the country on transport aircraft and by road for a year.

"My personal experience is it was worth it. We paid a huge cost," said Staff Sergeant Christopher Hush from the First Battalion of the 116th Infantry regiment which pulled out to Kuwait earlier this week.

US media said last night the last US combat troops had left Iraq, but US officials clarified there were still 56,000 US soldiers in Iraq, so the reduction to 50,000 non-combat troops by September 1st promised by President Barack Obama still has a some way to go.

There will actually be little change on the ground in the US military mission in Iraq come September 1st as most US military units began switching their focus to training and assisting Iraqi troops and police more than a year ago when they pulled out of Iraqi urban centres on June 30th, 2009.

Much of the US war materiel and many of the soldiers departing Iraq are being redeployed to Afghanistan, where Nato forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban.

The end of the US combat mission in Iraq will mark a milestone in the war that began in 2003 with the invasion to topple Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, whose long rule was marked by an eight-year war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and economic decline and diplomatic isolation.

More than 4,400 US soldiers have been killed since the invasion, while up to 106,071 Iraqi civilians also died in fierce warfare unleashed between majority Shias and minority Sunni Muslims who dominated the country under Saddam.

Overall violence has fallen sharply since the height of the sectarian slaughter in 2006/07, when US troop numbers topped out at around 170,000.

But a stubborn Sunni Islamist-led insurgency continues to carry out devastating attacks and Iraq remains a fragile place.

Its leaders have not resolved a number of politically explosive issues that could easily trigger renewed fighting, such as tensions between majority Arabs and minority Kurds, and reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias.

Nor have they been able to form a new government five months after a national election that produced no outright winner, and tensions have been stoked by a steady stream of suicide bombings and other attacks by insurgents trying to exploit the political vacuum ahead of the end of the US combat mission.

Nevertheless, Iraq's tentative experiment with US-imposed democracy holds the potential to upset political power balances throughout a region accustomed to autocratic governance.

Mr Obama promised American voters he would halt combat missions on August 31st ahead a full US withdrawal by the end of 2011 as agreed in a bilateral security pact signed by his predecessor.

The US president faces a war-weary US public as his fellow Democrats seek to hold on to their control of the US Congress in elections in November.

Mr Obama has said not a single US service member will remain in Iraq come January 1st, 2012, even though it will be impossible for Iraq to stand up its own air force and be ready to protect its territorial integrity on its own by then.

With US opinion polls showing Americans tired of nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, any decision to extend US military involvement in Iraq would be enormously risky for Mr Obama, who is up for re-election in 2012.

He would almost certainly face a backlash from Democrats in Congress and from the left wing of his party, which is already disenchanted with him.

The war in Iraq has gone on longer than the US Civil War, World War One and World War Two.

Reuters