BAGHDAD—After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday, but said America can be proud of finishing "a very strong second."

Casey (left) and Lt. Gen. John Abizaid shake hands with an enlisted soldier after the war.

"We went out there, gave it our all, and fought a really good fight," said Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "America's got nothing to be ashamed of. We outperformed Great Britain, Poland, and a lot of the other top-notch nations, but Iraq just wouldn't stay down for the count. It may have come down to them simply wanting it more."

American tanks and infantry surged out to an impressive early lead in March 2003, scoring major points by capturing Baghdad early in the faceoff. The stage seemed set for a second American victory in as many clashes with Iraq, with commentators and generals alike declaring the contest all but decided with the fall of Tikrit in April 2003.

"In spite of jumping out to an early lead and having the better-trained, better-equipped team, I'm afraid we still came up short in the end," Casey said. "Sometimes, the underdog just pulls one out on you. But there's no reason for the guys who were out in the field to feel any shame over this one. They played through pain and injury and never questioned the strategy, even when we started losing ground."

"The troops were great out there," Casey continued. "It's not their fault the guys with the clipboards just couldn't put this one away."

Casey said that, although the U.S. military did not win, it did set records for kills, yardage gained, palaces overrun, defensive stops, and military bases stolen.

"The Americans can be proud of the numbers," Casey said. "All things considered, there was some very impressive maneuvering out there. We kept the folks at home on the edge of their seats, that's for sure."

PFC Brian Walters was part of a squad defending Fallujah for the past three months.

"We're looking at an opponent who just keeps coming at you until the echo of the whistle," Walters said. "I gotta hand it to them, they weren't gonna roll over. We were just out there playing not to lose."

Former civil administrator of Iraq L. Paul Bremer said the U.S. troops performed admirably, adding that overconfidence may have been a factor.

"After that strong start, I really thought that we were going to take it home," Bremer said. "I'd say we can chalk this loss up to a combination of Iraq's home-field advantage and a poor second-half U.S. game plan."

U.S. offensive captain John Baptiste of the 656th Infantry said that his fellow troops "were solid to the end," adding that he was disappointed in U.S. leaders' decision to call the game so early.

"The chief should never come out at halftime and call it 'Mission Accomplished,'" Baptiste said. "You never say that until the clock runs out. My guys did their best, but we've gotta remember that everyone plays to the final gun."

Loyal fans of the U.S. are still coming to terms with the loss, a rarity for an organization that won undisputed world championships in the '10s and '40s, but has not always played its best on hostile ground in recent years.

Iraqi insurgents celebrate their victory in front of a burning Humvee.

"What kind of a defense was that in the final quarter of 2003?" said retired Air Force colonel Charles Carruthers, now a professor at the Army War College at West Point. "The field generals all thought they had Iraq on the ropes, but no one told the Iraqis, who just kept nickel-and-diming them to death. In the end, our guys were getting absolutely shelled out there. You can't blame the men for that. That's underestimating the opposition."

Added Carruthers: "You'd think they hadn't even scouted their opponent beforehand, let alone beaten them soundly the last time they squared off. Someone should lose his job over this."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to take questions from reporters, saying that "Monday-morning quarterbacking never solved anything."

"Injuries and a shallow bench were major factors," Rumsfeld said, speaking to angry team boosters in Washington. "We've lost about 75 guys every month for the past year."

"But remember that this was just one war," Rumsfeld added. "We'll get 'em next time."