BAGHDAD - The last convoy of US soldiers pulled out from Iraq on Sunday, December 18, drawing an end to a nine-year war that cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.
"A good chunk of me is happy to leave, Sgt. Steven Schirmer, 25, told Reuters after three tours of Iraq since 2007.
I spent 31 months in this country.
"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."
The final column of around 100 mostly US military MRAP armored vehicles carrying 500 US troops trundled across the southern Iraq desert from their last base through the night and daybreak along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.
Honking their horns, the last batch of around 25 American military trucks and tractor trailers carrying Bradley fighting vehicles crossed the border early Sunday morning.
"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.
US forces, which had ended combat missions in 2010, paid $100,000 a month to tribal sheikhs to secure stretches of the highways leading south to reduce the risk of roadside bombings and attacks on the last convoys.
Only around 150 US troops will remain in Iraq attached to a training and cooperation mission at the huge US embassy on the banks of the Tigris river.
US troops invaded Iraq in March 2003 to topple the Saddam Hussein regime on claims of possessing weapons of mass destruction, a claim never proved true.
At the height of the war, more than 170,000 US troops were in Iraq at more than 500 bases.
By Saturday, there were fewer than 3,000 troops, and one base - Contingency Operating Base Adder, 300 km (185 miles) south of Baghdad.
Left grappling with poor living conditions, many Iraqis accuse the US troops of leaving chaos behind.
"We don't think about America... We think about electricity, jobs, our oil, our daily problems," Abbas Jaber, a government employee in Baghdad, told Reuters.
"They (Americans) left chaos."
Most Iraqis get a few hours of electricity a day despite their OPEC country's vast oil potential as well as staggering unemployment rates.
For Iraqis, though, the US departure brings a sense of sovereignty tempered by nagging fears their country may slide once again into the kind of sectarian violence that killed many thousands of people at its peak in 2006-2007.
Prime Minister Nuri 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.
Iran and Turkey, major investors in Iraq, will be watching with Gulf nations to see how their neighbor handles its sectarian and ethnic tensions, as the crisis in Syria threatens to spill over its borders.
The fall of Saddam allowed the long-suppressed Shiite majority to rise to power. The Shiite-led government has drawn the country closer to Iran and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who is struggling to put down a nine-month-old uprising.
Iraq's Sunni minority is chafing under what it sees as the increasingly authoritarian control of Maliki's Shiite coalition.
Some local leaders are already pushing mainly Sunni provinces to demand more autonomy from Baghdad.
The main Sunni political bloc Iraqiya said on Saturday that it was temporarily suspending its participation in the parliament to protest against what it said was Maliki's unwillingness to deliver on power-sharing.
A dispute between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and Maliki's central government over oil and territory is also brewing, and is a potential flashpoint after the buffer of the American military presence is gone.
"There is little to suggest that Iraq's government will manage, or be willing, to get itself out of the current stalemate," said Gala Riani, an analyst at IHS Global Insight."The perennial divisive issues that have become part of the fabric of Iraqi politics, such as divisions with Kurdistan and Sunni suspicions of the government, are also likely to persist."