WASHINGTON (AFP) — President Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal announcement Friday was likely to stoke a painful debate: With thousands of US dead, countless Iraqis killed, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, was the war worth it?
Vastly unpopular former president George W. Bush has said the invasion was the right decision, that opinion polls are fickle, and that history may vindicate him if Iraq emerges as a viable pro-Western democratic state.
But, for now, surveys show the US public has fiercely repudiated the war six years after it began, with 60 percent saying it was "not worth it," according to an ABC television poll released last week.
On the eve of the "shock and awe" airstrikes of March 19, 2003, public opinion was almost perfectly reversed, with two out of three Americans favoring Bush's war to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
But Bush's chief argument -- that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction -- proved untrue, and the US public began turning against the war as the ranks of the dead swelled with no clear road out of Iraq for US forces.
The conflict divided the country, but mass protests like those against the Vietnam War a generation ago have been sparse, though most experts say that is because the military draft that fueled anger then has been abolished.
Still, opposition to the war reached the doorstep of Bush's Texas ranch in August 2005 with Cindy Sheehan's month-long vigil in memory of her slain soldier son Casey at a time when the US death toll stood at just under 2,000.
At the time, a CBS television opinion poll found 45 percent of Americans believed the war was worth it, and 47 percent said it was not.
So far, the conflict has directly claimed the lives of 4,200 US troops -- including 176 from self-inflicted wounds -- while more than 31,000 have been wounded, according to US Defense Department figures.
In January, the US Army reported that suicides among active duty soldiers hit a record high in 2008 for the second year in a row, and the rate per 100,000 had topped the civilian rate in 2005, the latest year on record.
About one in five of the 1.7 million veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2008 study by the RAND think tank.
Bush's Democratic critics have charged that the war has bled the US treasury of funds that could have gone towards confronting the global financial meltdown, domestic priorities, or winning the war in Afghanistan.
Up to February 26, the United States had spent 687 billion dollars on the war in Iraq, and another 184 billion in Afghanistan, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington.
Another 75.5 billion has been requested for both wars, but a precise breakdown has yet to be made public, and some outside estimates say the conflict has cost closer to one trillion dollars.
The war has had other, less tangible, but potentially painful costs: An erosion in Americans' trust in government institutions and slumping approval of the United States among traditional allies and across the Muslim world.
But it is hard to isolate Iraq among other factors in the global war on terrorism to decide, for instance, the relative impact of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq compared to Muslim anger over Guantanamo Bay.
And much of the frustration attached to Bush and his policies, from which Obama has staged several very public breaks in a bid to "hit the reset button" on Washington's relations with the world.
And for retired US Army colonel Bob Killebrew, a Vietnam War veteran, "we can't assess what the cost of Iraq is because it depends on how it comes out."
"The war is walking a knife's edge, but if Iraq in 10 years is a strong, viable country and and reasonably democratic, and reasonably pro-American, we will think it was worth it," he told AFP.
"Vietnam will always be seen as a mistake because we lost," while Korea was "a good war, because there is a strong, viable, democratic South Korea today,"said Killebrew, a consultant and frequent writer on defense issues.
"It's a terrible thing to say, but people forget the thousands, they remember the outcome," he said, adding that "now, it's president Obama's war.'
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