The last 480 troops left Iraq early Sunday morning in high spirits, happy to be heading home for the holidays. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Updated at 8:46 a.m. ET
KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait -- The last American troops crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait early Sunday, ending the U.S. military presence there after nearly nine years.
As the last convoy left Iraq at daybreak Sunday, soldiers whooped, bumped fists and embraced each other in a burst of joy and relief, The Associated Press reported.
NBC News' Richard Engel tweeted from the border: "The gate to #iraq is closed. Soldier just told me, 'that's it, the war is over.'"
The final column of around 100 mostly MRAP armored vehicles carrying 500 U.S. troops trundled through the night along an empty highway, across the southern Iraq desert to the Kuwaiti border.
After a ceremony Thursday in Baghdad formally marking the end of the war, the timing and all other details of the departure of the last convoy were kept under tight secrecy due to security concerns. The low-key end to the war was just another reminder of how dangerous Iraq remains, even though violence is lower now than at any other time since the 2003 invasion.
The 210-mile trip from a base in southern Iraq took about five hours.
"I just can't wait to call my wife and kids and let them know I am safe," Sgt. First Class Rodolfo Ruiz said as the border came into sight. Soon afterward, he told his men the mission was over: "Hey guys, you made it."
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little tweeted Sunday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "approved the order officially ending the Iraq war" at 6:59 a.m. ET.
The Iraq war began on March 20, 2003, at a time when national defense was a top priority for Americans still shocked by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It continued with the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein, then ground through years of war against an insurgency that left tens of thousands dead.
Among those dead were nearly 4,500 Americans, and the war cost $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The question of whether it was worth it all is yet unanswered.
"It's good to see this thing coming to a close. I was here when it started," Staff Sgt. Christian Schultz said just before leaving Contingency Operating Base Adder, 185 miles south of Baghdad, for the border. "I saw a lot of good changes, a lot of progress, and a lot of bad things too."
Maya Alleruzzo / AP
Army soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, inspect their body armor at Camp Adder during final preparations for the last American convoy to leave Iraq.
For President Barack Obama, the military pullout is the fulfilment of an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor that tainted America's standing worldwide.
For Iraqis, it brings a sense of sovereignty but fuels worries their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government still struggles with a delicate power-sharing arrangement between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties, leaving Iraq vulnerable to meddling by Sunni Arab nations and Shiite Iran.
The intensity of violence and suicide bombings has subsided for now. But a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency and rival Shiite militias remain a threat, carrying out almost daily attacks.
Iraq says its forces can contain the violence but they lack capabilities in areas such as air defense and intelligence gathering. A deal for several thousand U.S. troops to stay on as trainers fell apart over the sensitive issue of legal immunity.
For many Iraqis security remains a worry -- but no more than jobs and getting access to power in a country whose national grid provides only a few hours of electricity a day.
"We don't think about America... We think about electricity, jobs, our oil, our daily problems," said Abbas Jaber, a government employee in Baghdad. "They left chaos."
Payments to sheikhs
After Obama announced in October that troops would come home by the end of the year as scheduled, the number of U.S. military bases was whittled down quickly as hundreds of troops and trucks carrying equipment headed south to the Kuwaiti border.
U.S. forces, which had ended combat missions in 2010, paid $100,000 a month to tribal sheikhs to secure different parts of highways leading south to reduce the risk of roadside bombings and attacks.
At the height of the war, more than 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq at more than 500 bases. By Saturday, there were fewer than 3,000 troops, and one base.
At COB Adder, as dusk fell before the departure of the last convoy, one group of soldiers slapped barbecue sauce on slabs of ribs brought in from Kuwait and laid them on grills alongside hot dogs and sausages.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Janna Less, center, 23, smiles as she sits on the last Air Force flight out of Ali Air Base near Nasiriyah, en route to Kuwait on Saturday.
The last troops flicked on the lights studding their MRAP vehicles and stacked flak jackets and helmets in neat piles, ready for the final departure for Kuwait and then home.
"A good chunk of me is happy to leave. I spent 31 months in this country," said Sgt. Steven Schirmer, 25, after three tours of Iraq since 2007. "It almost seems I can have a life now, though I know I am probably going to Afghanistan in 2013. Once these wars end I wonder what I will end up doing."
When the convoy crossed the border into Kuwait around 7:45 a.m. local time, the atmosphere was subdued inside one of the vehicles. Along the road, a small group of Iraqi soldiers waved to the departing American troops.
"My heart goes out to the Iraqis," said Warrant Officer John Jewell, acknowledging the challenges ahead. "The innocent always pay the bill."
Soldiers standing just inside the crossing on the Kuwaiti side of the border waved and snapped photos as the final trucks rumbled over.
"I'm pretty excited," said Sgt. Ashley Vorhees. "I'm out of Iraq. It's all smooth sailing from here."
Spc. Brittany Hampton joked that no one was going to believe her back home when she told them she was in the very last of the 110 vehicles in the convoy to exit.
"But we really truly were the last soldiers in Iraq. So it's pretty awesome," she said.
"It's just an honor to be able to serve your country and say that you helped close out the war in Iraq," added Spc. Jesse Jones, a 23-year-old who volunteered to be in the last convoy. "Not a lot of people can say that they did huge things like that that will probably be in the history books."
A handful of U.S. military personnel will remain in the country, working with the U.S. Embassy to help with arms sales and training for Iraqi forces. Talks could resume next year on whether more U.S. troops can return for future training missions.
In the meantime, U.S. officials say there will be roughly 16,000 people involved in the American diplomatic effort in Iraq.
About 2,000 will be diplomats and federal workers. The remaining 14,000 will be contractors -- roughly half involved with security.
NBC News, msnbc.com staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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