AT THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER (AP) — Outside it was pitch dark. The six American soldiers couldn't see much of the desert landscape streaming by outside the small windows of their armored vehicle. They were hushed and exhausted from an all-night drive — part of the last convoy of U.S. troops to leave Iraq during the final moment of a nearly nine-year war.
As dawn broke Sunday, a small cluster of Iraqi soldiers along the highway waved goodbye to the departing American troops.
"My heart goes out to the Iraqis," said Warrant Officer John Jewell. "The innocent always pay the bill."
When they finally crossed the sand berm that separates Iraq from Kuwait, illuminated by floodlights and crisscrossed with barbed wire, the mood inside Jewell's vehicle was subdued. No cheers. No hugs. Mostly just relief.
His comrade, Sgt. Ashley Vorhees, mustered a bit more excitement.
"I'm out of Iraq," she said. "It's all smooth sailing from here."
The final withdrawal was the starkest of contrasts to the start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003. That morning, an airstrike in southern Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding, marked the opening shot of the famed "shock and awe" bombardment. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed from Kuwait toward the capital, hurtling north across southern Iraq's featureless deserts.
The last convoy of heavily armored personnel carriers, known as MRAPS, left the staging base at Camp Adder in southern Iraq in Sunday's early hours. They slipped out under cover of darkness and strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks. The 500 soldiers didn't even tell their Iraqi comrades on the base they were leaving.
The attack never materialized. The fear, though, spoke volumes about the country they left behind — shattered, still dangerous and containing a good number of people who still see Americans not as the ally who helped them end Saddam's dictatorship, but as an enemy.