BAGHDAD, Dec. 15, 2011 - Top U.S. military leaders observed the official end of U.S. Forces Iraq's mission here today after nearly nine years of conflict that claimed the lives of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops, and created a sovereign nation from the destruction of a brutal dictatorship.
On a stage in a smoky courtyard on the military side of Baghdad International Airport, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commanding general of U.S. Forces Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey addressed U.S. and Iraqi officials and more than 150 troops and media from around the world.
Also on the stage was Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Panetta welcomed distinguished members of the Iraqi government and military.
"Thank you for your courage, for your leadership, for your friendship over these many years," the secretary said. "More importantly, thank you for your loyalty to the future of Iraq. Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now a reality."
"This is not the end," he added. "This is truly the beginning."
As U.S. Forces Iraq's mission ends, Jeffrey said, it's fitting to "look back at the sacrifices made by so many Americans and so many Iraqis."
It's also a time, he added, to "look forward to an Iraq that is sovereign, secure and self-reliant, an Iraq with whom the United States government will continue to work in every way possible, building on the successes of our colleagues in USFI led by Gen. Austin."
The USFI commander welcomed the beginning of a new chapter in the U.S. strategy with Iraq, adding that he found the ceremony to be poignant.
"Eight years, eight months and 26 days ago, as the assistant division commander for maneuver for the 3rd Infantry Division, I gave the order for the lead elements of the division to cross the border," Austin said.
"As fate would have it," he added, "I now give the order to case the colors today."
Casing the colors means packing the U.S. Forces Iraq flag and sending it home to the United States where it will be retired.
The home of U.S. Forces Iraq hosted 45,000 to 49,000 troops for the vast majority of Operation New Dawn and at the peak of the war housed 170,000 troops. Today only about 4,000 troops remain and every day hundreds more leave for staging and out-processing facilities in Kuwait.
The rest of the troops will depart Iraq over the next two weeks, , well in advance of the Dec. 31 deadline set by President Barack Obama, said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the official spokesman for U.S. Forces Iraq.
For more than 20 years, Dempsey said, "Iraq has been a defining part of our professional and personal lives ... Everywhere, at every level, we learned the power of relationships rooted in trust and respect with ourselves and with our Iraqi brothers."
The chairman recalled when he deployed to Iraq in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm to end Saddam Hussein's oppression of the Kuwaiti people.
More than a decade later, Dempsey deployed to Iraq again.
"I remember leaving my family again to end Saddam Hussein's oppression of the Iraqi people," the chairman said. "And now today I stand here with the very heart of my family, my wife, Deanie, to bear witness to what our sons and daughters -- to what your sons and daughters -- have achieved."
Dempsey said he's proud that the United States with its coalition partners and the Iraqi people teamed up to "set a course that befits the promise and spirit of Iraq's children.
"I look forward to an enduring partnership between our countries," the chairman added.
The Defense Department values the relationship with Iraq, Dempsey said.
"We will stand with you against terrorists and others that threaten to undo what we have accomplished together," he said. "We will work with you to secure our common interests in a more peaceful and prosperous region."
Everyone who served in Iraq will carry an image of that time, the chairman said.
"Today my image is of Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Cooke ... of the First Brigade, First Armored Division, who on Christmas Eve 2003 was killed by an IED ... in northern Baghdad. Probably the finest noncommissioned officer I'd ever met," Dempsey said.
"We've paid a great price here," the chairman added, "and it has been a price worth paying."