RAMADI, Iraq — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that history will judge whether the war in Iraq was worth it.
In Iraq to mark the formal close of the U.S. combat mission and the departure of the top U.S. war commander, Gates visited troops at Camp Ramadi in western Iraq.
Asked whether the U.S. was still at war in Iraq, Gates answered succinctly, "I would say we are not."
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq, down from more than 165,000 at the height of the fighting.
Gates was less definitive about whether the 7 1/2-year war was worthwhile. That judgment "really requires a historian's perspective," and will depend in part on whether Iraq emerges as a democratic anchor in the Middle East, Gates told reporters after his Ramadi visit.
"I believe our men and women in uniform believe we have accomplished something that makes the sacrifice, the bloodshed, not to have been in vain," he said. "How it all weighs in the balance remains to be seen."
Although the remaining troops' main role is to help train Iraqi forces over the next year, they are not out of harm's way. Recent U.S. deaths in Iraq have come from homemade explosives that deliberately target U.S. vehicles or soldiers, or attacks on gatherings where insurgents knew Americans would be.
Several thousand U.S. special operations forces will continue to hunt al-Qaida and other terrorist fighters, accompanying Iraqi commandoes. U.S. forces will remain armed, and will return fire or fight in self-defense.
Gates said the United States would consider keeping some military forces in place past next year, if the Iraqi government requests it. All U.S. forces are set to leave by the end of 2011 under an agreement with the Iraqi government.
Wednesday's transition from a combat stance to an "advise and assist" role was largely symbolic. U.S. troops have been leaving Iraq in huge numbers for the past year, while their front-line combat roles dwindled.
The war is no longer the political rallying point it was when U.S. force numbers, and casualties, were at their height three years ago. But it is still unpopular, with a majority of Americans unconvinced that the war was worth fighting.
"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," Gates told reporters after meeting with troops in Ramadi.
"Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it'll always be clouded by how it began."
Ramadi, home of one of the U.S. military's new advisory brigades, is in the heart of Anbar province, the cradle of the Sunni insurgency against the initial U.S. occupation. Gates said Anbar holds a special and haunting significance for the U.S. military. Several members of his staff were wounded or saw their comrades killed in the province during the worst years of the fighting.
The difference between that time and now was illustrated by the questions soldiers asked him. Some of their top concerns included health care, retirement and the fate of combat pay now that the combat mission is officially over.
Lt. Col. Buddy Houston, deputy brigadier commander of the 4/3 Advise and Assist Brigade in Ramadi, said there have been no incidents in the last 14 months where Iraqis asked for direct combat help.
"I can't imagine a violent situation where we would have to go back in and re-engage," Houston said.
He added that he didn't anticipate, "even under the worst-case scenario," that a civil war could break out in Iraq as U.S. troops leave.