By Joseph Logan
K-CROSSING, Kuwait, Dec 18 (Reuters) - American soldiers marked Sunday's U.S. troop withdrawal after nearly nine years in Iraq with mixed emotions, remembering lost colleagues, but hoping the country can stand on its own feet.
The war, launched in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and eliminate weapons of destruction that proved non-existent, cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.
When the last departing troop convoy crossed into Kuwait, it signalled the end of a mission that had taken many soldiers through three or four tours in Iraq, fighting a war that soon became America's least popular since Vietnam.
Veterans remembered how violence had ebbed after years of constant firefights, roadside bombs and mortar attacks. Younger ones spoke of the meaning of the U.S. withdrawal.
"At first I didn't see the big picture as far as us leaving a country where we fought," said Specialist Tyler Meier, 20.
"It's a big deal because it has never really been done before. We still have troops in Europe. We still have soldiers in Korea... Now it is pretty exciting. We are going down in the history books."
President Barack Obama in October announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by year-end as scheduled after talks between Baghdad and Washington to keep thousands in Iraq failed over the issue of immunity from prosecution for them.
The number of military bases under U.S. control was quickly reduced and hundreds of soldiers and trucks left Iraq via the Kuwaiti border. There were over 170,000 U.S. troops at more than 500 bases in Iraq at the height of the war.
While violence has subsided from the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-7, America leaves behind an Iraq that is still battling a stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias.
The government, which took months to form after an inconclusive election in March 2010, is a delicate power-sharing exercise between fractious Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni blocks.
"We spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of blood, a lot of effort. And I don't know if it is going to be for good or bad," said Sergeant Mauricio Moreno, shortly before leaving Iraq. "I hope Iraq progresses and gets better in the future."
UNPOPULAR WAR, YOUNG DEMOCRACY
Despite the war's unpopularity at home and the hostility of many Iraqis to the invasion of their country and the prolonged U.S. troop presence, the U.S. commander in Iraq said it had been worthwhile because Iraqis now had a fledgling democracy.
"We removed a brutal dictator (who) killed hundreds of thousands of people... Now you see a young democracy," General Lloyd Austin had told troops preparing to leave.
A poll released in October showed a third of U.S. military veterans who have served in U.S. security forces since 2001 think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not worth fighting.
"It's bittersweet. We have done a lot of good things here. We have seen a lot of progress since 2003, schools being built, hospitals being built, running water. People have a much higher quality of life than they did in 2003," said Staff Sergeant Derrick Grabener, painting a picture of post-war Iraq that not all Iraqis would recognise.
"It's nice to finally go home and know that you don't have to go back," he said.
For others, especially those who had done multiple tours, their time in Iraq has taken a toll on marriages and personal lives, leaving question marks about what comes next.
"I spent 31 months in this country," said Sergeant Steven Schirmer, 25, who has done three tours of Iraq since 2007 and who has divorce papers from his wife awaiting him back home.
"It almost seems I can have a life now, though I know I am probably going to Afghanistan in 2013. Once these wars end, I wonder what I will end up doing. You almost become accustomed to it." (Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Patrick Markey and Alistair Lyon)