BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces are in the final phase of the Iraq war after ending combat missions, officials said on Wednesday as they urged Iraqi leaders to get on with forming a government six months after an election.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said while visiting troops in Ramadi, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the 7-1/2 year conflict, that history would judge whether the 2003 invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein had been worth it.
Asked by a reporter if the United States was still at war in Iraq, Gates said: “No, I would say we’re not.
“Combat operations have ceased. We’re still going to work with the Iraqis on counter-terrorism. We’re still doing a lot of training. And advising and assisting ... So I would say that we have moved into the final phase of our engagement in Iraq.”
Gates and Vice President Joe Biden were in Iraq for a ceremony at which the U.S. military’s outgoing commander, General Raymond Odierno, handed over to Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin.
Tuesday marked the formal end of the combat mission launched by President Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama, who had promised voters he would end the unpopular war, said in an address from the Oval Office that it was “time to turn the page” on Iraq.
Around 50,000 U.S. soldiers will stay in Iraq up to a full withdrawal by end-2011 agreed in a bilateral security pact. They are supposed to advise and assist Iraqi forces, not lead the fight against the Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi’ite militia.
Security remains a big worry. Attacks against Iraqi security forces have been increasing, and there are concerns the end of U.S. combat operations will leave an even bigger gap for insurgents to exploit.
Tensions are also running high because of a stalemate in efforts to form a new government six months after an inconclusive election as Shi’ite-led, Sunni-backed and Kurdish factions squabble over positions and power.
“It is not our place to tell Iraqis who should lead but I strongly urge them to match the courage their citizens have shown by bringing this process to a close and forming a government,” Biden said at the change of command ceremony, held in one of Saddam’s former palaces near Baghdad airport.
In interviews with U.S. television networks, Biden said he had come away from talks with Iraqi leaders convinced that a deal on forming a government would come soon, telling PBS Newshour that it was a matter of a “couple months.”
But Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior leader in Iraqiya, the top vote winner in Iraq’s election, told Reuters that Biden was being “very optimistic” as politicians had yet to agree on who should be the next prime minister.
The number of civilians killed by violence in August — 295 according to the Health Ministry — actually fell from the month before, and also compared to August last year.
But casualties were high among the Iraqi security forces as suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents targeted police and soldiers in an effort to undermine public faith in their abilities.
A total of 54 soldiers and 77 police were killed in attacks in August, the defense and interior ministries said.
Odierno, a towering hulk who is one of only a few U.S. army generals to have commanded a division, a corp and an entire theater of war in the same conflict, said he was confident the Iraqi security forces could protect the country.
“A peaceful transition of power following Iraq’s credible, legitimate elections is the strongest possible response to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations,” he said, echoing Biden’s call for Iraqi leaders to reach a deal.
However another senior member of the U.S. military expressed concern about whether Iraq would be able to properly defend its airspace and borders against external threats like Iran if the United States stuck to its deadline for pulling out all forces.
“There will be some capability to defend against external threats by December 2011 but there will be gaps in some of those capabilities,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, deputy commander for advising and training, told reporters.
Ordinary Iraqis also expressed concern about the winding down of the U.S. mission at a time when politicians are deadlocked on the new government.
“He (Obama) doesn’t care what will happen to Iraq,” said 40-year-old Mohammed Kadhim, who owns a shop selling spare parts for cars. “They withdraw from the country and the country is not yet stable. How could they withdraw?”
On the visit to U.S. troops in Ramadi, in the western province of Anbar, Gates said judging the invasion required “a historian’s perspective.”
But for some Americans, he said, the war would always be clouded by the fact its original aim — the hunt for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction — did not turn out to be valid.
If Iraq remained a democracy and played a constructive role, it could have a significant impact on the Middle East, he said.
“How it all weighs in the balance over time I think remains to be seen,” he said. “This is going to be a work in progress for a long time.”
Writing by Michael Christie and Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Noah Barkin