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ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - Thousands of people lined the streets of downtown St. Louis on Saturday cheering on marchers in a parade honoring veterans of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first major welcome for returned U.S. soldiers since the end of the Iraq War.
Crowds of parade-goers stretched a mile through the center of the city on a crisp winter's day, many waving American flags, with the city's Gateway Arch glistening in the background in an event reminiscent of parades following World War One and World War Two.
"I'm just loving it," said Staff Sergeant Chris Green, 35, who volunteered for the Missouri National Guard two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and was part of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"When I heard this was happening I was choked up to say the least," Green said. "With the president cutting back (on the military), for Missouri to pull this together despite everything is just outstanding, absolutely outstanding."
While the invasion of Iraq quickly toppled Saddam Hussein, the country descended into sectarian violence and an occupation that dragged on for nearly nine years before the last U.S. forces pulled out in December.
For President Barack Obama, the military pullout fulfilled an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict he had inherited from his predecessor that evolved into the most unpopular U.S. war since Vietnam.
There have been no major pomp-and-circumstance homecoming events for the returning veterans save for scattered small events since the last U.S. troops left Iraq, including a speech by Obama at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, thanking veterans for their service.
Some have been hesitant to hold parades while troops remain in Afghanistan.
Saturday's parade was organized through social media by a coalition of veteran groups, private citizens and local officials.
"We got an outpouring of volunteers who wanted to do something for all the vets," organizer Chris Kuban said.
St. Louis police did not provide a crowd estimate, but the streets appeared crowded with thousands of marchers and spectators.
Thousands participated in the parade itself, which had 93 floats, 500 motorcycles, veterans from the most recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the 1991 invasion of Iraq, and Vietnam, as well as family members and high school bands.
Along the parade route, the crowd clapped and cheered, standing eight or more deep in spots, shouting "Welcome home," "Thank you" and "We love you."
About 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, and the occupation was marred by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the killing of civilians by troops or private security contractors.
Thousands of Iraqi troops also died in the war as did thousands of Iraqi security forces in the chaotic years following the invasion, along with more than 100,000 civilians.
Many of the spectators on Saturday were Vietnam vets, including James Beaumont, 61, of St. Louis, who said he would have liked to have had a parade when he returned home.
"A parade would have been nice but right now I'm a Vietnam vet who needs a job," he said. "The VA ( U.S. Veterans Administration) is no good and I'm living with my damn uncle until I can get on Social Security."
Richard Pfeifer, 62, of Ballwin, Missouri, said that while not a veteran, he wanted to show his appreciation of the Iraq War vets. "I'm very proud of what we have accomplished and I know how hard it was for the Vietnam vets," he said.
Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Johnston