Last US combat brigade exits Iraq

US military vehicles leave the country through Kuwait

The last US combat brigade in Iraq has left the country, seven years after the US-led invasion.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, began crossing by land into Kuwait in the early hours of Thursday, a military spokesman said.

Some 50,000 US troops will remain until the end of 2011 to advise Iraqi forces and protect US interests.

A further 6,000 support troops will be in Iraq until the end of the month, when US combat operations will end.

'Long-term commitment'

Stryker Brigade's personnel drove out of Iraq in a convoy of armoured vehicles.

Analysis

There is indignation and anger here about the American soldier who shouted: "We've won. It's over. We brought democracy to Iraq!" One man's response was unprintable. Another reaction was: "How can he say that? We still have al-Qaeda. And it's not clear if our fragile democracy will endure."

Others note the Americans are not leaving yet. Some 50,000 will remain until well into next year - as advisers and trainers with the Iraqi military. And US special forces are staying.

The State of Forces Agreement states that US troops are not allowed to mount combat operations unless they are asked to by the Iraqi authorities. But they can act, and reportedly already have acted, unilaterally by killing suspected insurgents. They justify this by saying they are protecting their troops.

And it is possible - probable, even - the December 2011 deadline will be re-negotiated. Commanders on both sides have said Iraq will not be ready.

The journey along potentially hostile desert roads had been carefully planned for weeks.

"The last one crossed [into Kuwait] at around 0600 (0300 GMT) this morning," Lieutenant Colonel Eric Bloom said.

The US military restricted journalists embedded with the brigade from reporting on its movements until they were almost at the border.

After crossing the border, US troops told journalists of their relief at leaving Iraq.

"It's just a whole bunch of stress just off my shoulders, but it feels good to be in Kuwait, about to head home," Troy Danahy said.

"Best part of getting back to Kuwait? One, I know no one else will get hurt, and two, I'm going home," Timothy Berrenar said.

'Significant step'

State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said the US involvement in Iraq was far from over, but that it would be less intrusive and more civilian focused.

"We are ending the war... but we are not ending our work in Iraq. We have a long-term commitment to Iraq," he told MSNBC.

troops graphic

Mr Crowley said the US had a trillion-dollar investment to protect in the country and wanted to honour the memory of the 4,415 US troops who lost their lives in the conflict.

At one point, the US had 150,000 troops in Iraq.

The independent monitoring group Iraq Body Count put the number of civilian deaths since the invasion at between 97,196 and 106,071.

The BBC's Jane O'Brien in Washington says the brigade's departure is a significant step.

The 50,000 soldiers who will remain will be armed, but will only use their weapons in self-defence or at the request of the Iraqi government.

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