Bringing the Iraq War to a 'Responsible End'

December 29, 2009

Three student readings and discussion questions probe current conditions in Iraq and the U.S.'s moral responsibilities there.

To the Teacher:

President Obama has emphasized and reemphasized that "we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end" and that U.S. troops will be gone from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Below, an introduction and three readings offer students an overview of some major results of the war. The introduction and Reading 1 describe the reduction in violence in Iraq and the establishment of an Iraqi government, as well as that country's continuing political, economic and security problems. In Reading 2, students will learn about the plight of Iraqi refugees; and in Reading 3, they will consider the U.S.'s ethical and moral responsibilities as it withdraws troops. Discussion questions and possibilities for further inquiry and citizenship activities follow.
For background on the President Bush's "surge" in Iraq, see in the high school section of TeachableMoment "Iraq: The Surge & Power Struggles." The site also includes many earlier Iraq materials, including several on the run-up to the war.


On March 19, 2003, the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush declared that the mission was to eliminate "an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder...We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."
Only weeks later, on May 1, President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and announced the end of "major combat operations." A banner in the background declared "Mission Accomplished." The president said, "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq."
With the benefit of hindsight, Americans know that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass murder and did not threaten the peace. We also know that on May 1, 2003, "major combat operations" had hardly begun.
In early 2009, Fox News declared that "by almost any measure—U.S. and Iraqi casualties, political vibrancy, economic activity—the 'surge' announced by President Bush in January 2007 [which sent 30,000 additional US troops to Iraq to join the 130,000 already there] has worked to produce a safer, more stable Iraq." Fox also reported: "Nevertheless, top officials at the Pentagon will not say outright that the war has been won." However, a US commander in Iraq's western region, Major Gen. John Kelly, told Fox News, six years after President Bush announced "Mission Accomplished," that victory is 'right around the corner.'" ( 3/19/09)
On December 1, 2009, President Obama said, "We are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011."
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they be answered?
2. Why did President Bush tell Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass murder? Why did he say on May 1, 2003 that "major combat operations" were over? If you don't know, how might you find out?
3. What was the "surge"? If you don't know, how might you find out?
4. If top Pentagon officials "will not say outright that the war has been won," why is the US removing troops from Iraq? If you don't know, how might you find out?

Student Reading 1: 

