|Nouri al-Maliki was strongly supported by former US president George W Bush, as was apparent in their final press conference together shortly before a shoe was launched at Bush from close range [GETTY]
March 19 marks the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a nation that had no weapons of mass destruction and was not involved in the 9/11 attacks.
It was sold to the American public as a war to defend our nation and free the Iraqi people.
US deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz said our soldiers would be greeted as liberators and that Iraqi oil money would pay for the reconstruction.
Vice president Dick Cheney said the military effort would take "weeks rather than months". And assistant defence secretary Ken Adelman predicted that "liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk".
Eight years on, it's time to look back at that "cakewalk".
More than 4,400 Americans have died as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq – more than the 3,000 killed on 9/11.
Over 32,000 US soldiers have been seriously wounded, many kept alive thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. But those numbers don't tell the half of it.
Stanford University and Naval Postgraduate School researchers who examined the delayed onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) found that by 2023 the rate of PTSD among Iraq war veterans could rise to as high as 35 per cent.
And for the second year in row, more soldiers committed suicide in 2010 than died in combat, a tragic but predictable human reaction to being asked to kill – and watching your friends be killed.
In 2008, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University's Linda Blimes put the cost of the Iraq war at roughly $3tn, or about 60 times what the Bush administration first said the invasion would cost.
While a staggering figure, Stiglitz and Blimes now say that their estimate "was, if anything, too low".
In an update published last fall in The Washington Post, they note that the war not only drove up the federal debt, but helped drive the skyrocketing oil prices that contributed to the crashing of the global economy.
According to the National Priorities Project, the money the US government spent destroying Iraq could have provided annual salaries for 12.5 million teachers or paid the annual healthcare costs for 167 million Americans.
When elected officials tell us our nation is bankrupt, we should tell them to bring our war dollars home.
|Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis
The people who have suffered the most from the Iraq "cakewalk" are Iraqi citizens.
For an invasion sold as an act of liberation and of "profound morality" by propagandists like Jeffrey Goldberg, the US and its allies sure managed to kill a staggering number of those they were liberating.
The organisation Iraq Body Count (IBC) has documented at least 99,900 violent civilian deaths as a direct result of the US-led invasion.
But that's an extremely conservative estimate based largely on deaths reported in Western media, an approach bound to undercount the massive death toll from the invasion.
Indeed, as WikiLeaks revealed last October, the US government covered up the violent killings of more than 15,000 Iraqi civilians – killings that weren't reported by any Western paper which amounted to roughly 20 per cent of IBC's official count at the time.
Unfortunately, the number of dead Iraqis is likely a lot higher than IBC's count.
A 2006 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University published in the Lancet medical journal found that in just over three years there were 654,965 "excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war", with Iraq's death rate more than doubling due to gunfire – the leading cause of mortality – as well as lack of medicine and clean water.
Then a 2008 analysis by British polling firm Opinion Research Business estimated "that over 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens have died as a result of the conflict which started in 2003".
Thirteen years of bombings and sanctions crippled the infrastructure and basic services of what was once a wealthy country.
Then came the 2003 invasion, which destroyed electrical plants, sewage systems, water treatment facilities, hospitals and more.
Eight years later, the living conditions in Iraqi are worse than under Saddam Hussein, with the country plagued by a continued lack of electricity, clean water, medical care and security.
Iraqis wonder why - after the most powerful country in the world invaded and spent billions on reconstruction - they are still living in the dark.
|Millions fled their homes
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, since 2003 "more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, many in dire need of humanitarian care" – hardly an endorsement of life in the "liberated" nation.
Many Iraqis fled to Iran, Jordan and Syria, while roughly 1.5 million fled to other parts of Iraq, the majority of whom "have found no solutions to their plight", according to the UN.
In the aftermath, millions will never be able to return.
Women in Iraq have been particularly hit by the invasion and occupation. The Iraqi government estimates there are up to 3 million widows in Iraq today.
Meanwhile, violence against women – including honour killings, rape and kidnapping – has increased, forcing many to remain at home and limiting employment and educational opportunities, according to a new Freedom House report.
"A deep feeling of injustice and powerlessness sometimes leads women to believe that the only escape is suicide," the report notes.
Many Iraqi women who fled to neighbouring countries have found themselves unable to feed their children.
Just to make ends meet, tens of thousands of them – including girls 13 and under – have been forced into prostitution, particularly in Syria.
