After nine years of fighting, the war in Iraq officially ended Thursday as United States officials formally shut down operations in Baghdad.
"Iraqis can take pride in knowing that through the sacrifice of so many brave warriors, your children will have a better future. That is the reward that we all cherish on this historic day," said U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta as he officially retired or "cased" the flag of the U.S. military forces in Iraq during a ceremony.
"We knew this day would come. We have known it for some time," President Obama said Thursday as he marked the end of the mission at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The war in Iraq has ended, but this could mean an even tougher time for Christians in the country.
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Obama was at the U.S. Army base to pay tribute to the 1 million members of the U.S. military who served during the Iraq war.
"There is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long," he noted.
The nine-year war cost 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than $800 billion.
Panetta said the U.S. efforts put Iraq on a path to democracy.
"Your dream of an independent and sovereign Iraq is now a reality," he said.
Once the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad, now the place formerly called Victory Base looks like a ghost town.
It has been handed over to the Iraqi military forces, who are now responsible for their own security.
"This is a time for Iraq to look forward; the is an opportunity for Iraq to forge ahead on the path to security and prosperity," Panetta said.
Several Republican lawmakers have criticized the early U.S. withdrawal, arguing that an unstable Iraq is being left behind.
Iraq's stability is still in question, especially in the shadow of neighboring Iran, an Islamic theocracy that continues its work to build a nuclear weapon and that's perceived by many Middle East experts as the biggest threat to the new democracy.
Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz., says the president's decision is all about politics.
"I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with scorn and disdain -- with the scorn and disdain that it deserves," McCain said.
All U.S. combat forces will be out of the country by Dec. 31.
However, the country will maintain a strong diplomatic presence, including some 16,000 employees working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.