U.S. officials formally shut down the Iraq war with a simple Thursday flag ceremony that contrasted starkly with the “shock and awe” launch of the bloody and costly conflict. Hit the jump to read the rest of the story.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined other U.S. diplomatic, military and defense officials at Baghdad International Airport in the symbolic service to end a war that began on March 20, 2003.

The nearly nine-year battle cost 4,500 American lives and more than $800 billion, and left another 32,000 U.S. service members wounded. More than 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the conflict.

“You will leave with great pride — lasting pride,” Panetta told U.S. troops. “Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside and to offer hope for prosperity and peace to this country’s future generations.”


The U.S. Forces-Iraq flag was officially retired at the airport ceremony. According to Army tradition, it was then wrapped around a flagpole and covered in camouflage for the trip back to the United States.

The defense secretary, echoing President Obama, said the U.S. planned to forge a lasting association with Iraq that would include a diplomatic presence and a military force in the region.

The U.S. still maintains two bases and about 4,000 troops in Iraq — and they were slated to leave before the arrival of the new year.

Angry Iraqi citizens offered a scathing counterpoint to the upbeat tenor of the U.S. ceremony.

“The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country,” said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. “The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans.”

A politician linked to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr saw triumph in the departure.

“The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people,” said lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.

The U.S. did unseat dictator Saddam Hussein, who was captured and hanged five years ago this month.

But U.S. forces never uncovered the weapons of mass destruction often cited as the premise for the war.

The Iraqi security forces are now left to handle the frequent internal strife, including regular bombings and gunfights, along with protecting the country against other nations in the volatile region.

The Obama administration’s pullout of troops was dramatic. In 2007, there were 170,000 troops stationed at some 500 military bases around Iraq.

The end of the war fulfills an Obama campaign promise and provides the incumbent with a political bump just weeks before the 2012 campaign shifts into gear.