The war in Iraq was often a bitterly partisan contest at home, with the Republicans who started the war pitted against the Democrats who ultimately ended it.
As the dust begins to settle, both sides remain divided on what was accomplished and what remains to be done.
Bob Finnegan, chairman of the Richmond County Republican Committee, fears that withdrawing troops too early will lead to another civil war in Iraq.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into this and we’ve lost a lot of good men and women,” Finnegan said. “I would hate to leave sooner than we really need to.”
But Lowell Greenbaum, chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party, said that’s the attitude of the same people who claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“All in all, it was a catastrophe in the history of this country,” Greenbaum said.
President George W. Bush first declared “war on terror” in an address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, just days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The speech was also an introduction to terms that would become common in our lexicon for the balance of the decade: al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Islamic extremism.
Over the next two years, United Nations weapons inspectors were sent to Iraq in search for evidence that the country was storing and developing weapons of mass destruction. Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector, told the UN in 2003 that there was evidence Iraq had fufilled its obligations and destroyed many weapons, but there were still many unanswered questions about the quantities that might remain.
On March 17, 2003, Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay a 48-hour period to leave the country or face the consequences. Bombing in Baghdad commenced when that period expired. In a national address that night, Bush said the purpose of invading Iraq was “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”
Finnegan acknowledges that there were questions about the military intelligence used as a basis for the invasion. “Only history will tell us whether it was the proper thing to do,” he said.
Greenbaum said the reasons for entering the country were never clear. “It was a false premise from the beginning,” he said.
The vacuum of power left with the fall of Saddam Hussein was filled with warring factions of Shia and Sunni Muslim groups, who began targeting each other and American troops in 2004. That year, photos of Iraq prisoners tortured and abused at the Abu Ghraib military prison were released. A joint attack by U.S. and Iraqi forces on insurgents in Fallujah was approved by the new interim government.
The year 2005 began with the first democratic elections in Iraq in 50 years. The jubilation was quickly tempered by escalating violence, including a suicide bombing at Hilla that killed 122 and wounds 177. At the end of the year, Bush admitted the war was launched using faulty intelligence, but defended the decision to end Hussein’s regimen.
Fighting seemed to hit a crescendo in 2006, with Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee on Aug. 3 that “sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.” After his capture and trial, Hussein is hanged for his crimes at the end of the year.
An injection of 21,500 more troops into Iraq began the year of the “surge” in 2007. In May, Bush vetoed legislation from Congress that would impose an Oct. 1 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops. A new spending bill for the war was approved, but not before 11 Republicans warned Bush that Iraq was threatening the GOP’s future. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking for the Democrats, declared: “The President wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him.”
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 took him to Iraq, where he met with U.S. military officials and Iraqi political leaders. He later canceled a visit with wounded American troops at Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center because, he said, it could be perceived as a political move. Republicans claimed he canceled because he couldn’t bring the media with him.
Iraqis celebrated in the streets as American troops began withdrawing from Iraq in mid-2009. Questions surfaced about the Iraqis’ ability to manage security after a wave of violence in early August kills 157 people.
The year 2010 is marked by Hussein’s cousin “Chemical Ali” execution and the first elections since 2005.
The war in Iraq officially ended Dec. 15, 2011, with the loss of 4,487 American lives and more than 32,226 wounded in action as of early December, 2011, according to the Pentagon.
Greenbaum said Obama ended the war appropriately in a quiet fashion, with no “Mission Accomplished” speeches or “beating of the breast.”
“He ended one of the longest wars we’ve been involved in,” he said. “Our accomplishment is certainly not clear.”
Finnegan sees it differently.
“They’re a free country now,” he said. “They’ve had free elections, they’re rebuilding. (The Iraqis) had done a wonderful job of stepping up.”