Reporters Notebook: Panetta Formally Ends U.S. Military Mission in Iraq

The Iraq war officially ended Thursday without a stray shot fired -- just with a simple ceremony at the Baghdad airport.

It was a far cry from my previous visits to the region.

During my first trip to Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was still in power and the U.N. weapons inspectors, also known as UNSCOM were being given the run around. I returned again in 2007 just after President George W. Bush announced the surge.

Baghdad was a mess.

The drive from the airport was a game of Roulette and the Stryker vehicle that drove me into the heart of the Sunni-Shia war filled with the smell of Cinnabon as we left Camp Victory and landed in a neighborhood where families told us of kidnapping and torture at the hands of the insurgents.

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    On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted those dark days during the ceremony to case the colors and end the mission.

    "No words, no ceremony, can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that have brought this day to pass," Panetta told the troops. "To be sure the cost was high -- in blood and treasure for the United States, and for the Iraqi people. Those lives were not lost in vain. They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq."

    The defense secretary's C17 transport plane landed with a thud en route from Afghanistan -- another war zone that is going full throttle but also has an air of resignation that troops there will soon be going home as well. The Afghan war will likely wind down in two years with little fanfare and little to show.

    The ceremony in Baghdad marked the completion of nearly nine years of war. Nearly 4,500 U.S. lives were lost. More than 30,000 U.S. troops were wounded. The death toll for Iraqis reached 100,000.

    "Through deployment after deployment, families withstood the strain, the sacrifice and the heartbreak of watching their loved ones go off to war, knowing that they would be fighting in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, Sadr City and elsewhere," Panetta said.

    Was it worth it? I asked him.

    "I think I will remember this moment for the rest of my life," he said.

    "You know, it's funny, we came into this war probably divided as a nation but I think we're going out of it united," Panetta continued. "I really think that most Americans really feel that regardless of why we got into this we're leaving with our chins held high, that we have really given this country an opportunity to be able to not only govern itself, but to enjoy the hope of democracy. ... I think all of us have to feel good about what's happened."

    At 5:34 a.m. local time on March 20, 2003, the bombs started dropping on Baghdad. The war had begun. Three weeks after the invasion U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad. Saddam Hussein fell. And on May 1, Bush stood before a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished."

    But it wasn't.

    The mission was soon marked by scandal and the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib became a propaganda victory for the enemy.

    Saddam was eventually found in a spider hole and in 2006 the dictator was hanged. A year later the U.S. sent 30,000 surge troops to halt a civil war.

    And it did.

    At its height, 170,000 U.S. troops served simultaneously in Iraq at 500 bases spread out across the country. Now there are just two bases left and 4,000 troops. In a matter of days, those too will be gone.

    The war cost to the U.S. taxpayer -- nearly $1 trillion.

    There may not have been weapons of mass destruction but for sure the U.S. military came of age in Iraq. It learned how to fight a counterinsurgency. It learned what it felt like to be perceived as an occupier. But most importantly nearly 1 million U.S. service members who passed through it and the Afghan theater became experts on the Middle East in all of its roiling complexity, making it impossible for Americans ever again to become truly isolationist.

    Those U.S. forces learned how to take intelligence and hunt terrorists, skills that General Stanley McChrystal and the CIA perfected in Iraq, which undoubtedly were the basis for the skills and planning that allowed the U.S. military to execute with near perfect precision the killing of Usama Bin Laden and target and kill 99 percent of Al Qaeda's top leaders worldwide. Those skills were honed and perfected in Iraq.

    The defense secretary said before he boarded his plane to leave Baghdad, "Iraq will be tested in the days ahead -- by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide it."

    The war that began with shock and awe ended with a simple ceremony, not with helicopters evacuating U.S. citizens off the roof of an embassy. The U.S. military involvement has ended. The Iraq war is now over. It will now be for the historians to decide, "Was it worth it?"