0319iraqaudU.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson describes the progress he observed during a recent trip to Iraq.
On March 19, 2003, U.S. forces stormed into Iraq on a mission to topple the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein.
Within a few weeks, they had accomplished that goal.
It almost seemed too easy.
No one dreamed that five years later, nearly 4,000 U.S. troops would have died, and a pair of noted economists would estimate that the cost of the war might ultimately total about $3 trillion.
Five years on, the question on everyone’s mind is, How do we disentangle ourselves from Iraq without making the situation worse?
"Those who argue for a quick withdrawal say the country is either going to hold together or it’s not, and it doesn’t matter how long we stay," said John Duffield, a professor of political science at Georgia State University.
"I tend to take the pessimistic view that the enmity between religious groups has been simmering for so long that the prospect of a stable political transition is relatively small."
Some people believe the apparent success of the "surge" is proof that Iraq needs the U.S. military there to keep things under control.
In January 2007, President Bush ordered that more than 20,000 troops be sent to Iraq, in addition to the 140,000 already stationed there. Those reinforcements were assigned to areas of the country that had experienced high rates of violence. By the end of the year, bombings and killings had plummeted to their lowest level since the war began.
Bill Chittick, emeritus professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, said the improvement is real, but may be misleading.
"The drop in casualties and incidence of violence is less a matter of (ethnic and religious) groups coming together than it is having enough troops there to separate them," he said.
On the other hand, Chittick said the presence of Americans in Iraq seems to be drawing terrorists there from adjacent countries.
"I don’t see them really having a base of operations in Iraq, except as part of a war of attrition against us," he said. "But if we leave and the terrorists follow us, the (ethnic) factions will then go at each other. And we helped create some of that instability."
Chittick’s interest in Iraq is more than academic. He has a son who’s in the military and has served two tours there.
"I feel very fortunate that he’s fine," Chittick said.
Yet even though he knows how hard the soldiers are working to set things right, he’s not sure how much of an impact they can have in a region that has a long history of conflict.
"It’s just a very unsettled area," Chittick said. "In the long term, I don’t know that our presence really solves anything."
Kelly Jarrard of Gainesville is more optimistic. Her husband, Maj. Kevin Jarrard, has been in Haditha for the past six months, serving his second tour in Iraq as a member of the Marine Corps Reserves.
His first deployment was in March 2003, at the time of the invasion.
"I know he’s said there’s been a big difference between now and the first time he was there," Kelly Jarrard said.
She believes there is less suspicion and hostility among Iraqis now. They’re more willing to believe that American soldiers are there to help, not to hurt them.
Kevin Jarrard recently garnered publicity for his efforts to bring an ailing 2-year-old girl to the U.S. for a life-saving heart operation. He accompanied the parents back to Haditha last week as they flew home with their now-healthy daughter.
"My husband and the family consider each other friends, and I think it impacts not just that family, but the whole town," Kathy Jarrard said.
The war has had an impact on her own family as well. The Jarrards’ four children have had to get along without their dad for extended periods. And though he’s expected to come home within a couple months, there’s a possibility he could be deployed again.
"He plans to stay in the reserves. He enjoys it very much," said Kathy Jarrard. "He knows how we as a family feel about it. We support his decision. I think if you ask any of (the troops), it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make."
Emilio Salinas, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who lives in Flowery Branch, said he disagrees with people who contend that if you’re not in favor of the Iraq war, you’re not supporting the troops.
"I am very, very pro-military," he said. "I just think this was the wrong war at the wrong time. It had more to do with someone’s agenda than with stopping terrorism."
Salinas doesn’t think Iraq’s leaders will be able to maintain a functioning government after U.S. forces leave the country.
"You can’t make someone want democracy. They have to want it from within, and these folks don’t," he said.
Salinas believes the best solution is political, not military.
"Divide the country into three regions," he said, noting that the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis seem to prefer this to having a unified government.
Duffield said if there is a national government controlled by one of the ethnic groups, it could generate resentment among the other two factions.
"Potentially we’re setting the stage for a renewed civil war by working with Sunnis and helping to empower them," he said.
Stirring up more ill feelings between the groups could lead to the collapse of the already precarious new government, Duffield said.
"I think the Iraqi army (being trained by the U.S.) is making progress, but the development of the domestic police force is much further behind," he said. "The prospects of economic recovery don’t look good either."
But U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) said things are going better in Iraq than most people realize. He knows because he’s visited the country several times, most recently in January.
"The situation in Iraq is the best it’s been," he said. "You’ve got relative calm in Baghdad, though it’s still a dangerous place. Refugees are coming back from Jordan and Syria. Businesses are reopening."
Isakson said that by early summer, the military will start a gradual withdrawal of troops, reducing the total from about 160,000 currently to the pre-surge level of 140,000.
He doesn’t think violence will escalate again, pointing out that when British and Australian coalition forces withdrew some of their troops last year, Iraqi soldiers were able to take over their jobs.
When Isakson visited Baghdad in January, the area was safe enough that for the first time he was able to travel by car outside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. He could even walk through a street market and talk with Iraqis, both Shiite and Sunni.
But he said no one can predict when further troop reductions might be possible.
"You have to let circumstances on the ground dictate the wisdom and timing of withdrawals," he said. "(But) the opportunity is there to see an ultimate success in Iraq, which is an independent, free democracy. Indications are that the government will work, and will be able to defend itself militarily."