The good & the bad news about Iraq

Casualties are down in Iraq, as Fox News reported months ago. At the height of violence in Iraq during 2007, 904 American troops were killed. In 2008, the numbers dropped to 314, and as of mid-December 2009, they stood at 150. Killings of Iraqis are also down significantly from 2007 even though about 400 Iraqis died in three sets of suicide bombings since this summer. What about the "political vibrancy, economic activity," and the "safer, more stable Iraq" that Fox News described in early 2009?
Iraq's "political vibrancy"
Iraq has met some benchmarks for political advance, including:
  • An elected Iraqi government. Nouri al-Malaki has been the Iraqi prime minister since April 22, 2006; his term of office ends in 2010. 
  • A fairer electoral law.
  • Local security provided by a police force, not local militia.
However, systemic corruption and power struggles continue to be major problems for the country. For instance, it appears that militants bribed guards at Baghdad checkpoints, allowing them to set off three devastating bombings that have killed hundreds since August 2009. "Corruption is a phenomenon that forms a real threat to the structure of the state," Jawad Bolani, the interior minister told the New York Times. His ministry employs "one of every four Iraqis working in the public sector, which accounts for a vast majority of the jobs in Iraq...
"Money is skimmed off of salaries. Contracts are manipulated and fudged to wring personal profit. Ghost police offices are listed on payrolls so commanders can take the salaries...Criminals and insurgents are freed with a well-placed bribe, criminal records are expunged for payment, detainees are abused by guards in order to extort money from relatives." (Marc Santora, "Corruption Rattles Iraq's Fragile State," New York Times, 10/29/09)
Human rights violations are becoming commonplace. "In private many Iraqis, especially educated ones, are asking if their country may go back to being a police state. Old habits from Saddam Hussein's era are becoming familiar again. Torture is routine in government detention centers. 'Things are bad and getting worse, even by regional standards,' says Samer Muscati, who works for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby." (Glenn Greenwald,, 11/11/09)
Unresolved and fierce ethnic, religious and political struggles have resulted in repeated delays in elections. National elections that were originally scheduled for January 2010 are now set for March 7.
Iraq's economic situation
Iraq has at least 115 billion barrels of oil, placing it behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran in proven oil reserves. Oil is the potential source of thousands of jobs and immense wealth in what is now a depressed economy. Iraq's daily output of oil today is relatively small—about 2.4 million barrels—compared with the 3.5 million barrels daily 20 years ago. But the Iraqi government, which depends on oil exports for 90% of its income, hopes to triple production over the next few years.
Iraq's economy has suffered from years of economic sanctions and war. The country endured eight years of war with Iran in the 1980s; the Gulf War of 1991; and now seven more years of war (and counting) that with the US invasion in 2003. During this period, oil production has dropped, infrastructure has decayed, pipelines have been blown up, and countless oil experts and other trained workers have fled the country.
Iraq's government is currently signing contracts with foreign oil companies to develop its oil fields. However, if Prime Minister al-Malaki fails to win reelection, these contracts may not be recognized. Meanwhile, a continuing political power struggle has prevented the Iraqi parliament from approving a national oil law that would fairly distribute oil profits.
Security in Iraq, while improved, is still shaken by devastating bombings. As a result, some oil fields have no bidders. Several children were killed in a bombing of an East Baghdad oil field area in December 2009. In Kirkuk, a northern city in an area of substantial oil wealth, three major ethnic groups— Kurds, Arabs, and Turks—are competing for control; this could ignite another civil war. Elections in Kirkuk have been repeatedly postponed because contending groups disagree about basic issues, most importantly about who is a legitimate citizen of the area and eligible to vote.
It also remains to be seen whether Iraq's government has the management capacity, efficiency and honesty to deal with massive oil field development involving thousands of workers and their families, as well as pipelines, storage tanks, water and power supplies, roads, schools and hospitals.
A devastating drought has added to Iraqis' woes. "Government estimates suggest close to two million Iraqis face severe drinking water shortages and extremely limited hydropower-generated electricity," writes Martin Chulov, Baghdad correspondent for the British Guardian. "Even without rain, or other disturbances such as dust or wind, most residents of the capital are getting by on no more than a half-day of regular electricity, the vast bulk supplied by coal-burning energy plants that generate power channeled by substations resembling museum pieces.
"What little electricity supply exists is frequently targeted by militias who boast of their intent to return the society (literally) to the dark ages. Sewer lines have only been dug in the most affluent areas and city roads are, at best, rudimentary." (Martin Chulov, "The Dust Bowl of Babylon: Are Crippling Droughts the Next Great Threat to Iraq?" winter 2009-2010 issue of World Policy Journal, reprinted at, 12/13/09) 
Iraq's Stability
"Election Date Set in Iraq as Bombs Kill Scores" was the New York Times headline over a December 2009 story from Baghdad that reported: "A series of car bombings devastated government institutions across Baghdad on Tuesday, provoking public and political denunciations of the country's prime minister and the security forces he oversees. The attacks came as officials agreed at last to set a date in March for a national election." At least 121 people were killed and more than 400 wounded. (Steven Lee Myers and Marc Santora, New York Times, 12/8/09)
Suicide bombings also killed at least 155 in October and destroyed three government agencies. An August 2009 bombing hit the Finance and Foreign Ministries, killing at least 122. Prime Minister al-Malaki has said these bombings bear the "fingerprints of the Baath Party" (led once by Saddam Hussein) and Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia (a group that probably consisting mostly of Sunni Arabs with some foreign leadership, but nobody knows for sure).
In a follow-up article on the December 8 bombing, the Times quoted an Iraqi political analyst: "The election is approaching, and the people in charge of security are politicians competing on different lists. That is destroying any cooperation and coordination between them. The result is a security gap and the blood of more innocent Iraqi civilians." The chairman of the Baghdad Provincial Council, whose headquarters were destroyed in the October bombings, said, "If security is to be run like this, we can kiss security in Baghdad goodbye." ("In Iraq, Politics Is Seen Trumping Security," New York Times, 12/9/09)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What seems to you the most promising development in Iraq? The most serious problem? In each case, why?
3. Consider each of the three areas of good and bad news about Iraq—politics, economics, and security. What are the pluses in each area? The minuses?


