The last combat troops are out and now 50,000, er, “advisors” remain. It’s not the end of the war, in other words, but as a not-so-grim milestone for a lot of guys who are no longer in harm’s way, it’s a moment worth celebrating. Rather than waste your time by blathering at you, let me give you some reading and viewing material. Watch the two clips below from NBC, which, to its credit, did a bang-up job in covering the occasion. And note well Col. Jack Jacobs’s reminiscence about being sent to Vietnam after combat had supposedly ended there too. The fighting isn’t over yet; the question is who’ll be doing it from now on. And the NYT has an answer sure to please liberals of all stripes: “Mercenaries.”

To protect the civilians in a country that is still home to insurgents with Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias, the State Department is planning to more than double its private security guards, up to about 7,000, according to administration officials who disclosed new details of the plan. Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to come to the aid of civilians in distress, the officials said…

The department’s plans to rely on 6,000 to 7,000 security contractors, who are also expected to form “quick reaction forces” to rescue civilians in trouble, is a sensitive issue, given Iraqi fury about shootings of civilians by American private guards in recent years. Administration officials said that security contractors would have no special immunity and would be required to register with the Iraqi government. In addition, one of the State Department’s regional security officers, agents who oversee security at diplomatic outposts, will be required to approve and accompany every civilian convoy, providing additional oversight.

It’s the State Department’s show now, on an “unprecedented” scale for such a dangerous area. But can they run it with so few troops left in the country if the electoral stalemate between Maliki’s and Allawi’s factions blows up? (Ryan Crocker: “Our timetables are getting out ahead of Iraqi reality.”) That’s the story you want to read if you’re interested in the “what now?” angle. If you’re looking for something more human, i.e. troop reactions on finally getting to leave, MSNBC’s and WaPo’s pieces are the way to go. A quote from the latter:

“Operation Iraqi Freedom ends on your watch!” exclaimed Col. John Norris, the head of the brigade.

“Hooah!” the soldiers roared, using an Army battle cry…

“They’re leaving as heroes,” Norris said of his soldiers. “I want them to walk home with pride in their hearts.”…

“I hope this becomes a place where I can come back in 25 years,” said Hitchcock, the sergeant. “But other than that, I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad it’s ending. I’m glad we can stop sending people here.”

Now we wait for a decision on Iran.

Update: Whatever happens going forward, they’re not coming back. From CNN:

Two-thirds of Americans favor President Obama’s plan to remove combat troops from Iraq by the end of the month as opposition to the war in that country, as well as the one in Afghanistan, has climbed to new highs.

According to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey, Obama’s withdrawal plan wins support not because Americans think the U.S. has achieved its goals in Iraq – only three in 10 feel that way – but because a majority believe that the U.S. will never achieve its goals in that country no matter how long troops remain there.

That’s one reason why 69 percent oppose the war in Iraq – the highest amount of opposition in any CNN poll.

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