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The Iraq Legacy: Tell It Like It Is

With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the administration, the military and the media are trying to put a positive spin on this grim chapter of U.S. history. It would certainly give some comfort to the grieving families of the over 4,400 soldiers killed in Iraq if their sacrifices had left Iraq a better place or made America safer. But the bitter truth is that the U.S. intervention has been an utter disaster for both Iraq and the United States.

First let's acknowledge that we should have never attacked Iraq to begin with. Iraq had no connection with our 9/11 attackers, had no weapons of mass destruction and represented no threat to the United States. We were pushed into this war on the basis of lies and no one--not George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld-has been held accountable. The "think tanks," journalists and pundits who perpetuated the lies have not been fired. Most of them can be found today cheerleading for the war in Afghanistan.

It's true that Iraqis suffered under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein but his overthrow did not lead to a better life for Iraqis. "I am not a political person, but I know that under Saddam Hussein, we had electricity, clean drinking water, a healthcare system that was the envy of the Arab world and free education through college," Iraqi pharmacist Dr. Entisar Al-Arabi told me. "I have five children and every time I had a baby, I was entitled to a year of paid maternity leave. I owned a pharmacy and I could close up shop as late as I chose because the streets were safe. Today there is no security and Iraqis have terrible shortages of everything--electricity, food, water, medicines, even gasoline. Most of the educated people have fled the country, and those who remain look back longingly to the days of Saddam Hussein."

Dr. Al-Arabi has joined the ranks of the nearly four million Iraqi refugees, many of whom are now living in increasingly desperate circumstances in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and around the world. Undocumented, most are not allowed to work and are forced to take extremely low paying, illegal jobs or rely on the UN and charities to survive. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported a disturbing spike in the sex trafficking of Iraqi women.

The Iraq war has left a terrible toll on our troops. Over 4,400 have been killed and tens of thousands severely injured. More than one in four U.S. troops have come home from the Iraq war with health problems that require medical or mental health treatment. "PTSD rates have skyrocketed and in 2009, a record number of 245 soldiers committed suicide," said Geoff Millard, chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "If vets coming home from Iraq don't get treated, we will see a rise in homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence."

It has also drained our treasury and contributed to the present financial crisis. As of August 2010, U.S. taxpayers have spent over $750 billion on the Iraq war. Counting the cost of lifetime care for wounded vets and the interest payments on the money we borrowed to pay for this war, the real cost will be in the trillions. This money could have been used to invest in clean, green jobs, or to rebuild our nation's schools, healthcare and infrastructure-ensuring real security for Americans.

In addition to harming our troops and economy, the war has deeply tarnished our reputation. The US policy of torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, violent and deadly raids on civilian homes, gunning down innocent civilians in the streets and absence of habeas corpus has fueled the fires of hatred and extremism toward Americans. The very presence of our troops in Iraq and other Muslim nations has become a recruiting tool.

And let's not forget that our presence in Iraq is far from over. There will still be 50,000 troops left behind, some 75,000 private contractors, five huge "enduring bases" and an embassy the size of Vatican City. As Major General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman in Iraq, told the New York Times: "In practical terms, nothing will change".

So let us mark this moment with a deep sense of shame for the suffering we have brought to Iraqis and American military families, and a deep sense of shame that our democracy has been unable to hold accountable those responsible for this debacle.

The lessons of this disastrous intervention should serve as an impetus for Congress and the administration to end the quagmire in Afghanistan. It's time to end these unwinnable, unjustifiable wars and bring our war dollars home to tackle the most strategic task for our national security, i.e. rebuilding America.

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