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Trudy Rubin: Casualties of Iraq war are numerous

5:33 PM, Mar. 22, 2013  |  Comments

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, it's clear who lost the war that followed. But it may be years before we know if anyone won.

Topping the loser's columns, of course, is Saddam Hussein, with the world better for it. Yet, despite his demise, America is also the loser. The goals the Bush administration set for the war were never achievable, and the costs were greater than most Americans realize, not just in lives and money squandered but in reputation lost.

Iraqis were freed from Hussein, but a botched American occupation led to a civil war that killed more than 100,000 civilians and forced millions to flee the country. Despite elections, Iraq still has a government that arrests and tortures political opponents and runs a secret police state.

VIDEO: MARINE DISPLAYS IRAQ DIARIES

Indeed, in the near term, the biggest winner from the war looks to be Iran, whose influence on Iraq has grown while America's has shrunk.

A decade later, it's painful to recall the certainty of many top U.S. occupation officials that they could remake the country. This attitude was most prevalent among those with no Mideast experience, who would accuse anyone who tried to contradict them of "ignoring the good news."

More than 4,000 American lives were lost, and countless billions of dollars wasted because U.S. officials misread Iraq and mismanaged the war's aftermath. An occupation that embraced willful blindness was bound to fail.

Ditto for an invasion based on illusions. The Iraq war was justified by White House claims that Hussein was secretly building nukes and was in cahoots with al-Qaeda. The Bush team ignored plentiful prewar evidence that neither of these claims was true.

President George W. Bush and several senior officials believed Hussein's fall would trigger the rise of friendly democracies in Iraq and throughout the region. "The Bush Doctrine could help undo dictatorships not only in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but also in ... China and Saudi Arabia," wrote William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, the favored journal of Bush administration officials. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the intellectual architect of the war, told me in a November 2002 interview that postwar Iraq would resemble post-World War II France.

Of course, the real Iraq proved wholly different from White House expectations. In 2007, Bush's troop "surge" calmed the sectarian slaughter and prevented a humiliating U.S. defeat. But far from providing a model for regional change, Iraq became the nightmare example that Arab democrats sought to avoid.

Contrary to White House dreams, the war transformed Iran into the major power broker in Baghdad; Iraq's newly empowered Shiite leaders depend on co-religionists in Tehran for political support against their Sunni minority and neighboring Sunni states.

As for Iraqis, the cost of the war was brutal. I think often of Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi journalist colleague killed by a U.S. soldier who mistook him for the enemy. Or Salam Hamrani, who had to flee the country because his life was threatened for helping U.S. troops finger Shiite militiamen who were killing his Sunni neighbors. Or Dr. Riyadh Adhadh, who ran and won in provincial elections but spent eight months in jail because the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is suspicious of Sunnis. These cases are typical of thousands.

Hundreds of Iraqis remain under death threat because they worked for the U.S. military, contractors, or civilian officials and still haven't received promised U.S. visas. Tens of thousands of educated Iraqis, the cream of the middle class, including thousands of endangered Christians, have fled from persecution by newly empowered Islamists.

Joint U.S.-Iraqi programs that might have helped endangered Iraqi democrats expand their reach are faltering, as America tries to put the Iraq war behind it. The Obama administration blew the chance to leave a follow-on troop presence in Iraq that would have facilitated these programs and maintained some U.S. influence in Baghdad.

Yet Iraq still has the opportunity to move forward - largely because of oil.

A decade after the war, Iraq oil production is finally stable and expanding. The country is producing the largest amount in three decades, nearly 3.35 million barrels daily. The International Energy Agency predicts Iraqi production will double by 2020, setting up Iraq as a rival to the Saudis, perhaps lessening its dependence on Iran.

Oil, of course, can be a curse for a "petro-state" such as Iraq whose economy is almost totally dependent on oil revenue. That revenue is the perfect lubricant for dictators.

But this wealth at least gives Iraqis, a talented people whose educational attainment used to be high, the chance to rebuild their shattered state. Whether they can finally emerge from the culture of dictatorship remains uncertain.

There's no sign American companies will get a lion's share of Iraqi oil contracts - contrary to the widespread belief that Washington went to war for oil. But, by keeping global oil prices stable, an increased Iraqi oil flow will undercut the regime in Tehran, which depends on high oil prices. It will also help Baghdad offset Iranian pressures.

A small victory, but hardly recompense for American losses.

In Iraq, we destroyed our reputation for competence, and our global moral stature. Iraq also distracted U.S. attention from cementing the 2003 victory over the Afghan Taliban.

A decade after the invasion, we're still toting up the staggering costs of this war.

- Trudy Rubin: trubin@phillynews.com

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