Truth is supposed to be war's first casualty. In Iraq, it is missing in action. A year after the first bombs fell, much about the war's purpose, its conduct and its impact remain unclear.
Was Iraq a threat? Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? Will the war advance the cause of peace in the Middle East? Will Iraq splinter into ethnic chaos? What will it cost? How long will Americans be there?
The questions stand out from the hard facts of a year of conflict — Saddam is in U.S. custody and at least 564 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 3,200 civilians are dead. And they come after 12 months of reality that have exploded many myths — from an Iraqi information minister denying defeat as U.S. troops bore down, to the apparently staged rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.
Opponents of the war predicted a long, bloody fight to defeat Saddam's regime, culminating with close-quarters combat in Baghdad. In fact, the United States drove Saddam from power within three weeks. But most U.S. deaths occurred after President Bush's May 1 speech in front of a sign reading "Mission Accomplished."
War critics feared the invasion would spur an attack on the U.S., while the White House contended that deposing Saddam would be an important victory in the terror war. A year later, no attacks have taken place against the U.S. homeland. But the country has gone to elevated terror alert at times, and elsewhere in the world — outside of Iraq —
terrorists have killed more than 600 people since the war began.
Little evidence has surfaced to back claims that Saddam's regime had links to al Qaeda. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who last year described a "nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network," now says, instead, "I think the possibility of such connections did exist."
The alleged Saddam-terror connection was a part of the U.S. case for war, but Iraq's alleged illegal weapons were at its heart.
The former top U.S. weapons hunter, David Kay, has said he doubts the weapons existed. While citing evidence of illegal weapons-related activity and an illegal missile program, Kay did not report evidence of active biological, chemical or nuclear weapons programs.
The gap between prewar allegations and postwar evidence has put intelligence agencies — and the policymakers that used their reports — under scrutiny.
Some former intelligence analysts have accused the administration of skewing the data on Iraq. CIA director George Tenet denies political pressure played a role, but has said that his analysts "never said there was an 'imminent' threat."
The Senate and House intelligence committees, a presidential commission and the CIA itself are reviewing the intelligence used to justify the war. Two separate but related Justice Department probes concern forged documents seen as evidence of illegal Iraqi activity, and the leak of a CIA officer's name.
Of course, those investigations take place a long way from Iraq, where the removal of Saddam has led to the discovery of mass graves and torture chambers. Most fugitive Iraqi officials have been killed or captured.
Iraq now has a constitution that affirms human rights. A multiethnic interim council helps administer the country.
According to a Central Command spokeswoman, nearly all of the Iraqi courts are open, all 240 hospitals have been opened and 22 million children and 700,000 women have been inoculated against diseases. Programs are under way to rebuild more than 100 schools, and more than 1,000 new homes have been started.
But unemployment remains a problem, exacerbated by the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi military. Hospitals lack crucial supplies, according to press reports. Postwar political plans have shifted several times, and there is no firm program for what type of government Iraq will have when the United States hands over power in June.
On top of those concerns is the swelling price tag for Iraq. Prior to the war, the Bush administration declined to estimate its cost. Even now, the price of the occupation is not a part of the president's annual budget proposal to Congress.
Through December, the military had spent $56 billion in Iraq, and was spending at a rate of about $4 billion a month. That's separate from what the Coalition Provisional Authority is spending. USAID says it has spent over $2.5 billion in Iraq so far. All that in a country that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said could pay for its own reconstruction.
Before the war and since, the Bush administration argued that defeating Iraq was a linchpin of efforts to fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction and encourage Mideast peace and democracy.
The record since the war is open to interpretation.
Libya gave up its weapons after talks that started as the U.S. targeted Iraq, but that followed years of thawing relations with the West. Iran began halting cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. North Korea made belligerent threats to test a bomb, but sat down to talks — although no deal has been reached.
U.S. relations with Iran warmed somewhat, but democracy took a step back in Tehran when reformist candidates were barred from parliamentary elections. U.S. ties with Syria remain tense. And just this week, Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon ruled out peace talks with Palestinians.
With more than 100,000 American troops still on the ground, conducting upwards of 1,000 operations some days, the battle for Iraq continues. At the second anniversary — and subsequent ones — reality in Iraq, the Middle East and the larger war on terror may be quite different from today.
In an interview with a British reporter this week, Powell was asked how long the U.S. was committed to staying in Iraq.
"As long as it takes," Powell said.
By Jarrett Murphy