Nearly nine years after then-President George W. Bush went on television the night of March 19, 2003 to announce the beginning of the war in Iraq, it is finally over.
While the war started with explosions, it ended with little fanfare.
Leon Panetta, the U.S. secretary of defense, provided the benediction on Thursday. “You will leave with great pride — lasting pride,” he said at a 45-minute ceremony at the Baghdad airport, “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history.” An American flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up, and the war was “officially” concluded.
In the nearly 105 months that U.S. troops were in Iraq, there were 4,487 U.S. deaths and nearly 32,000 military personnel who were wounded by hostile forces. Nearly 2,100 civilian employees of U.S. government contractors were killed. The death toll for Iraqis was considerably higher, estimated at almost 104,000. The price tag for the American military operations topped $800 billion last month.
The war started with strong support here in the States, sold to the public as a battle against terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, along with widely held suspicion that dictator Saddam Hussein was sitting on top of a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction that could — and likely would — fall into the hands of terrorists.
Dismantling the Hussein war machine and his government was achieved quickly and efficiently. The Bush administration, however, badly misjudged what the post-regime landscape would look like. The thought was that the seeds of democracy would take to the soil and grow quickly, creating a beacon of freedom in an area of the world where freedom is an unfamiliar concept.
The Iraqis who have risked their lives to participate in the country’s first elections are evidence that the freedom of democracy is important to many in the country, but it will need a great deal of nurturing to take firm root in the arid soil.
As U.S. troops depart, there is a large question left behind in a nation with a future that is uncertain. The questions are big. Has democracy taken hold? Is the Iraqi government capable of surviving and governing? Will the still common violence continue? Can the country avoid a calamitous fall into a civil war?
They are questions that likely will not be answered definitively for quite some time.
In the meantime, President Obama, who met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week, said the U.S. is committed to working with Iraq as a sovereign nation.
It’ll be interesting to see how that goes, given America’s unpopularity with many Iraqis. It’s also interesting to note that no senior Iraqi government officials participated in Thursday’s closing ceremony. Whether that is foreshadowing is anyone’s guess.