The last convoy of U.S. troops to leave Iraq drove into Kuwait on Sunday morning, marking the end of the nearly nine-year war. The convoy's departure, which included about 110 vehicles and 500 soldiers, came three days after the U.S. military folded its flag in a muted ceremony in Baghdad to celebrate the end of its mission.

In darkness, the convoy snaked out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriyah, around 2:30 a.m., and headed toward the border. The departure appeared to be the final moment of a drawn-out withdrawal that included weeks of ceremonies in Baghdad and around Iraq, and included visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta, as well as a trip to Washington by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As dawn approached on Sunday, the last trucks began to cross over into Kuwait at an outpost lit by floodlights and secured by barbed wire. “I just can't wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rodolfo Ruiz just before his armoured vehicle crossed over the border. Shortly after crossing into Kuwait, he ordered the vehicles in his convoy not to flash their lights or honk their horns.

For security reasons, the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents, interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone. Many troops wondered how the Iraqis, whom they had worked closely with over the past year, would react when they awoke to find that the remaining U.S. troops on the base had left without saying anything.

Fearing that insurgents would try to attack the last Americans leaving the country, the military treated all convoys like combat missions. As the armoured vehicles drove through the desert, Marine, Navy and Army helicopters and planes flew overhead scanning the ground for insurgents and preparing to respond if the convoys were attacked.

Col. Douglas Crissman, one of the military's top commanders in southern Iraq, said in an interview on Friday that he planned to be in a Blackhawk helicopter over the convoy with special communication equipment. “It is a little bit weird,” he said, referring to how he had not told his counterparts in the Iraqi military when they were leaving. “But the professionals among them understand.”

All U.S. troops were legally obligated to leave the country by the end of the month, but President Barack Obama, in announcing in October the end of the U.S. military role in Iraq, promised that everyone would be home for the holidays.

The U.S. will continue to play a role in Iraq. The largest U.S. Embassy in the world is here, and in the wake of the military departure it is doubling in size from about 8,000 people to 16,000 people, most of them contractors. Under the authority of the ambassador will be fewer than 200 military personnel, to guard the embassy and oversee the sale of weapons to the Iraqi government.

History's final judgment on the war, which claimed nearly 4,500 American lives and cost almost $1 trillion, may not be determined for decades. But it will be forever tainted by the early missteps and miscalculations, the faulty intelligence over Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes and his supposed links to terrorists, and a litany of American abuses, from the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal to a public shootout involving Blackwater mercenaries that left civilians dead — a sum of agonising factors that diminished America's standing in the Muslim world. — New York Times News Service

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