The Stars and Stripes were lowered, the Iraqi flag raised, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared the U.S. role in the Iraq War officially over. Muhsin Mohammed was glad for that, but not satisfied. He wanted something that never came _ an apology.
"We were waiting for Panetta to apologize to the Iraqi people for the mistakes and crimes committed by the U.S. soldiers during the occupation time," the retired government employee from Baghdad said. "Instead, he praised the sacrifices of the U.S. soldiers and forgot about the Iraqis killed because of his government's mistakes in Iraq."
Mohammed was among many Iraqis who watched on television as Thursday's ceremony played out in a walled courtyard at Baghdad airport, which only a few years ago was buzzing with U.S. helicopters and transport planes.
Some felt Panetta gave short shrift to the plight of the Iraqis, whose joy over the end of Saddam Hussein's rule was quickly swept away by the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, countless shootings of civilians at checkpoints and the affront to Iraqi pride by being bossed around in their own country by young soldiers from a far-off land.
Their remarks also conveyed a deep ambivalence about the U.S. role and the future of the country the Americans are leaving behind. Many worry that their country is too weak to fend off conspiracies by their neighbors, notably the Iranians.
"After the U.S. troop withdrawal, we must now prepare ourselves for the threats of the neighboring countries who are sharpening their knives. Iraq is now on the brink of disaster with political infighting still going on between political factions for power," said Ihssan Jassim of Basra, a member of the Shiite Muslim sect that has dominated politics since the end of Saddam's Sunni-led regime.
Jassim, an electricity engineer, said Iraqis had suffered for nearly nine years but "there is still no real progress in their lives."
"We see no good things from the Americans, except for one thing: toppling Saddam Hussein. The rest of their work in Iraq was a total disaster," said Hassan Kashif, a Shiite from southeastern Baghdad. "During all their presence in Iraq, the U.S. soldiers showed no respect to the Iraqi people."
Iraqis were relieved to see American "occupiers" gone but remain fearful for the future of their shattered country only barely beginning to recover from the savagery and destruction of the war. Most Iraqis viewed the American presence as a military occupation, not a support and reconstruction mission as Washington insisted.
"The Americans helped in toppling Saddam, yet the Iraqi people refused to be ruled by the Americans," said Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni parliament member. "We are facing a new challenge, which is the Iranian and (Shiite) militias. ... Some Iraqis may regret the U.S. withdrawal if Iran takes over."
Many of those who watched the ceremony resented Panetta's praise for the sacrifice endured by American service members without giving what they considered justice to the misery that the war heaped on Iraqis _ soldiers, police, insurgents and civilians alike. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops perished in the war, compared with at least 100,000 Iraqis in a country less than one-tenth the population of the United States.
"We were happy to see the hoisting of the Iraqi flag while the occupation flag is being lowered," said Thamir Fuad, a 37-year-old Sunni engineer in Mosul. "We were angered by the words uttered by Panetta where he thanked the American troops in addition to their families and expressed appreciation for their sacrifices. He forgot the sacrifices of the Iraqi people who fell between the hammer of American military operations and the anvil of terrorist attacks. Iraqis have made much greater sacrifices that what was made by the U.S. occupiers."
Mariam Khazim, a Shiite housewife from Baghdad, also bristled at what she considered a lack of acknowledgment for the suffering of her own people. She said her brother was killed in fighting between U.S. troops and Shiite militias in 2008. Her father died the same year when a mortar shell came crashing into his house.
"In his speech, Panetta mentioned the sacrifices of the U.S. soldiers, but he forgets tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed because of this uninvited invasion," she said. "These U.S. sacrifices represent a small portion or percentage compared to the sacrifices made by Iraqi civilians and security forces members."
More than a perceived offense to Iraqi pride, many Iraqis felt the Americans had let them down by failing to transform the country into a model of democracy and prosperity _ a goal often stated by supporters of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in the early years of the conflict.
"It is a great achievement for the Iraqi people," Shiite parliament member Hayder al-Abani said of the American departure. "Iraqi politicians have ... made independence and sovereignty a reality here. The Americans committed a lot of mistakes in Iraq, and they failed to protect the country in the past."
The invasion swept aside the corrupt, tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein, who dragged the nation into a devastating war with Iran in the 1980s and squandered his country's vast economic potential with a disastrous takeover of Kuwait in 1990 that ended in the first Gulf war and years of international sanctions and isolation.
Many Iraqis fear the system that the Americans shepherded in as a replacement does not give them confidence that the years ahead will be markedly better.
An eight-month political stalemate that followed the parliament elections of 2010 until the formation of a new government did little to bolster public confidence.
"After the invasion, the Iraqi parliament and government were not formed on proper and correct principles," said Farwa Khalid, a primary school teacher in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. "So the loyalty of the politicians and security commanders is to their sects and political groups, not to their country."
Much of the political and economic problems that plagued Iraq over the past eight years stemmed from the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, which destroyed critical infrastructure, drove off aid workers and raised costs because of the need to provide security.
Nevertheless, corruption and mismanagement by the Americans played a role, too. The independent U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated in August that at least $31 billion has been lost to waste and fraud in reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the past 15 months U.S. investigators in Iraq have secured the indictments of 22 people for alleged aid-related offenses, bringing to 69 the total since 2004. At least 57 people have been convicted and several hundred more are under scrutiny in 102 open investigations.
"The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation to Iraq because of the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said Amir al-Kinani, a parliament member allied with anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "This is a lesson to the Americans not to repeat this evil act in the future."