Saddam and his regime fell within weeks of the invasion, and the dictator was captured by the end of the year — to be executed by Iraq's new Shiite rulers at the end of 2006. But Saddam's end only opened the door to years more of conflict as Iraq was plunged into a vicious sectarian war between its Shiite and Sunni communities. The near civil war devastated the country, and its legacy includes thousands of widows and orphans, a people deeply divided along sectarian lines and infrastructure that remains largely in ruins.
In the past two years, violence has dropped dramatically, and Iraqi security forces that U.S. troops struggled for years to train have improved. But the sectarian wounds remain unhealed. Even as U.S. troops were leaving, the main Sunni-backed political bloc announced Sunday it was suspending its participation in parliament to protest the monopoly on government posts by Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We are glad to see the last U.S. soldier leaving the country today," said 25-year-old Iraqi Said Hassan, the owner of money exchange shop in Baghdad. "It is an important day in Iraq's history, but the most important thing now is the future of Iraq," he added.
"The Americans have left behind them a country that is falling apart and an Iraqi army and security forces that have a long way ahead to be able to defend the nation and the people."
The convoys that left Sunday were the last of a massive operation pulling out American forces that has lasted for months to meet the end-of-the-year deadline agreed with the Iraqis during the administration of President George W. Bush.
On Saturday evening at Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah and about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, the vehicles lined up in an open field to prepare, and soldiers went through last-minute equipment checks to make sure radios, weapons and other gear were working.