U.S. lowers flag, marking official end to Iraq war

The United States lowered its flag in Baghdad as the American military mission in Iraq was officially declared over Thursday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the top U.S. military commander in Iraq Gen. Lloyd Austin (pictured above) presided over a low-key ceremony at Baghdad International airport Thursday, to mark the end of the almost nine year war, and thank the one million American troops who have served there. "The muted ceremony stood in contrast to the start of the war in 2003 when an America both frightened and emboldened by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent columns of tanks north from Kuwait to overthrow Saddam Hussein," the New York Times' Thom Shanker and Michael Schmidt write.

In the run-up to this week's ceremonies marking the war's close, Schmidt, the Times' Baghdad correspondent, got word that an Iraqi businessman had purchased trailers from a closing American base, he recounted in a first-person dispatch Wednesday.

As he kicked around the Baghdad junkyard where the purchased trailers were in storage a few weeks back, Schmidt came upon a strikingly different legacy of the invasion: several stray documents, maps, and binders, some marked classified, that turned out to document one of the darkest episodes of the war.

The abandoned trove contained some "400 pages of interrogations" that "form part of the military's internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers," Schmidt wrote in his Wednesday article, "Junkyard Gives up Secret Accounts of Massacre in Iraq."

Haditha "became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted," Schmidt wrote. "But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on the soldiers who were assigned here, their frustrations and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand."

Almost nine years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, American officials sought to highlight progress achieved in Iraq, while acknowledging the tremendous costs of the war in which 4,500 Americans and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis have died.

"After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real," Panetta said at Baghdad's airport, Reuters reported. "Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues ... Challenges remain, but the United States will be there to stand by the Iraqi people."

The subdued "Casing of the Colors" farewell ceremony sounded "an uncertain trumpet for a war that was launched to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it did not have," Times photographer Michael Kamber wrote in a caption to one of his photographs documenting the event.

The last 4,000 U.S. forces in Iraq are due to withdraw to Kuwait by next week.

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