Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a surprise visit to speak at the closing ceremony, where the American flag was lowered, symbolizing the United States’ withdrawal. In his speech, Panetta pointed to “a new chapter in history” for the nation. Iraq’s president and prime minister were not present for the ceremony.
No senior Iraqi government officials showed up for the event, though the name tags attached to two chairs in the front row indicated American hopes that they might. One was labeled for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the other for President Jalal Talabani.
The American withdrawal from Iraq was required by Dec. 31 according to an agreement between the nations. Once it became clear that the deadline was inflexible, U.S. officials determined there was no reason to keep troops away from their families for the holidays.
U.S. commanders had openly urged Iraqi leaders to extend the military’s presence beyond the agreed Dec. 31 deadline, so that they could continue to train the Iraqi security forces, build the country’s almost non-existent conventional defenses and allow more time for the wobbly political consensus forged after last year’s elections to solidify.
But in a rare display of consensus, Iraq’s usually squabbling factions united to insist that troops could stay only if they were subject to Iraqi law, a condition that the U.S. military had made clear from the outset would not be possible.
The time and date of the ceremony was kept secret to reduce the possibility of a planned terrorist attack, and it seems to have worked. The event was uneventful, in stark contrast to the beginning of the war.