It has been seven and a half years since Shock and Awe, the military campaign launched by US and UK forces to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. On Thursday, the last US combat unit crossed the border into Kuwait with far less fanfare than when those first coalition forces arrived in March 2003.
Just before dawn on Thursday morning the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division passed through the border posts at the Khabari Crossing to Kuwait. One soldier, Luke Dill, now a staff sergeant, had been part of the initial invasion back in 2003 when he was just 18 years old. Now aged 25, he told the Associated Press that he would proud for the rest of his life that "I came in on the initial push and now I'm leaving with the last of the combat units."
Yet the cost of the war has been enormous both financially and in terms of human lives. Over 4,400 US troops and 100,000 Iraqi civilians died during the conflict. And the country is by no means completely pacified, with sectarian and ethnic tensions still present and insurgents thought to be regaining strength.
US President Barack Obama had pledged to bring the troops home during his election campaign. And by Aug. 31 there will be just 50,000 US troops in the country, a contingent which is to take on a non-combat role. Yet doubts persist that Obama can fulfil his promise to have all the soldiers out of the country by the end of 2011.
Filling the Vacuum
While the violence that raged during the sectarian warfare of 2006-2007 has dropped significantly, there are still suicide bombings and attacks by Islamist insurgents. And five months after the elections in March, there is still no sight of a stable government. There are fears that sectarian violence, pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Arabs against Kurds, could return to fill the vacuum left by the Americans' departure.
According to a US-Iraq military pact from 2009, US troops must be out of the country by Jan. 1, 2012 yet last week Robert Gates, Obama's defense secretary, said that if a new Iraqi government is formed "and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we're obviously open to that discussion."
Those comments are not likely to have been welcomed by much of the Democratic party, which faces tough midterm elections in November. The US public is weary of almost a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Obama, who is up for re-election in 2012, will have to tread carefully.
Just last week Iraq's military commander, Lieutenant-General Babakir Zebari, caused consternation when he said his troops would not be in a position to protect the country until 2020 and that Washington should keep its forces in Iraq until then.
The German press on Friday takes a look at the costs and consequences of the war, both for Iraq and for the US.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The US could wage this war because after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the country was prepared for and even expected a large armed conflict. The Bush administration believed that a war would give the country back its authority as the global super power. But the US could only wage the war because Iraq was so weak and easy to defeat."
"The invasion of Iraq was wrong, unjust and damaging."
"For the Iraqi people one inscrutable, violent regime has been replaced by another. And the promises of freedom and democracy are worthless if they can't run a generator or help buy food."
"This practical disillusion is paired with the strategic defeats that America has suffered Because the invasion of Iraq broke international law, it reduced the meaning of that law for regulating how states deal with one another and damaged the UN's legitimacy, which is responsible for enforcing it."
"But the US has also weakened itself, where it was classically strong: as a hard power. America showed itself to be helpless during the worst years of the Iraq civil war and incapable of dealing with the complex insurgency. America still plays an important role in the Middle East but Iran's intractability and the polarization of the Sunni and Shiite worlds can be blamed on the Iraq War."
"America's claim to leadership is broken, its credibility severely damaged. The world has become more confusing and less safe. That is the legacy of this war."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The Iraqi Army is hardly in a position to provide security. The people will have to suffer much bloodshed in the future because the roots of terrorism have not been dealt with. Iraq is not able to deal with this by itself. It still doesn't have a functioning government after the elections in March. This double vacuum provides a fertile breeding ground for extremist groups."
"Washington has suffered terrible damage to its image in the Middle East. Iraq is not pacified and the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan because the US concentrated its military capacity in Iraq. Neighboring Iran is playing cat and mouse on the nuclear issue while peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is out of reach."
"The Iraqis have few grounds for optimism. The US is not only leaving behind a security gap, but also a political mess. The institutional structures are too weak and the army too inexperienced to prevent the country from descending into chaos and anarchy."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"President Barack Obama wants to make clear that he is sticking to one of his most important election promises and is bringing the troops back home. There is nothing much more to it. The war is far from over, never mind won."
"Around 50,000 American soldiers are staying in Iraq and contrary to what the government seems to be suggesting, they are fullfledged soldiers who will attack if need be."
"The Iraqi soldiers and police are not able to provide security everywhere in the country and the number of terrorist attacks has increased recently, while five months of attempts to form a government have failed so far."
"In such a volatile situation, the US cannot simply stubbornly stick to its withdrawal plans. Instead of fixating on a date, the US should set concrete goals. The Iraqi security forces need better training so that they will be able to cope one day without American help."
"Above all the Americans have to ensure that the Sunni minority is protected and well integrated in the political system. Otherwise there is a danger that radical Shiites -- possibly with support from Iran -- could take sole control."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"After years of being on the defensive and of strategic drift the US military proved itself capable of learning and turned around a war that hardly anyone thought was winnable. An amazing achievement."
"It is now up to the Iraqis to make this experiment in Arab democracy work. The political elite are not creating a good image at the moment due to their inability to reach a compromise. And one of the region's favorite sports is blaming the Americans for every ill in the Arab world. The Iraqis will not have this excuse if they waste this opportunity for freedom that the Americans have given them -- one that many Iraqis have paid for with their lives. Freedom means deciding one's own fate. And Iraq's politicians must finally accept this responsibility."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The Anglo-American war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation was a severe breach of international law. The collected justifications by the Bush and Blair governments for the war were lies from the beginning. A later attempted justification was the deposing of Saddam Hussein, a dictator who the West and the Soviet Union had backed in the late 70s and armed for his war against the Islamic revolutionary regime in neigboring Iran."
"What price was paid for the overthrow of Saddam? Over 100,000 civilians have died as a direct consequence of the war and other acts of violence since March 2003."
"In Iraq 4,419 US soldiers lost their lives and tens of thousands came home injured or with terrible trauma. The Pentagon budget since 2003 for the war and occupation was over $740 billion. Some experts put the actual cost for the US economy at $3 trillion. Yet despite these huge costs and victims, Iraq is neither pacified in the long-term nor politically stable."