BAGHDAD — The U.S. military Wednesday marked the end of its combat mission in Iraq amid a series of conflicting messages that underscored the mixed feelings many here, both American and Iraqi, have toward a seven-and-a-half-year effort that cost tens of thousands of lives but left the political outcome undecided.
"The problem with this war for, I think, many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid, that is Saddam having weapons of mass destruction," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters as he hopped from one stripped-down U.S. military base to another greeting American troops.
"So when you start from that standpoint, then figuring out in retrospect how you deal with the war — even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States — it will always be clouded by how it began."
Iraqis, too, expressed ambivalence about the U.S. declaration that combat operations now would be giving way to "partnering efforts" led by Iraqis and would lead to the complete withdrawal of the remaining 50,000 American troops by the end of 2011.
"I am torn," said Widad Hameed, a retired high school teacher. "I am strongly opposed to the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi sovereign soil — and therefore hope to see them leave as quickly as possible. This is on principle.
"But on the other hand, I am afraid of what might happen after they leave. I have no great faith in the abilities of the (Iraqi Security Forces) and feel that the chaos in our political situation will be reflected upon the security scene as the politicians slug it out and violence will rise and the people will pay."
On Wednesday, Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, and other top military leaders, including Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided over a ceremony that passed command of U.S. forces from Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno to Gen. Lloyd Austin. Operation Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn, and the American military mission here became one of training their Iraqi counterparts as U.S. forces draw down to zero.
Hundreds of troops gathered for the hour-long ceremony inside a palace at Camp Victory. As Iraq's ministers of defense and interior looked on, Biden declared an end to the U.S. combat mission and saying that the U.S. sought an "economically prosperous and stable" Iraq.
In his speech, Odierno, who Gates said had spent nearly five of the past seven years in Iraq, said he's confident that Iraqi security forces, now numbering 660,000, can protect the country. Austin, in his speech, said the next phase is the start of an "enduring relationship" between Iraq and the U.S.
Everyone, however, remained cautious about the road ahead.
A senior commander told reporters traveling with Gates that while combat operations are officially over, U.S. forces partnered with Iraqis could still face fire — and would return it.
"Partnered operation is the lexicon we are trying to introduce," another commander said. Both spoke to on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
When Gates traveled to Ramadi by helicopter, his staff wore helmets and flak vests. During a question-and-answer period with troops, Gates told soldiers they still deserved combat pay, even as he told them they were now trainers, not fighters.
Asked if it had all been worth it, Gates suggested it was too early to judge.
"It really requires a historian's perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run," he said. "I think that where we are today that our men and women in uniform believe we have accomplished something that makes the sacrifice and the bloodshed not to have been in vain. How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen."
Iraqis, too, offered a mixed interpretation of Wednesday's turnover. Many said they worried that insurgent forces still seem to be able to attack at will, as they did last week when they launched simultaneous attacks on 14 cities, leaving more than 200 people killed or injured. They expressed concern that six months after holding an election, Iraq's politicians have yet to form a new government.
Others, however, said they're thrilled that the end of the U.S. occupation appears closer.
"The departure of the occupation forces will mark the beginning of our path toward stability, and not the other way round," said Falah Hasen Shenshel, a follower of the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose militia often clashed with American troops in the early years of the war. "All the confusion and disorder that we are witnessing is a result of the occupation and the wrongful presence foreign forces on our land, and not the other way round."
He added, "I cannot say that the (security forces) are 100 percent ready — they are not. But this should not be an excuse to extend the indignity of being an occupied country."
Some members of the Iraqi Army said they're less certain and worried that Iraq's political instability is bleeding into their forces.
"The Army is riddled with officers who have no loyalty to Iraq or Iraqis but to their own political parties and affiliations," said Qaswar Abu Tariq, 31, an officer in the Iraqi Army. "It cannot function as one unified command because it isn't — It was built wrong."
Tariq said officers were selected not for their ability but because of their political affiliation — "as if in a quota, a number to appease each party."
"People have a right to be afraid," he said.
Answering questions from reporters, Gates acknowledged that the Iraq war is a long way from over.
"This is going to be a work in progress for a long time," he said.
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