US in Iraq: What's been left behind
After seven years of war, Iraqis are freer but feel embittered by the loss of life and halting progress in turning on the lights.
Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi, Iraq
In a palm grove village near Fallujah, a crude shell of a building stands empty. It is a school unfinished. Poorly mixed concrete has chipped away from the ceiling and crumbled along some support beams. The American military paid for the project but stopped it because of substandard work by an Iraqi contractor. Now the United States is looking for a new builder.Skip to next paragraph
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But wrapped up in these barren brick walls are the dreams of an Iraqi headmaster for his students, who are now crammed, four shifts a day, into another school. Until recently, any public embrace of the American presence in this part of western Iraq, including association with hundreds of US-funded rebuilding projects, brought the risk of being killed.
So when a colonel from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) rolled up for an inspection at the half-built school, 30 miles west of Baghdad, it was no small thing for the would-be headmaster to approach him. "I'm really concerned about this project," said Bassim, reaching out his hand atop a debris-cluttered stairwell. "When you arrived, I was so happy to see you."
He had heard rumors that the project was being handed to the Iraqi government. He had visited another 12-classroom school the Americans completed in Fallujah and wanted the same high-quality construction. Col. Jon Christensen took off his sunglasses and one combat glove, shook the headmaster's hand, and said: "We are of the same mind – we are committed to getting this done. We'll come and have tea when it's done."
After seven years of war, the story of these two schoolhouses in Fallujah is emblematic of the partial triumphs, severe challenges, and massive American effort across Iraq.
The US has already poured $736 billion into the country, where a mission to rout out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that didn't materialize turned into the largest nation-building effort since World War II, with $53 billion allocated by Congress to underwrite everything from education and sewer systems to office furniture and paint.
As US combat forces prepare to cut back from a high of 170,000 troops to just 50,000 by Sept. 1 – with full withdrawal slated for the end of 2011 – Americans, Iraqis, and the international community are assessing the impact of one of the longest and most expensive wars in US history.
To detractors, the war has been a colossal failure, sapping the US Treasury, killing countless Iraqis and Americans, and turning millions of residents across the Middle East against the US – all in a phantom search for WMD that left Iraq unstable and Iran transcendent in the region. To supporters, the war deposed a tyrant, established the foundation for a nascent democracy in the Middle East, and, with the help of the modern equivalent of a Marshall Plan, will help establish a stable and strategically important ally in the volatile region.