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The price of war

Christina Bergmann / ccApril 9, 2013

When Iraqi civilians and American soldiers toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad 10 years ago, no one had any idea how long the war would last, or how far-reaching its effects would be.

FILE - A U.S. Marine watches a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Firdaus Square in downtown Baghdad on April 9, 2003 file photo. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

"For the first time in the lives of many Iraqis, people are now free to express their opinion, they're free to organize politically as they wish," US Secretary of State John Kerry declared during his most recent visit to Iraq. "But it would be disingenuous," he added, "not to come here and say that there is a great deal of work yet to do."

Ten years after the fall of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, neither the situation in Iraq nor the relationship between Iraq and the United States are what the architects of the war imagined they would be back in 2003. America now has virtually no influence in Iraq, a country characterized by weak institutions, violence, human rights abuses, and the growing strength of the terrorist group al Qaeda. And critics say this is the fault of the United States government - both the previous administration and the current one.

Erin Evers from Human Rights Watch, for example, said America set a bad example when it comes to human rights policy. The humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the prison of Abu Ghraib was just one example.

"Before 2002/2003 we had a certain amount of credibility in the eyes of the world where human rights were concerned," said Evers. That, she explained, has changed, which has made it difficult for the US government to denounce human rights abuses in Iraq.

"We haven't seen any improvements under [President] Obama, either," Evers said. "In 2009 he decided not to hold any of the superior officers [in Abu Ghraib] to account. That was a big mistake."

US marines driving past the wreckage of a truck 40 kilometers south of Baghdad in April 2003.
10 years after the invasion, the security situation in Iraq is still precariousImage: picture-alliance/Fotoreport

No troop agreement

At present, 10,500 Americans are still on official missions in Iraq, including diplomatic personnel, and employees of private companies responsible for security, catering, and other administrative support. By the end of the year this number should have been reduced to 5,100, around one-fifth of whom are in the diplomatic service.

Soldiers could have assumed responsibility for ensuring security, but there have been no US soldiers in the country since the end of 2011. Negotiations to try to secure a troop agreement broke down over the question of immunity for American soldiers. Peter Feaver, professor of politics at Duke University in the US, blamed the Obama administration for this failure.

"[The Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki was prepared to guarantee their immunity," he said, "but the US attorney insisted it had to be confirmed by parliament." The Iraqis didn't think they would be able to push this through, so the negotiations ultimately failed.

The security situation in Iraq remains unstable. People still frequently die in terrorist attacks. The situation is especially tense at the moment, before elections in 18 of the 20 provinces, due to take place on April 20. The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has not  improved the situation of the people, Evers said.

"People say, yes, it was terrible under Saddam, but there was just one enemy, and if you steered well clear of politics it was possible to lead a halfway normal life," she said. Now, though, the various dangers are far more difficult to locate, and affect every aspect of their lives.

Americans are divided

Jim Phillips from the conservative Heritage Foundation said he see things differently.

"If the United States hadn't intervened 10 years ago and Saddam Hussein were still in power, it's extremely likely that many more Iraqis would have been killed in the last few years, and there might have been another war," he said.

The American people are just as divided as the experts in their assessments of the Iraq war. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Institute, 44 percent said it was wrong to go to war, while 41 percent said it was the right decision. And although 46 percent were of the view that the United States has, broadly speaking, achieved its goals, 43 percent said America more or less failed.

This mood is much the same as in 2008, when Obama won the presidential election, in part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He promised to end it, and he kept his word. The Republicans, meanwhile, had to come to terms with a defeat on what was traditionally their territory.

A US Army soldier raises fist while disembarking after returning from a year-long deployment in Iraq at Fort Benning, Georgia USA on 17 September 2010. About 2,000 soldiers from 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division are returning to the base over the next week. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER
Americans are divided in their opinions about the warImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"For decades, the Republicans always had the advantage when it came to matters of national security," Feaver said. "That was what got them votes. The Democrats gained points on domestic issues, such as healthcare."

As a result of the Iraq war, he added, there is now a "pretty intense debate" about the future of US foreign policy.

A high price

In an official statement to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, Obama paid tribute to the American victims in particular: nearly 4,500 soldiers who died during the mission in Iraq "to give the Iraqi people an opportunity to forge their own future after many years of hardship." Obama's statement continued: "We salute the courage and resolve of more than 1.5 million service members and civilians who during multiple tours wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in military service."

Americans have paid a high price for their invasion of Iraq. The latest study from Brown University puts the bill at more than $2.2 trillion. Furthermore, according to Phillips, "The United States' standing in the Arab world has suffered, and it has put a strain on its relationship with its European allies."

Washington has also grown cautious when it comes to military deployments, as can be seen from its reluctance to get involved in Syria. Political scientist Feaver said the jury is still out on whether or not the war was a success and that the final verdict will depend on how Iraq continues to develop. According to Phillips one thing, at least, is clear: "Winning the peace can be harder than winning the war."