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Pullout 'with honour' to be determined as Iraq faces future without Americans

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2-82 Field Artillery, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division walk to where they will board buses at Camp Virginia in Kuwait before flying home to Fort Hood, Tex. They were one of the last American combat units to leave Iraq on Thursday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Getty Images,

The last American combat troops are headed home, leaving Iraq "with honour and with their heads held high," Barack Obama contends. But it may take decades before history judges whether the President's pullout from a war that toppled a tyrant but spun out of control into years of chaotic, bloody insurgency will be seen as an exit with honour or a cut and run.

Mr. Obama opts for the upside. "Iraq is not a perfect place, but we are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country with a representative government elected by its people," he said.

With oil riches powering a growing Iraqi economy, a fractious but functioning democracy seems a hopeful possibility. Perhaps Baghdad will again be the sophisticated hub of learning, culture and Arab dynamism.

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But far darker outcomes remain equally possible. In those scenarios, Iraq returns to bloody sectarian strife, abandoned by its liberators and at the mercy of meddling Iran. Or it implodes into civil war, pitting Kurds against Arabs and Shiites against Sunnis in a conflict that could spread.

Mr. Obama stopped well short of declaring victory. He avoided the euphoric and foolish "Mission Accomplished" stunt staged by his predecessor in the heady weeks of military triumph in 2003 that preceded years of bloody struggle.

But even Mr. Obama's more carefully chosen words have a worrisome echo.

Nearly four decades earlier, another president, Richard Nixon, proclaimed "peace with honour," to end another unpopular, decade-long nightmare. That war, in Vietnam, tore America apart even as it set Southeast Asia on fire. It was a phase that would haunt America.

By comparison, the Iraq war, while deeply divisive, left most American families untouched. In the all-volunteer army era, only a minority of families even know someone in uniform, let alone live with the daily fear that a family member will be killed overseas.

The two wars differ in many ways. But both defined their decade and the fate of presidents.

In Vietnam, "peace with honour" was ephemeral. In chaotic scenes that still sear the American psyche, helicopters plucked desperate diplomats from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and America's Southeast Asian military misadventure ended in disgrace.

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If, as critics believe, Mr. Obama has let the political expediency of making good on a campaign promise trump America's strategic interests, and Iraq spirals into violence or, worse, falls under the Shia sway of Iran's ruling mullahs, then there may be future flights of helicopters into ignominy.

Mr. Obama has hardly washed his hands of Iraq. The pullout came only because Iraq wouldn't grant immunity to the tens of thousands of troops Washington wanted to leave behind as "trainers" and "advisers."

Even so, Mr. Obama has pledged to back Iraq's shaky democracy. Washington has set aside $2.3-billion just to run its Baghdad embassy next year – by far the world's largest and including a battalions of Marines and multiple helicopter-landing zones, should they be needed.

A war that became nightmarishly complex began with the simple premise: Saddam Hussein defied demands that he give up weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave threat to the United States, Mr. Bush said. Mr. Hussein called his bluff.

So, already at war in Afghanistan, Mr. Bush launched a second front, with "shock and awe" to oust the Iraqi dictator.

In a few short weeks, Mr. Hussein fled and Iraq's military collapsed. But there were far too few American troops to prevent Iraq from spiralling into chaos. Within months it became starkly and embarrassingly evident that there were no chemical, biological or nuclear arsenals, that the whole premise of the war was at best flawed, at worst a lie.

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Sectarian strife verged on civil war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in each of the years that followed until 2007 when, belatedly, a surge of additional U.S. forces established a modicum of order, if not peace.

If Mr. Bush's war was over, Mr. Obama's was just beginning, with far more modest objectives of an orderly exit. It ended – perhaps – this week with the President claiming the war was over. But it will be Iraqis, and their neighbours, who determine whether it is only the American phase of the war that has really ended.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- REACTION TO THE U.S. PULLOUT

- "After the U.S. troop withdrawal, we must now prepare ourselves for the threats of the neighbouring countries who are sharpening their knives. Iraq is now on the brink of disaster with political infighting still going on between political factions for power." – Ihssan Jassim of Basra, a member of the Shiite Muslim sect that has dominated politics since the end of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime

- "It might be comforting to think an immoral invasion can have a happy, heroic ending, but that's a dangerous delusion. As Americans, we should wish nothing but the best for the people of Iraq – but we should also acknowledge that, if the country finds peace and prosperity, it will be in spite of what the U.S. government did to their country, not because of it." – Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, the women's peace organization

- "We were angered by the words uttered by [U.S. Defence Secretary Leon]Panetta where he thanked the American troops in addition to their families and expressed appreciation for their sacrifices. He forgot the sacrifices of the Iraqi people who fell between the hammer of American military operations and the anvil of terrorist attacks. Iraqis have made much greater sacrifices that what was made by the U.S. occupiers." – Thamir Fuad, a Sunni engineer in Mosul.

- "I think it [the pullout of all American troops from Iraq]is an absolute disaster … We won the war in Iraq, and we're now losing the peace." – General Jack Keane, one of the architects of the 2007 surge that averted full-blown civil war in Iraq

- "It is a great achievement for the Iraqi people. Iraqi politicians … have made the independence and sovereignty a reality here. The Americans have committed a lot of mistakes in Iraq and they failed to protect the country." – Hayder al-Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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