When war ends

Tonight the last of the combat troops in Iraq crossed the border into Kuwait.

It is a moment I am glad has come, but it is also a moment of great uncertainty. Violence still ravages the country and 50,000 of my former comrades will remain in an advisory role; guiding the fledgling Iraqi army through what will undoubtedly be trying times. Iraqi leaders have yet to form a government.

The last seven years have been scarred by unspeakable violence, misjudgments, tactical errors, and political gridlock - both here and in Iraq. They have also seen incredible acts of heroism, charity and leadership - acts that we know far too little about. In time we will know what the sum of those actions is, but for now we wait for what will come.

I make no secret of my support for our involvement in Iraq. I firmly believe that deposing a brutal despot and creating the groundwork for democratic government in the Arab world is a good thing. The admittedly few Iraqis I talked to during my time there were thankful Saddam Hussein was gone and hopeful for the future.

The American military has done all it can. We cannot force democracy upon another nation and we cannot dictate its government and its laws. We have secured the nation to the best of our ability and given the Iraqi people a choice in their future. What happens next is up to the Iraqis. Their leaders must rise to the occasion or the people will lose all faith in democracy. Tyrants-in-waiting, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, will seize any opportunity to assert authority. The US can still exert tremendous pressure on the elected leaders in Iraq to form a government, but it is a fine line. We cannot be seen as overtly choosing a solution because the government will then be illegitimate in the eyes of many Iraqis. This requires a delicate diplomatic touch, and I hope that Secretary of State Clinton will finally live up to her high expectations.

The next few months will be incredibly important for the future of Iraq and the Middle East. For our part, the war has ended. For the Iraqis, it has just begun. In the balance hangs the fate of some 30 million people and the stability of an entire region.

I hope and pray that the Iraqis will succeed. Not to justify our decision to invade, or to give meaning to my own time in country. I hope that they succeed because they deserve it. The Iraqi people endured decades of tyranny and oppression, only to endure seven years of war after the tyrant was deposed. They deserve peace and freedom. I hope their leaders can deliver, and I hope that we will be there to help at every turn.

I will never forget being in Kuwait and Iraq during the first elections in January of 2005. I remember reading the accounts of that day in the Stars and Stripes. Later, a friend told me about guarding the polls southwest of Baghdad: Iraqis stood in line to vote for the first time in their lives. While in line, mortars began to fall. The people scattered and ran for cover, but after the attack was over - neutralized by the Marines in the area - the Iraqis immediately got back in line and more people continued to show. In all, more than 60% of eligible voters participated.

They signaled then and there that they wanted a chance to lead themselves. Five and a half years later, that chance is finally here.