(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
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 -- questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid sectarian clashes? Will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
The 45-minute ceremony was tucked into a fortified corner of the airport, ringed with concrete blast walls. And on the chairs 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 coexist," 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. On Thursday he gave the order to retire the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq.
The flag was then rolled up and covered by a camouflage-colored sheath. It 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 war that was launched to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into sectarian civil war.
Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited nor 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.
The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.
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.
As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and fewer than 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq -- down from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All U.S. troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.
The total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence-sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult region.
Despite President Barack Obama's earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 soldiers will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.
Obama stopped short of calling the U.S. effort in Iraq a victory in an interview taped Thursday with ABC News' Barbara Walters.
"I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future," Obama said.
Despite the war's toll and unpopularity, Panetta said it "has not been in vain."