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Iraq war ending, Leon Panetta says U.S. proud of accomplishments

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The total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult neighborhood.

American troops prepare to encase their mission flag in Iraq, formally ending the war. (Photo: Associated Press)

U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.

Still, despite Obama's earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship. Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration, and Thursday's ceremony will allow the president to fulfill a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is roiling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.

Panetta acknowledged the difficulties for Iraq in the coming years, as the country tries to find its footing.

"They're going face challenges in the future," Panetta said Wednesday during a visit with troops in Afghanistan. "They'll face challenges from terrorism, they'll face challenges from those that would want to divide their country. They'll face challenges from just the test of democracy, a new democracy and trying to make it work. But the fact is, we have given them the opportunity to be able to succeed."

The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Austin is leading the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.

Over the coming days, the final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights — a marked contrast to the shock and awe that rocked the country on March 20, 2003, as the U.S. invasion began.

Saddam Hussein has been ousted, the reports of weapons of mass destruction largely laid to rest. And the future of a nascent democracy awaits.

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