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The U.S. marks on Wednesday the transition to the final phase of the Iraq war, shifting the focus of the remaining 50,000 American troops from combat operations to preparing Iraqi security forces to protect the country on their own.

President Barack Obama set the tone for changing the role without fanfare, making clear in a major speech on Iraq on Tuesday that this was no victory celebration. A six-month stalemate over forming a new Iraqi government has raised concerns about the country’s stability and questions over whether the leadership can cope with a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.

Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will preside over a military change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad later Wednesday that will signal the formal end of American combat operations in Iraq, 7½ years after the March 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Gates, visiting American troops in the Iraqi city of Ramadi Wednesday, said history will judge whether the fight was worth it for the United States.

“The problem with this war, I think, for many Americans, is that the premise on which we justified going to war turned out not to be valid,” he said. “Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it’ll always be clouded by how it began.”

Claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, then-President George W. Bush ordered the invasion with approval of a Congress that was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. But Bush’s claims were based on faulty intelligence, and the weapons were never found.

Obama declared an end to combat in an Oval Office speech Tuesday night and praised American forces for their work. He acknowledged the ambiguous nature of the war in which American forces quickly ousted Saddam but were never able to fully control the Sunni Muslim insurgency against the Shiite-dominated establishment that even now threatens to re-ignite.

Source:  Rebecca Santana for The Associated Press.

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