Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict here Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives is yet unanswered.
Though many of the speeches painted a picture of victory — for both the troops and the Iraqi people now set on a path for democracy — the gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still-stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
Stark reminders of the fragile and often violent nature of the situation in Iraq engulfed the 45-minute ceremony. It was tucked into a fortified corner of the airport, ringed with concrete blast walls. And on the chairs were tags that listed not only the name of the VIP assigned to the seat, but the bunker they should move to in case of an attack.
The speeches touched on the success of the mission as well as its losses: Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis killed. An additional 32,000 American and tens of thousands Iraqis wounded. And $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury.
On the other side of the ledger, an Iraq free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, inching forward toward democracy and vowing to be a good neighbor in the region.
“To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the roughly 200 troops and others in attendance. “Those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the Iraqi people now have an unprecedented opportunity to live in a relatively peaceful environment, but he also acknowledged it will be a challenging time. And he urged Iraqi leaders to make good choices based on what is best for their people.
“Violence and prosperity cannot co-exist,” said Austin, who eight years, eight months and 26 days ago gave the order for U.S. troops to storm across the border into Iraq. And on Thursday, he gave the order to retire the flag of U.S. Forces-Iraq.
In a conference call Thursday, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, said, “We are celebrating the end of war in Iraq, but at the same time honoring the nearly 4,500 who made the ultimate sacrifice and the more than 32,000 who were wounded in the war.”
The U.S. spent more than $1 trillion on the Iraq war. Now those resources and the military intelligence and special operations forces can be directed toward the war on terrorism, Ryan said.
The country has a huge responsibility to take care of those wounded during the war by making sure the resources are available for the treatment they deserve and have earned, Ryan said.
The congressman also said he hopes the country and its leaders learned how much more cautious they need to be before starting a war, and how hard it is to end one.
“War is not something you start on a whim,” he said.