The U.S. military may be leaving Iraq, but the U.S. government is not. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the largest in the world, and thousands of private contractors will fill the role of the departing U.S. troops. We begin our coverage of the U.S. withdrawal with Sami Rasouli, the founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, who joins us from the city of Najaf. Invoking George W. Bush’s infamous declaration after the fall of Baghdad, Rasouli says, "In terms of destroying Iraq, it’s really 'mission accomplished.'" [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show in Iraq. On Thursday, the United States military announced a formal end to almost nine years of war in Iraq. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a modest flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad that was witnessed by few Iraqis due to security concerns. The U.S. media was invited to attend the ceremony, but the Iraqi media was shut out.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: After a great deal of blood has been spilled by both Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could finally govern and secure itself has become real. The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt, and they are capable of responding to threats. Violence levels are down. Al-Qaeda has been weakened. The rule of law has been strengthened. Iraq will be tested in the days ahead, by terrorism, by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself.
JUAN GONZALEZ: On Wednesday night, President Obama spoke at a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Fort Bragg, we’re here to mark a historic moment in the life of our country and our military. For nearly nine years, our nation has been at war in Iraq. And you, the incredible men and women of Fort Bragg, have been there every step of the way, serving with honor, sacrificing greatly, from the first waves of the invasion to some of the last troops to come home. So as your commander-in-chief and on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home.
AMY GOODMAN: During the same address, President Obama told soldiers, quote, "Because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny. That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right," President Obama said.
Over the past nine years, the U.S. invasion has left a bloody toll on Iraqi civilians and foreign troops. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died. Another 32,000 were wounded. An accurate toll of Iraqis killed may never be known. According to Iraq Body Count, at least 104,000 Iraqi civilians have died. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis had already been killed. Other studies put the death toll over a million. Hundreds of thousands of more Iraqis died due to the crippling sanctions in the years between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S. invasion. After 20 years of war and sanctions, Iraq’s infrastructure has been devastated.
On the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis have expressed criticism of the role the U.S. played in their country. This is an Iraqi citizen named Hussein Al Najjar.
HUSSEIN AL NAJJAR: [translated] Obama’s speech hailed the U.S. invasion, but we were against the American invasion. In my opinion, what has happened and is still happening in Iraq, including terrorist acts and devastation, were the outcome of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The situation in Iraq is still unstable because of the U.S. presence, in my opinion. The U.S. forces also helped terrorism to enter Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: While the U.S. military is largely leaving Iraq, the United States is not. The U.S. will operate the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad. The diplomatic effort will be run by the State Department, staffed with thousands of private contractors. It’s estimated more than 16,000 contractors will remain in Iraq.
To discuss the U.S. withdrawal further, we will spend the hour talking about Iraq. We will begin, though, with Sami Rasouli. Sami Rasouli began Muslim Peacemaker Team in Iraq. He’s joining us from the Iraqi city of Najaf. He moved back to Iraq in 2004 after living in the United States for nearly 30 years. He was an institution in the Twin Cities, where he was a well-known restaurateur.
Sami Rasouli, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Talk about the last nine years since the United States invaded. What has happened to and come of your country?
SAMI RASOULI: Thank you, Amy, and I really appreciate you having me on your show. I miss seeing it, but checking out the show once a while through the internet.
Well, the war, as President Obama said, is over. But we understood from George Bush back on May 1st, 2003, that major combat operation was over and supposedly mission was accomplished. In terms of destroying Iraq, it’s really "mission accomplished," as I witnessed through the last, let’s say, eight years, since 2004, first time when I came from the U.S. visiting my family. I met you. That was end of 2003.
But to see what we’ve gotten from this war, after the violence went down dramatically and the dust of war has been settled, now we see the damage clearly everywhere in Iraq, where the electricity high—still the basic public services is almost not there, in terms of the electricity, never has been advanced by the two terms of the Iraqi government or even with the—no intervention by the U.S. efforts to improve these needed public services for an average Iraqi. The healthcare system has been really destroyed. As you mentioned, the infrastructure is a total catastrophe that began not only since 2003, and actually, it’s more than 20 years since 1991.
