AT THE IRAQ/KUWAIT BORDER — The last brigade of U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq early Thursday ahead of the end of the month deadline imposed by President Barack Obama but more than seven years after the invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.

“The Last Patrol,” elements of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, left Baghdad before daybreak Wednesday, drove to the border protected by F-16 fighters above and on the ground by an Iraqi army they helped build and some of the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain in the country until the end of 2011 to train Iraqi forces.

They leave behind an uncertain Iraq battered by war, divided and bloodied by sectarian strife and still struggling to form a government months after its second democratic postwar election. They will return to the United States uneasy with the legacy of the war that left more than 4,000 American troops dead and cost more than $748 billion to fight.

Thursday’s final withdrawal began before dawn Sunday when nearly 2,000 4th Stryker Brigade soldiers were divided into four huge convoys of some 300 Strykers to head south from Baghdad. For four nights, each group loaded up the gear, music, laptops and guns they wanted and needed within reach for their last days in Iraq. They also carried extra diesel and belts of .50-caliber ammunition. The troops also loaded up on beef jerky, powdered Gatorade, case of water and Rip Its – the basics of a soldier’s diet in this seven-year war.

“Ready for movement?” the brigade’s commander sergeant major, Jeffrey Huggins, said to his team, part of the morning’s overall 22-Stryker convoy.

“Roger,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Tidwell.

“All right, gang, here we go,” Huggins said.

On Thursday, they were driving the last of 360 miles south to K-crossing, what soldiers call the Kuwaiti line.

Inside the ranks of the brigade, “The Last Patrol,” as the operation was named, felt like victory after seven years of the heat, danger and hard memories from the war and then the occupation that began with the March 2003 invasion.

“What I’m trying to tell my kids is that seven years of war is ending on their watch,” said Col. John Norris, the brigade’s commander, before the journey began. “They’ve created opportunity for the Iraqi people ... That’s powerful.”

Norris knows the work for Iraq is not done.

“The government will ultimately seat itself,” he said. “That is not our mission. I was not brought here to seat the government. This brigade was brought here to help facilitate the national elections for the Iraqi people, and that is exactly what my soldiers did.”

In some areas, victory feels years away.

Electricity and other basic needs still go unmet in the country’s major cities. The enemies’ focus has shifted to Iraqi security forces and government officials, who continue to be attacked and assassinated in broad daylight. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed more than 60 people at an Iraqi military recruiting station in Baghdad.

Soldiers know the battles continue.

“It isn’t a Chia Pet,” one soldier said of Iraq’s looming problems. “You can’t just add water.”

But, for their part, these soldiers feel their mission is done.

“We’re the winners in Iraq,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hord, 31, of Palestine, Texas, a platoon leader in the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment. “I think we have accomplished every goal we’ve set. We are the winners.”

Any “win” seemed shaky as the men prepared to drive out.

Before leaving, Norris talked about his worry of getting through a three-way highway exchange in Baghdad still known for attacks using armor-piercing shaped charges called explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs. Reporters were sworn to secrecy about the route.

But there are signs that U.S. efforts to train and equip Iraqi forces is paying dividends.

Three Iraqi divisions helped to secure the 360-mile route south, a coordination made with no hesitation about security leaks or capability, Norris said.

Iraqi forces now total 660,000, including Army, Air Force, Navy, border patrol and national police units.

But the nation has a long way to go, and both U.S. and Iraqi military leaders in recent days have said Iraq will still need help after 2011, the current deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops. For now, the plan is to continue training. That mission will run under the direction of six “advise and assist brigades,” Army brigades of 3,500 to 4,000 troops placed in six sectors throughout the country.

It’s a mission already under way, one that took up much of the Stryker brigade’s yearlong tour in western Baghdad and its outlying farmlands.

The brigade’s command sergeant major, Jeffrey Huggins, from Honolulu, put this year’s work in more direct terms: “Be nice,” Huggins told his soldiers when they arrived. “But have a plan to kill every single person you meet.”

Seeing Iraqi soldiers and police take over the U.S. military’s missions of searching for hidden bombs, manning checkpoints and hunting down insurgents also helps erase painful memories for soldiers like Sgt. Jed Glover, who has spent half of his 4 1/2-year career in Iraq.

Norris noted that serious acts of violence — bombings, killings, gunfire — are down significantly from his last tour, when he commanded a battalion for the 172nd Stryker brigade, one of the first units to be extended to a 15-month tour.

