In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011 photo, Iraqi security forces hold their US made M-16 assault rifle during a parade in Baghdad, Iraq.
BAGHDAD — 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 the 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."
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"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.