US military marks end of its war in Iraq
Updated: 2011-12-15 19:18
The fall of Saddam opened the way for Iraq's Shi'ite majority community to ascend to positions of power after decades of oppression under his Sunni-run Baath party. But nine years after the invasion Iraq remains a splintered country, worrying many that the days of sectarian slaughter are not over.
A member of US security personnel pulls her luggage while waiting to depart from Iraq, at the former US Sather Air Base near Baghdad December 15, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]
Even the political power-sharing in Maliki's Shi'ite-led government is hamstrung by sectarian divides. The government at times seems paralyzed as parties split along sect lines, squabbling over key laws and government posts.
Sunni Iraqis fear marginalization or even a creeping Shi'ite-led authoritarian rule under Maliki. A recent crackdown on former members of the Baath party has fueled those fears.
Sectarian divisions leave Iraq vulnerable to meddling by neighbors trying to secure more influence, especially as Sunni-controlled Arab nations view Iranian involvement as an attempt to control Iraq's Shi'ite parties at the cost of Sunnis.
Iraq's Shi'ite leadership frets the crisis in neighboring Syria could eventually bring a hardline Sunni leadership to power in Damascus, worsening Iraq's own sectarian tensions.
"Was it worth it?"
US troops were supposed to stay on as part of a deal to train the Iraqi armed forces. Washington had asked Iraq for at least 3,000 troops to remain in the country. But talks over immunity from prosecution for American soldiers fell apart.
Memories of US abuses, arrests and killings still haunt many Iraqis and the question of legal protection from prosecution looked too sensitive for Iraq's political leadership to push through a splintered parliament.
At the height of the war, 170,000 American soldiers occupied more than 500 bases across the country. Now only two bases and 5,500 troops remain in the country. All will be home before the end of the year when a security pact expires.
Only around 150 US soldiers will remain in Iraq after December 31 attached to the huge US Embassy that sits near the Tigris River. Civilian contractors will take on the task of training Iraqi forces on US military hardware.
Every day hundreds of trunks and troops trundle in convoys across the Kuwaiti border as US troops end their mission.
"Was it worth it? I am sure it was. When we first came in here, the Iraqi people seemed like they were happy to see us," said Sgt 1st Class Lon Bennish, packing up recently at a US base and finishing the last of three deployments in Iraq.
"I hope we are leaving behind a country that says 'Hey, we are better off now than we were before.'"