There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner. No victory parade down the center of this capital scarred and rearranged by nearly nine years of war. No crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.
Instead, the U.S. military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq on Thursday with a businesslike closing ceremony behind blast walls in a fortified compound at Baghdad airport. The flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up in a 45-minute ceremony. No senior Iraqi political figures attended.
With that, and brief words from top American officials who flew in under tight security still necessary because of the ongoing violence in Iraq, the U.S. drew the curtain on a war that left 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.
The conflict also left another 32,000 Americans and far more Iraqis wounded, drained more than $800 billion from America's treasury and soured a majority of Americans on a war many initially supported as a just extension of the fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, they leave behind a nation free of Saddam's tyranny but fractured by violence and fearful of the future. Bombings and gun battles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security forces' ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.
"You will leave with great pride — lasting pride," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the troops seated in front of a small domed building in the airport complex. "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 not welcome in a proud country.
"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, a member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Others said that while grateful for U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.
The low-key nature of the ceremony stood in sharp contrast to the high octane start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.
The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Austin led the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year — while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.
The war "tested our military's strength and our ability to adapt and evolve," he said, noting the development of the new counterinsurgency doctrine.