Nearly nine years after it began, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of the Iraq War. Panetta declared the war's end on December 15, 2011, in ceremonies in Baghdad, Iraq.
At President George W. Bush's order, American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, in part to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and, ostensibly, to dismantle an Iraqi program to develop "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). American troops quickly took Baghdad and captured Hussein within months. A new Iraqi government executed him for war crimes in December 2006.
U.S. and coalition troops, however, never found WMD, a fact that quickly turned many Americans against the war and Bush.
"There is no question that the United States was divided going into . . . [the] war," Panetta said. "But I think the United States is united coming out . . . . We all recognize the tremendous price that has been paid in lives, in blood. And yet I think we also recognize that those lives were not lost in vain."
At their peak deployment, U.S. troops numbered 170,000; that was after Bush announced a "surge" in 2007 which, coupled with a change in strategy, countered ongoing civil violence between the Shia Muslim majority and Sunni Muslims. Hussein's ruling Ba'ath party (a civil, not religious, entity) had held the warring factions in check while favoring the Sunni minority.
In casualties, the war cost 4,484 American lives, with more than 32,000 Americans wounded. U.S. allies suffered 318 troops killed in the war. Some 104,000 Iraqis died in the war.
The war cost an estimated $700 billion.
Obama Marks Close Of War
U.S. President Barack Obama, who promised during his 2008 campaign to end the Iraq War, celebrated the war's end by visiting both American troops and with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, December 14, that marked the end of the war, Obama told troops -- many of whom served tours in Iraq -- that , "It's harder to end a war than begin one."
Obama continued, "Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq -- all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -- all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We're building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.
In January 2009, the U.S. and Iraq signed the Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation (SFA). Obama and al-Maliki reaffirmed the SFA, which Obama explained would be "like the close relationship we have with other sovereign nations. Simply put, we are building a comprehensive partnership."
Obama acknowledged that U.S. will continue to equip and train Iraqi security forces, but it would not fight battles for them.
Al-Maliki agreed, saying Iraq is "reliant completely on its own security apparatus and internal security as a result of the expertise that it gained during the confrontations . . . . But it remains in need of cooperation with the United States of America in security issues and information and combating terrorism, and in the area of training and the area of equipping, which is needed by the Iraqi army."
What Next For U.S.-Iraqi Relations?
Obama and al-Maliki made it clear that the U.S. and Iraq are committed to a close relationship. Count on plenty of U.S. civil and business personnel to remain in Iraq even though the army is leaving. Keeping Iraqi oil flowing is crucial to both countries. In fact, many Bush detractors as early as 2003 said the conflict was a "resource war," pure and simple.
Neighboring Iran, of course, wants to maximize its influence over Iraq, and pessimists say the lack of American troops will give Iran the opportunity to move in. Tim Marshall, foreign affairs editor at Sky News, says that opportunity cuts both ways. By having its troops gone, and thus no longer convenient targets for Iranian retaliation, the U.S. has more latitude to challenge Iran, either militarily or diplomatically. That freedom comes as western nations fear increased Iranian nuclear production.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran -- which are always bad -- are even worse at this writing as Iranians were holding a downed American drone. Obama has asked for it back, with no response from Iran. Iran, also wants a pliable Iraqi government that will not impede its influence over Syria, which itself is experiencing internal turmoil.
Iraq must also maintain its domestic stability. Its relations -- both political and financial -- depend on avoiding a renewed civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. The American surge stopped it once, but, as al-Maliki suggested, his internal security forces need more training. Will insurgents see that as a new opportunity?
Any internal disruption might open the door for not only Iran, but for Kurds in northern Iraq who have long wanted more autonomy.
Obama was right. Ending a war is harder that starting one. And rebuilding a nation after a war is harder still.