December 15, 2011

Panetta Arrives in Baghdad for Military Handover Ceremony

BAGHDAD —  Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed in the Iraqi capital on Thursday for the ceremony officially ending the military mission here and closing out a bloody and controversial chapter of American relations with the Islamic world.

Pentagon officials said Mr. Panetta would thank all American service members who served here since the 2003 invasion, and would laud them for “the remarkable progress we have seen here in Baghdad and across this country.”
Mr. Panetta also was expected to note that the American effort "helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside and to offer hope for prosperity and peace to this country’s future generations.”
The tenor of the farewell ceremony, officially called "Casing the Colors,” was likely to sound an uncertain trumpet for a war that was launched to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it did not have and now ends without the sizable, enduring American military presence for which many officers had hoped.
The tone of the string of ceremonies culminating with the final withdrawal event at Baghdad’s airport has been understated in keeping with an administration that campaigned to end an unpopular war it inherited.
Even after the final American combat troops withdraw from Iraq by Dec. 31, under rules of an agreement with the Baghdad government, a few hundred military personnel and Pentagon civilians will remain, working within the American Embassy as part of an Office of Security Cooperation to assist in arms sales and training.
But negotiations could resume next year on whether additional American military personnel can return to further assist their Iraqi counterparts.
Senior American military officers have made no secret that they see key gaps in Iraq’s ability to defend its sovereign soil and even to secure its oil platforms offshore in the Persian Gulf.
Air defenses are seen as a critical gap in Iraqi capabilities, but American military officers also see significant shortcomings in Iraq’s ability to sustain a military, whether moving food and fuel or servicing the armored vehicles it is inheriting from Americans or the jet-fighters it is buying, and has shortfalls in military engineers, artillery and intelligence, as well.
The war was launched by the Bush administration in March 2003 on arguments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda that might grow to an alliance threatening the United States with a mass-casualty terror attack.
As the absence of stockpiles of unconventional weapons proved a humiliation for the administration and the intelligence community, the war effort was reframed as being about bringing democracy to the Middle East.
And, indeed, there was euphoria among many Iraqis at an American-led invasion that toppled a dictator, Saddam Hussein.
 But the support soon soured amid a growing sense of heavy-handed occupation fueled by the unleashing of bloody sectarian and religious rivalries.
The American presence also proved a magnet for militant fighters and an Al Qaeda affiliated group took root among the Sunni minority population here.
While the terror organization had been rendered ineffective by a punishing series of Special Operations raids that decapitated the organization, intelligence specialists fear that it is in resurgence.
The American military presence here, viewed as an occupation across the Muslim world, also hampered Washington’s ability to cast a narrative from the United States in support of the Arab Spring uprisings this year.
Even handing bases over to the Iraqi government over recent months proved vexing for the military.
In the spring, commanders halted large formal ceremonies with Iraqi officials for base closings because insurgents were using the events as opportunities to launch last-ditch attacks on the troops.
“We were having ceremonies and announcing it publicly and having a little formal process but a couple of days before the base was to close we would start to receive significant indirect fire attacks on the location,” said Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the military in Iraq. “We were suffering attacks so we stopped.”  
Across the country, the closing of bases has been marked by  quiet closed-door meetings where American and Iraqi military officials signed documents that legally gave the Iraqis control of the base, exchanged handshakes and turned over keys. At the height of the war, the military had 505 bases across Iraq.
When Operation New Dawn began in September 2010 that number was down to 92 and accelerated drastically in recent months leading up to the end of the month when American troops are to be out of the country under an agreement between the two countries.
Although the ceremony on Thursday would mark the end of the war, there are still 5,500 troops in Iraq who are sustaining attacks on nearly daily basis.
According to military officials, there are two to three attacks a day on American forces, mainly indirect fire attacks on the several bases the Americans still have and roadside bomb attacks on convoys heading south through Iraq to bases in Kuwait.
Overall, though, attacks remain at historic lows.
As of last Friday, the war in Iraq had claimed 4,487 American lives, with another 32,226 Americans wounded in action, according to Pentagon statistics.

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