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The longest wars and their endings

Comparisons between the longest war the United States ever fought (Vietnam) and the second-longest (Iraq, if we exclude ongoing Afghan operations) can be simplistic as there are far more differences than similarities between the two conflicts. • But with the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraqi cities last week, and the declarations of Iraqi sovereignty, it is worthwhile for history's sake to look at time lines comparing some key events up to and after U.S. forces disengaged. • Right now, though U.S. troops have pulled out of Iraqi cities, nearly 130,000 remain in Iraq itself. That's equal to the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam in January 1972, a year before the cease-fire was signed ending U.S. combat there, and after a long drawdown had reduced troop levels to a fraction of what they had been at the height of the Vietnam War. • While it's tempting at first to place last week's events against the fall of Saigon in 1975, the better comparison might be with March 1973, when the last U.S. combat soldiers left South Vietnam. In that sense, let us hope that there will no comparison between what is yet to come in Iraq and what occurred in Vietnam during the two years between the departure of U.S. combat troops and the collapse of Saigon.

Key events in Iraq

June 2004 The United States hands sovereignty to interim Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein is transferred to Iraqi legal custody.

January 2005 Eight million Iraqis vote in elections for a transitional National Assembly.

December 2005 Two months after approving a new constitution, Iraqis vote for the first, full-term government and parliament since U.S. invasion.

December 2006 Saddam Hussein is executed by hanging.

November 2008 The Iraqi parliament approves a security pact with the United States; U.S. troops are to leave by the end of 2011.

January 2009 Iraq takes control of security in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki welcomes the move as Iraq's "day of sovereignty."

March 2009 President Barack Obama announces withdrawal of most U.S. troops by end of August 2010. Up to 50,000 troops will stay on into 2011 to advise Iraqi forces and protect U.S. interests, leaving by end of 2011.

Last week U.S. troops withdraw from towns and cities in Iraq, six years after the invasion, having formally handed over security duties to new Iraqi forces. Four U.S. troops die in one attack. More than 4,300 U.S. service members have died in the war.

Key events in Vietnam

January 1972 About 133,000 U.S. troops remain in South Vietnam, a mere third of the number from only two years before. The ground war is now South Vietnam's to fight.

October 1972 As talks on a final cease-fire continue, chief U.S. negotiator Henry Kissinger says "peace is at hand."

December 1972 Peace negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam collapse in Paris. President Richard Nixon orders days of maximum B-52 strikes on Hanoi, the so-called "Christmas bombings," which are widely criticized. North Vietnam returns to the bargaining table.

January 1973 All warring parties sign a cease-fire. (It's easy to forget, particularly with the knowledge of what came later, but Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho will win the Nobel Peace Prize.) Nixon says the agreement "brings peace with honor."

March 1973 The last American combat soldiers leave South Vietnam, though military advisers and Marines, who are protecting U.S. installations, remain. For the United States, the war is officially over. Of the more than 3 million Americans who have served in the war, almost 58,000 are dead.

January 1974 Still too weak to launch a full-scale offensive, the North Vietnamese have rebuilt their divisions in the South and have captured key areas.

April 1975 The North Vietnamese army makes stunning gains after five weeks of fighting. More than 8 million people are under its control. The South Vietnamese army has lost its best units, over a third of its men, and almost half its weapons.

April 29, 1975 U.S. Marines and Air Force heli- copters, flying from carriers offshore, begin a massive airlift. In 18 hours, more than 1,000 American civilians and almost 7,000 South Vietnamese refugees are flown out of Saigon.

April 30, 1975 At 4:03 a.m., two Marines are killed in a rocket attack at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport, the last Americans to die in the Vietnam War. At dawn, the last Marines of the force guarding the American Embassy lift off. Hours later, looters ransack the embassy, and North Vietnamese tanks roll into Saigon. The war is over.

Compiled by Times news researcher Caryn Baird.

Sources: U.S. Army Center for Military History, New York Times, BBC, Reuters, PBS

The longest wars and their endings 07/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 4:31am]
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