BAGHDAD — The Tongan marines left with a song, their vowel-rich war choruses echoing in the marble halls of a palace built for Saddam Hussein but now occupied by the U.S. military.
Fifty-five of them had spent the past four months guarding Camp Victory, a base that sits on a plush estate near the Baghdad airport. It was the fourth rotation in Iraq for the marines from the tiny Pacific island nation.
Their departure this week marks the exit of another member of the "coalition of the willing," the 49 nations that signed on to support the war in Iraq since 2003.
Most of the remaining 18 countries are shutting down their operations swiftly and heading home before the United Nations mandate that allows them to deploy their forces in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
The United States is holding ceremonies for each of them. It sent off the Tongans on Thursday, a contingent of Azerbaijanis on Wednesday and South Koreans on Monday.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Nicolas Matern, who's overseeing the drawdown, said the departures were a sign of progress, reflected by security improvements over the past year.
"It's the benefit of Iraqi sovereignty," he said. "They're affirming their sovereignty, and because of that, we can draw down."
The claims of improved security were dented, however, when the city of Fallujah was put on lockdown Thursday after two suicide bombings killed 15 people and wounded more than 100.
Both attacks targeted police stations, one in the northern part of the city and the other in its center.
Such attacks are considered rare now in Fallujah, a mostly Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad that was once the center of the insurgency against U.S. forces. Fallujah was the subject of two major assaults by U.S. Marines in 2004 that were aimed at eradicating Sunni insurgents.
The Tongan marines, like the departing coalition troops of other countries, weren't asked to stay by the Iraqi government, an invitation that's necessary now that the U.N. mandate for the war is ending.
All but six nations — the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania — will be gone by Jan. 1, Matern said.
The United States can stay past Dec. 31 because it brokered a security agreement that calls for a gradual withdrawal of its forces through 2011.
Iraq's Presidency Council ratified the document Thursday, setting in motion a massive transition in authority from the United States to the Iraqi government by Jan. 1.
Some of the changes include a handover of control of the International Zone in central Baghdad, the release of Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody and the adoption of new guidelines that govern when the American military can conduct operations.
The five other Western countries remaining in Iraq won't have to negotiate those arrangements, said Abbas al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi parliament's security and defense committee. Instead, Iraq is treating about 5,500 soldiers from those countries as advisers who'll help train Iraqi forces and lead humanitarian missions.
The international coalition was criticized by some as cover for the United States and Great Britain to carry out what in many countries was a broadly unpopular war. The numbers of soldiers from the coalition partners often were dwarfed by the tens of thousands sent by the United States and the United Kingdom.
Matern said those characterizations were unfair to the contributions the other countries had made and that the contingents had made a difference in the lives of the Iraqis they'd helped.
Twenty of the smaller countries suffered fatalities in the war, with a total of 138 deaths. The United States has lost 4,207 service members, while the United Kingdom has suffered 176 combat deaths.
The Tongans made it through the war without a casualty, though they served in hot spots such as Fallujah and Ramadi. Their recent tours were at Camp Victory, where they saw a significant decrease in rocket and mortar attacks over time, Tongan Gen. Tauika 'Uta'Atu said.
'Uta'Atu said Tonga's participation in the war gave his country opportunities to deepen the experiences of its marines and affirm its ties to the United States.
"We are grateful we have a good friend like America to help us," he said. "This, for us, is like giving something in return."
The Tongan marines will be replaced by private guards from Uganda who are working for EODT, a U.S. security contractor. Matern said that a mix of Iraqi forces and private security companies probably would fill in for the departing coalition forces across the country.
The Tongan marines were scheduled to stay in Iraq through February, but the end of the U.N. mandate will get them home in time for Christmas.
That's good news to Pvt. Mavae Moe Liku.
"We are so happy," he said of the prospect of seeing his family for the holidays.
12 coalition members and their departure dates:
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nov. 29
South Korea, Dec. 1
Azerbaijan, Dec. 3
Tonga, Dec. 4
Japan, Dec. 6
Ukraine, Dec. 9
Czech Republic, Dec. 10
Bulgaria, Dec. 13
Lithuania, Dec. 16
Denmark, Dec. 17
Albania, Dec. 18
Moldova, Dec. 18
(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Mohammed al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2008