OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM COMES TO AN END…. It is not a “Mission Accomplished” moment, and it’d be an irresponsible exaggeration to suggest the war in Iraq is “over.”

But as the last American combat soldiers head home from Iraq — two weeks early — and Operation Iraqi Freedom comes to a formal end, there’s ample reason to be pleased with a milestone that, for a long while, seemed like it would never arrive.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which left Iraq this week, was the final U.S. combat brigade to be pulled out of the country, fulfilling the Obama administration’s pledge to end the U.S. combat mission by the end of August. About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, mainly as a training force. […]

Shortly before midnight Saturday, a group of infantrymen boarded Stryker fighting vehicles, left an increasingly sparse base behind and began scanning the sides of a desolate highway for bombs. For many veterans, including some who made the same trip in the opposite direction years ago under fire, it was a fitting way to exit. […]

By the end of this month, the United States will have six brigades in Iraq, by far its smallest footprint since the 2003 invasion. Those that remain are conventional combat brigades reconfigured slightly and rebranded “advise and assist brigades.” The primary mission of those units and the roughly 4,500 U.S. special operations forces that will stay behind will be to train Iraqi troops. Under a bilateral agreement, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

There’s still, obviously, a precarious environment on the ground. Iraqi politicians are still struggling badly to form a government; deadly violence is not uncommon; and no one is quite sure what will unfold in the absence of U.S. combat brigades. With tens of thousands of troops, and many more private contractors, still in Iraq, anyone who thinks this is “over” is mistaken.

But it’s hard not to feel some satisfaction about today’s milestone anyway. As recently as March — just five months ago — there were more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, many of them serving multiple tours. This morning, there are 50,000, and none of them is serving in a combat capacity.

In, say, 2006, this point seemed all but unreachable.

“The really big picture that we have seen in Iraq over the last year and a half to two years is this: the number of violent incidents is significantly down, the competence of Iraqi security forces is significantly up, and politics has emerged as the basic way of doing business in Iraq,” said Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Biden. “If that trend continues, and I acknowledge it is an ‘if,’ that creates a much better context for dealing with the very significant and serious problems that remain in Iraq.”

Cheers to that.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.