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US, Iraqi leaders praise sacrifices of war, 'historic opportunity'

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Operation Iraqi Freedom is over but American engagement with Iraq will continue," Mr. Biden added.

SPECIAL FEATURE: What the US is leaving behind in Iraq

The ceremony marked not only the formal end of US combat operations, but the change of command from General Odierno to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who will oversee the withdrawal of all US troops next year.

President Barack Obama made it a campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by Sept 1. Under a status of forces agreement negotiated with Iraq, the remaining 50,000 troops are to leave by the end of next year.

Somber tone

Despite Biden’s upbeat assessment on what was billed as a historic day, many of the comments struck a somber tone.

“The problem with this war for many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid,” Gates told reporters while visiting troops in Ramadi west of Baghdad.

“Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States it will always be clouded by how it began,” he said, referring to the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for invading Iraq.

Odierno, who was a main architect of the military surge that helped end Iraq’s civil war, was also a division commander when US forces under his command captured Saddam Hussein.

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