President Barack Obama marked the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion on Tuesday by paying tribute to the sacrifice of US troops, but steered clear of the debate over the war’s aftermath.
In a muted statement, issued on the eve of a visit to a Middle East much changed since his predecessor George W. Bush unleashed the 2003 war, Obama promised to support wounded American veterans of the conflict.
“As we mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, Michelle and I join our fellow Americans in paying tribute to all who served and sacrificed in one of our nation’s longest wars,” Obama said.
The last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, eight years after they had deposed Saddam Hussein. They left behind an elected Iraqi government, but a population scarred by what is a still ongoing period of violence.
Around 4,500 US troops died in the conflict while at least 112,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, some caught up in fighting and others murdered by sectarian death squads or killed in bomb attacks.
“We salute the courage and resolve of more than 1.5 million service members and civilians who during multiple tours wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in military service,” Obama said.
“We honor the memory of the nearly 4,500 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to give the Iraqi people an opportunity to forge their own future after many years of hardship,” he added.
The statement did not touch on the Bush administration’s decision to start the war, which Obama had opposed at the time, but instead underlined the grim aftermath faced by US veterans and the families of the dead and wounded.
“We must ensure that the more than 30,000 Americans wounded in Iraq receive the care and benefits they deserve and that we continue to improve treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Obama said.
White House aides meanwhile shied away from the question of whether Iraq was better off, 10 years after the United States launched an invasion on the grounds of eradicating weapons of mass destruction which were never found.
“I think historians have to make the judgment,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“I think that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein was a welcome development for the world and for Iraq, but again, the president opposed the policy, as candidate, of invading Iraq and as a candidate for president as well.”
Carneys said Obama had “made a commitment as a candidate to end that war in a manner more responsible than the manner in which we entered it, and he has fulfilled that promise.”
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged the huge human toll the conflict had taken on the Iraqi people.
“Our reflections include the Iraqi people, the Iraqi soldiers and police officers who died alongside our own, the men and women who were caught in the crossfire, and those who still struggle today to secure and govern their nation,” Hagel said.
Meanwhile, one of architects of the conflict, Bush administration defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, caused a storm on Twitter by saying the anniversary marked the start of the “long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis.
“All who played a role in history deserve our respect & appreciation,” Rumsfeld wrote, before being inundated with scathing responses.
“10 years ago you began the shameful waste of thousands of American lives, 100s of thousands of Iraqis and trillions of dollars,” @WinProgressive replied.
Meanwhile a handful of demonstrators representing American veterans gathered outside the White House to protest against inadequate health care.
“The war is not over for veterans and their families who are dealing with its aftermath as a result of the loss of loved ones, or in the form of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other war wounds both visible and invisible,” said Maggie Martin of Iraq Veterans Against the War.