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We’re celebrating today, not because we “won a war,” but because so many families are about to be reunited.

American troops lowered the flag of command that flew over Baghdad Thursday morning, rolled it, and placed it in a green and gray case, officially ending the controversial United States military mission in Iraq after nearly nine years.

The understated ceremony under the bright Iraqi sun was the very opposite of the nighttime shock and awe bombardment of Baghdad that began the war against Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flew into Baghdad Thursday morning for the ceremony, where he vowed: “We do not forget the lessons of war.

“Nor will we ever forget the sacrifices of the more than one million men and women of the United States armed forces who served in Iraq, and the sacrifices of their families,” he said.

Panetta paid tribute to the nearly 4,500 Americans who were killed and more than 30,000 who were wounded in Iraq, where an estimated one million Americans troops have served in the past eight-and-a-half years.

Iraq Body Count, an independent public database, calculates more than 150,000 Iraqis died between March 2003 and October 2010, the vast majority of them civilians.

Panetta said the United States was “deeply indebted” to all Americans in uniform, and hailed the advances made in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled by the invasion.

And he said the day “is not about the United States. Rather, today is about Iraq. This is a time for Iraq to look forward.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in very practical terms what the end of the U.S. mission meant.

Departing from his prepared text, he said he had been able to fly into Iraq on this occasion simply because he wanted to.

“The next time I come here, I’m going to have to be invited by the Iraqi government, and I kind of like that,” Dempsey said, before concluding his speech with thanks and a blessing in Arabic.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was not present, having returned to the country from the United States as the ceremony began. President Jalal Talabani was expected to be there but did not attend.

The ceremony marked the official end of the mission that began with the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein.

His regime fell in a matter of weeks, and he was captured in December 2003 after months in hiding, then executed in 2006 after a trial by Iraq’s new authorities.

All U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by the end of this month after Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on terms under which they could remain.

There were about 5,500 American troops in Iraq as of Tuesday, the most recent day American officials in Iraq gave CNN figures.

Do you really think it’s over? And if so, what do you think we’ve accomplished over the last 8 1/2 years?

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