• "This is a happy ending for everyone to be returning home," said Shannon Wright of Mina, a veteran who returned in August after serving in Kuwait. "Hopefully we have done our jobs. I'm hoping the conflicts are over and there is peace in the region now," Wright said. Wright also served in the Gulf War and in Hungary.
• "I have mixed feelings about soldiers returning home, but in some ways it's a good thing," said Amy Blocker, a veteran who served in Kuwait. She returned home in August after serving a year in Kuwait. "I just hope that Iraq is able to hold (itself) together without needing the U.S. presence," Blocker said. Blocker said she didn't want the troops to have to return and do everything over again. "I just hope that we didn't do everything for nothing, because a lot of people lost their lives," Blocker said.
• "Soldiers left the country because they had a job to do, and now it's completed, so it's good to have them back on U.S. soil," Susie Vetter said. Vetter is a mother and wife of veterans, as well as Family Readiness Group leader for the 452nd Army Reserve Unit. More than 100 members of the 452nd spent a year in Kuwait and Iraq, returning home in July and August. "The question we should be asking is if everyone is actually going to be coming home or just leaving Afghanistan," Vetter said. "I hope this does mean that everyone is coming home, especially this time of year to be home with family," Vetter said.
• "It is a good thing that everyone is going to be able to be back home with their families," Christy Wagner, who served in Afghanistan. Wagner returned home in July after serving for a year. "It's such a great feeling to be home — it's kind of like a burden of relief being lifted off your shoulders," Wagner said.
BY LOLITA C. BALDOR AND REBECCA SANTANA
BAGHDAD — Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict on Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives continues.
While many of the speeches painted a picture of victory — for both the troops and the Iraqi people now set on a path for democracy — the gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
Stark reminders of the fragile and often violent nature of the situation in Iraq engulfed the 45-minute ceremony. It was tucked into fortified corner of the airport, ringed with concrete blast walls. And on the chairs — nearly empty of Iraqis — were tags that listed not only the name of the VIP assigned to the seat, but the bunker they should move to in case of an attack.
The speeches touched on the success of the mission as well as its losses: Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis killed. Another 32,000 American and tens of thousands Iraqis wounded. And $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury.
On the other side of the ledger, an Iraq free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, inching forward toward democracy and vowing to be a good neighbor in the region.
‘‘To be sure the cost was high — in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people,’’ Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the roughly 200 troops and others in attendance. ‘‘Those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.’’
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the Iraqi people now have an unprecedented opportunity to live in a relatively peaceful environment, but he also acknowledged it will be a challenging time. And he urged Iraqi leaders to make good choices based on what is best for their people.
‘‘Violence and prosperity cannot co-exist,’’ said Austin, who eight years, eight months and 26 days ago gave the order for U.S. troops to storm across the border into Iraq. And on Thursday he gave the order to retire the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq.
The flag was then rolled up, covered by a camouflage colored sheath and will be brought back to the U.S.
Speaking to the troops in the audience, Panetta lauded their service and their bravery, adding, ‘‘You will leave with great pride — lasting pride — secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history.’’
Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain of how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on the last day of 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.
‘‘With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country,’’ said Mariam Khazim, a Shiite whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City. ‘‘The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind them, in fact they left a ruined country and a divided nation.’’
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor welcome in a proud country.