“It’s closure,” Glover said as he watched one convoy pack up earlier this week. “I’ve lost too many friends in this place. Too many friends.”

The way in

Seven years ago, Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Longacre, 29, rode into Iraq along the same highway in a soft Humvee in the wake of the initial invasion with the 1st Armored Division. On Thursday, he was in the last group of Strykers to ride into Kuwait.

Those were the days before complaints from troops reached the Pentagon about trucks so vulnerable soldiers were lining them with sandbags. It was before soldiers knew what “cordon and search” meant; before four U.S. contractors were burnt and two of them hung on a bridge in Fallujah.

It was before grunts had heard of COIN, the counterinsurgency strategy in which U.S. troops seek to protect the population rather than fight a violent war.

Those memories linger with the brigade’s soldiers, more than half of whom have served two or more tours in Iraq, including the one they will finish this month.

“We had just heard about these things, IEDs,” Longacre said, referring to improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs. “We weren’t sure what it was.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Mercer, 29, of Oldtown, Idaho, rode into Iraq in March 2003 in a Bradley with the 3rd Infantry Division. He still has his 54-card deck of playing cards the Pentagon released in early 2003 as a most-wanted list, with Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades.

For Mercer, this is the end of his fifth deployment since 9/11. The first two were to Kuwait, the second of which stretched to a third deployment — in Iraq — once his Bradley crossed the border going north.

He remembers the gunfire, clearing buildings in towns along the route north, flushing out Iraqi soldiers who were then trying to kill him. When he returned to Iraq the first time — his fourth tour in the middle of the war — he found it hard to adjust to working with the Iraqis instead of fighting them.

“Now I was clearing houses with them,” he said. But it was hard to trust an Iraqi soldier standing next to him. “I might have shot his dad.”

Now Mercer is looking forward. He wants to be with his three kids. He wants to take his wife on a date.

Moving on

It’s what they all want — reunions with boyfriends, the chance to meet a new girlfriend, bottles of cold beer, walks to the shower without trekking through hot dust.

“I want to sleep in my own bed,” said Sgt. Rashard Mason, 34, of Alexandria, Va., a power generator maintainer, one of the brigade’s soldiers who left last week ahead of the road march on a C-130 that flew out of Baghdad. “To roll around. In my bed.”

Some want to get on with their military careers, to get the training or move to the next unit, advancements that have been put on hold repeatedly during the last seven years.

They also want time alone. The brigade’s soldiers know each other almost too well – who drinks the most Rip Its, who wants only apples for his nighttime snacks, who dips what brand of tobacco. They are sick of each other, nearly every meal and mission spent in such close quarters that they can’t wait for the peace of being apart.

In the waning days of the tour, Huggins, the brigade’s top enlisted soldier, took some of his troops to see Baghdad’s historic sites, a chance to mix more good memories with the bad. He took them to see the ziggurat at Aqar Quf , the 3,500-year-old ruins in Abu Ghraib that once stood as the northern entrance to Baghdad.

“It matters,” Huggins said. He wanted the soldiers to see a part of Iraq’s history and let them take snapshots of themselves in front of an ancient monument in a country they’ve more often seen from a tactical vehicle or through the turret of a truck. “It validated it for them.”

Out of Iraq

On Thursday morning, Huggins got some of those same soldiers across the Kuwait line.

But these soldiers know there’s another war waiting.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Ward, 25, of Baton Rouge, La., spent the last year doing route clearance for the brigade, crawling down country roads around Abu Ghraib looking for buried bombs.

“I hope that deployments chill out,” said Ward, another member of the 1-38, as he relaxed one night last week, smoking a hookah at an on-base restaurant near the end of his third deployment since 2005.

He’s traded some of his stateside dwell time for a move to Fort Polk, La., to be closer to his son. It means he’ll likely deploy again — to Afghanistan, where he served his first two tours — before the end of the year.

When it comes to Iraq, though, most believe they are done.

“I’m not coming back,” said Spc. Steven Jones, 25, of San Diego, a mechanic who was sunburned, exhausted and elated to be headed home this month.

Sgt. Jared Doss, another mechanic with the brigade, isn’t as sure.

“I didn’t think I’d come out here for a second tour,” said the 32-year-old from Miami, Ariz., as he waited last week for a plane to take him home, ahead of the Stryker soldiers on the road.

“You never know.”

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