As the United States prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell famously warned that "if you break it, you own it." In many ways, the U.S. did break Iraq, ousting Saddam Hussein's quarter-century regime without ensuring that a stable government would take its place. That ushered in a bloody, six-year occupation that cost the lives of more than 4,300 U.S. troops and nearly $700 billion. Americans will always bear responsibility for this misbegotten war of choice, but now, at last, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities marks the beginning of the country's return to its rightful owners - Iraqis.
It is a changed Iraq, but whether it will become a better country remains to be seen. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Kurds and Shiite Muslims, were slaughtered by Saddam's minority Sunni Muslim government. But the war that removed Saddam from power took tens of thousands more lives and displaced an estimated 4 million people from ethnically cleansed neighborhoods. Today, under the predominantly Shiite government of elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq still is riven by the violence of sectarian power struggles. Even in a relatively peaceful month, hundreds of Iraqis are killed in bombings and gun battles; on Tuesday, the first day without U.S. combat troops, a car bomb in the city of Kirkuk killed at least 33 people and wounded 90. The threat of civil war hovers on Iraq's heat-rippled horizon.
Although U.S. combat troops have been moving to bases for months, Iraqis sang and set off fireworks to celebrate an end to foreign tanks in their streets and uninvited soldiers in their homes. Some Americans will remain as trainers and advisers, but President Obama has committed to withdrawing all combat troops by 2011. This page opposed the invasion of Iraq, then supported a surge of U.S. troops to stabilize the country and allow our forces to leave. Now it is time to close this shameful chapter.
Iraq's future depends on a political reconciliation that six years of experience tells us can only be accomplished by Iraqis. The United States can encourage a diverse, democratic leadership, but it cannot mandate or impose such a government. The U.S. has a moral obligation to help professionalize the Iraqi military and build up the country's civilian institutions. But now it is up to Iraqis to decide whether they want to hold free and fair elections and to pass a law to share the country's oil wealth equitably among its communities. There is plenty of resentment and fear to fuel continued violence and revenge. Or, the once-repressed people of Iraq can opt for peaceful coexistence and stability. Although we broke it, they own it now.