You know, we should not forget the effect of the sanction before the invasion. The Iraqi people have suffered a lot, and many of them have died. And now, death is not stoppable, because of many unknown diseases that’s caused by poisons that the U.S. military has been—has used against major cities in Iraq. In 2001 and, as well, in 2003, tons—hundred tons of depleted uranium has been—have been thrown on the city of Fallujah, where women today cannot get pregnant due to the deformation of their newborn babies. This is happening here in Najaf, as well. When the U.S. fought the resistance, so-called, the insurgents led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
But to go across the country today and hear the news locally, the Iraqi people are really jubilant and happy that the U.S., if this is true, eventually is pulling out its troops. But an average Iraqi is wondering, Amy—the current president of the U.S., Obama, when he ran for an office back in 2008, he was calling this war "the wrong war," and everybody was expecting, when he’d be an office, he will pull the troops from Iraq immediately. But what’s happened, 30,000 troops only were pulled out in 2009 and sent to Afghanistan. But the reality, after he assumed the office, up today—up today, he maintained the status quo what the previous president, George Bush, began with. So, it looks like we expected that Obama, when he tried to deliver his wide smile, but never deliver it, and now, because he’s running for the 2012 presidency, he is calling it—not calling it, but with the withdrawal of the troops, hopefully all the troops by the end of 2011, so he approved that war was wrong.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sami Rasouli, I’d like to ask you—you returned back at the—to your country at the height of the war, when the dislocation and the mayhem was the worst throughout the war. Can you tell us how—what has happened to the refugee population, the thousands that were forced to flee the country during that period of the most sectarian violence and, of course, of the highest levels of violence with the United States? Have many people returned?
SAMI RASOULI: Well, the numbers of the refugees, there’s no certain, scientific statistically given. We talk about how many Iraqis died through the war. We don’t have numbers. But there is an estimate about five million people have been displaced: within the country, about two million, and out of the country, three million. And those mostly are the middle class, the cream of the crop, the professionals, the engineers, the doctors. Where the country can rely on and get developed and get rebuilt, they are not there, due to the displacement effort through the violent period between 2005, '06, ’07 and middle of 2008. The violence is still on, but those who got displaced internally, they were kept in camps. Then they got integrated within their families that they're related to, like their relatives. For example, the Shiites who were working as farmers in the areas surrounding Baghdad and to the west were—Ramadi province, Al Anbar province—those never got back to their work, to their homes, but they stayed in the southern provinces. Same thing to those who were in the south, but they pulled to the northern [inaudible] they come from originally, and they kept there. But those who are outside the country, in Syria, in a big number, and Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and there are many got distributed in the rich countries, like the U.S. — so-called the rich countries, now not anymore, but Australia, Canada and European countries, Scandinavian—
AMY GOODMAN: Sami? Sami, we’re—
SAMI RASOULI: They got—Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a little trouble understanding you. But finally, you, yourself, were injured. What happened?
SAMI RASOULI: Well, last year I was going to cover some area in Damascus to see what happened there, as the people who were living there before came back. But on my way, I got in a car accident, and I lost my left hip. Right away, I was moved to an emergency department in the hospital in Najaf by an ambulance, and the two doctors were operated on me, but they did the operation like primitively. They screwed the ball of my femur to the cap, and then I couldn’t—for months couldn’t stand up and walk, until I came back to the U.S. in Minneapolis, and I got my hip displaced—I mean, replaced by—totally, by an artificial one. But during the operation in Iraq, the doctors cut—two doctors cut up my sciatica nerve, and as result, I have right now drop foot, which is really causing me problems with walking as I used to.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Rasouli, I want to thank you—
SAMI RASOULI: So, this [inaudible] — yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, speaking to us from Najaf, moved there in 2004 after living here for more than 30 years, particularly in the Twin Cities, known very well in Minneapolis. When we come back, we’re going to be speaking with Brown University professor Catherine Lutz about the costs of the war and then Yanar Mohammed to talk about the effects of war on women in Iraq. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.