"From what I've seen, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the girls working this business in Damascus today are Iraqis," one refugee told The New York Times. "If they go back to Iraq they'll be slaughtered, and this is the only work available."
The US military dropped thousands of bombs across Iraq laced with depleted uranium, the radioactive waste produced from manufacturing nuclear fuel.
Valued by the military for its density and ability to ignite upon impact, depleted uranium bombs continue to kill years after they've been dropped.
In Fallujah, which was bombarded more than anywhere else in Iraq, British researchers uncovered a massive increase in infant mortality and rates of cancer, with the latter exceeding "those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," according to The Independent.
And it's not just Fallujah facing a cancer epidemic. Al Jazeera reports that in the central Iraq province of Babil, reported cancer cases rose from 500 in 2004 to 7,000 in 2008.
And in Basra, the last 15 years have seen childhood leukemia rate more than double, according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health.
|Trading one strongman for another
Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Yet his worst crimes, including the 1980 invasion of Iran, came when he was backed by the US government, which was well aware of his penchant for torture and extrajudicial killings – talents American officials were fine with as as he was slaughtering Iranians.
Now, his US-backed successor, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, is torturing and killing those who speak out against his rule. All he hasn't done is invade that other, not-yet-liberated member of the "Axis of Evil".
Inspired by the mass actions that took down US-backed strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest the al-Maliki government – only to be greeted with live ammunition.
On February 27, more than 29 protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, were gunned down by the Maliki-run security forces in Iraq.
Meanwhile, four journalists in Baghdad report that they, along with hundreds of protesters, were "blindfolded, handcuffed, beaten and threatened with execution" for being insufficiently pro-regime.
The charges of abuse come after WikiLeaks revealed further evidence that Maliki has been using the power of the state – and Shia death squads – to torture and murder his political opponents.
Life in the new Iraq isn't a whole lot different than life under Saddam. Given the protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, it seems invasions and foreign military occupations just aren't as effective as nonviolent protest at promoting reform.
|Recruitment ad for al-Qaeda
When it wasn't completely sold as a humanitarian mission, the Bush administration cast the war on Iraq as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks, scaring the American public into submission with vials of faux-anthrax and concocted tales about Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda.
Yet, as US intelligence agencies recognised after the invasion, "the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse", in the words of one American official.
Indeed, there was no better recruitment ad for terrorists than the images the Bush administration and its allies providing foreign troops who were destroying Iraqi society.
And there's no better way to create a committed enemy than to kill someone's family - or in the case of Abu Ghraib, to humiliate and torture – sometimes to death – an innocent loved one.
Once you get past all the rationalisations, the invasion of Iraq was just like any other war. It necessitated teaching young men and women to believe that it's morally acceptable to take kill.
And a 2007 army investigation spurred by the massacre of two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha said as much.
"Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes," wrote Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell in the report.
People typically don't want to kill other human beings. They must be conditioned to dehumanise the enemy and believe that murdering is not just okay - but also just.
Basic training involves destroying a person's ability to empathise with the "other" for the good of the nation (or rather, its rulers). But that ability doesn't just suddenly reemerge when the war is over. And unfortunately, that's evidenced by the alarming incidents of domestic violence committed by returning veterans.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq continues to affect lives after veterans of the war rejoin civilian life as police officers and husbands, as foremen and fathers. The lesson that violence is an acceptable means to achieve one's ends is not one soon forgotten.
But violence isn't just legitimised at base camp; it's legitimised by the Obama administration's failure to hold accountable those who took the country into an illegal war of aggression.
Those war criminals – the likes of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove – are all enjoying successful book tours and reaping hefty speaking fees, while the man who allegedly exposed war crimes, Bradley Manning, is behind bars being tortured.
There's a lesson there – one that doesn't speak well for our system of government. And it suggests that our political establishment will continue to drag us into wars of choice in the future. After all, they won't be fighting or paying the consequences of combat.
On this shameful anniversary, let's not forget that despite president Obama's promise to leave Iraq, the US still has 50,000 troops there, thousands of private mercenaries and dozens of military bases, with generals not-so-subtly hinting at a permanent presence.
We should demand the president close those bases and bring the troops home. We should prosecute those responsible for sending them. And we should apologise to the Iraqi people for the misery the US government has wrought.
The damage of war has been done. But the US must begin making amends to Iraq by leaving.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange. Charles Davis has covered Congress for NPR and Pacifica stations, and freelanced for the international news wire Inter Press Service.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.