Destroyed Iraqi tanks in the field
Destroyed Iraqi tanks in the fieldIsrael news photo: US Dept of Defense

The United States declares a formal end to the Iraq War Thursday in Baghdad, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arriving in the Iraqi capital to attend the ceremony that will wrap up the 8 1/2 year mission.

Under the terms of the security agreement signed between the U.S. and Iraq in 2008, American troops were required to leave the country by December 31.

But commanders on both sides decided there was no reason to keep the soldiers away from home for the holidays. Talks had collapsed between the U.S. and Iraq over keeping troops in the country beyond the deadline, leaving the commanders with few other options. Ongoing terrorist attacks in the country made it essential for the date of the ceremony to be kept secret until the very last moment.

General Lloyd J. Austin III, the final commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, will fly out after the ceremony is over, followed by troops who guarded during the process.

The Iraqi on the street is unlikely to notice any real difference, according to a report published in Thursday's edition of the Washington Post. American soldiers haven't really been seen on Iraqi city streets since 2009, and combat operations ended last year.

Although U.S. special forces have continued to conduct counter terrorism operations, they have also been training Iraqi security forces to take over that job, albeit out of sight of the Iraqi public.

The U.S. spent a total of more than $800 billion on the war effort and later reconstruction in the country. At its peak in 2007, 170,000 American soldiers were in Iraq, although only 50,000 troops remained by this year.

More than 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives, and 4,487 American soldiers died in the effort to prevent dictator Sadaam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction, and later to prevent radical Islamists and terrorists from taking over the country. 

It was from Iraq, during the Gulf War, that Scud missiles rained down upon Israel, mostly as a means of punishing the United States for protecting its ally, Kuwait, from the invasion by its neighbor.