Student Reading 2: 

Iraqi casualties

How many Iraqis have died in the war that began more than six years ago? How many have been maimed? Nobody knows. Iraqi statistics are unreliable. The US keeps no statistics for Iraqis killed and wounded.
But there are estimates. Between 94,554 and 103,162 Iraqi civilians had been killed as of early December 2009 in US and coalition combat operations and in bombings and other actions by sectarian Iraqi groups, according to the conservative estimate of the organization Iraq Body Count. It draws its statistics from "media reports, hospital, morgue, non-governmental organizations and official figures." (
The Lancet, a British medical publication, reported several years ago that a scientifically-based survey employing standard polling methods indicated that well over 1 million Iraqis have died not only as a direct result of the warfare but also from indirect results of the war including fires, accidents, and malnutrition.
How many Iraqis were forced out of their homes by the fighting and become refugees, either inside or outside Iraq? More than four million. These people are also casualties of the war.
Shiite ethnic cleansing of Baghdad beginning in 2006 caused much violence and turned hundreds of thousands of residents into refugees. It also turned a city that had been almost evenly divided between Sunnis and Shiites into one that today is roughly 85%-90% Shiite, as a Columbia University study recently demonstrated. After the "cleansing," the number of killings dropped greatly because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. (Juan Cole,, 12/1/09)
A Baghdad refugee
"After her husband's killing, Amira sold a generation of her family's belongings, packed up her children and left behind their large house in Baghdad, with its gardener and maid," the New York Times reported in 2007. "Now, a year later, she is making meat fritters for money in this sand-colored capital [Amman, Jordan], unable to afford glasses for her son, and in the quiet moments, choking on the bitterness of loss...
"Rents are high, schools cost money, and under-the-table jobs pay little. A survey of 100 Iraqi families found that 64 were surviving by selling their assets. Now, as a new school year begins, many Iraqis here say they can no longer afford some of life's basic requirements—education for their children and hospital visits for their families. Teeth are pulled instead of filled. Shampoo is no longer on the grocery list.
"'My savings are finished,' said Amira, who is 50. 'My kids won't be in school this year.' Once she was rich. Now she is just one of the ten of thousands of widowed Iraqi women, forced to leave her country, and with no means of support for her children and herself." (, 8/10/07)
War always causes separation from families and friends, suffering, destruction, violence, maiming, pain, misery, ruined lives, and death. The Iraq war has produced more than its share of this misery.
Millions of Iraqis forced to leave their homes
According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in a September 30, 2009, report, 325,000, or 7 percent, of displaced Iraqis have been able to return to their homes. But another 4.5 million Iraqis are still displaced. About 1.7 million now live in other countries, mainly in Syria and Jordan. The rest live in Iraq, but are unable to return to their homes, often "because of security concerns...and limited employment prospects," according to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) Center for International Studies (
MIT also found that "As of April 2009, more than 60 percent of the returnee population reported insufficient access to food, nearly 40 percent cited a lack of safe drinking water, and more than 50 percent noted inadequate quantities of fuel and other essential supplies...In addition, many returnees are returning to find property destroyed or occupied." About 40% of the physicians, lawyers, teachers, and other technicians have left the country.
Iraqi refugees in the US
"Many Refugees in US Now in Dire Straits" reported a Christian Science Monitor headline.
"Yasmin and Othman left Iraq last fall to start a new life in Lynn, Massachusetts. Like many refugees, they had imagined a new life—a good one—for themselves and their four children. But now they live on state assistance and food stamps.
"The family's small, three-bedroom apartment is dingy, despite their attempts to scrub it. On a bookshelf, photographs of the family in their garden in Iraq remind them of better days. Othman was twice offered a job as a packer at a bread company, IRC [International Rescue Committee] officials say, but he rejected it because he wanted to work as a welder. Othman insists that the packer job wouldn't pay enough to support his family, and he wants to work in his field.
"We came here because we had no safety or security because of the US war in Iraq," Yasmin says. "But we didn't think people were allowed to live like this in America.... If we could go back to Iraq, we would."
The story also reported that "only 11 percent" of Iraqi refugees had found jobs. The International Rescue Committee said Iraqi refugees should receive more "substantial benefits" from the government. Alaa Naji, a refugee from Baghdad who now works in Atlanta for the IRC, said, "They expected more from a country that was involved in the violence that destroyed our land, homes, and loved ones." Since 2006, 25,659 Iraqi refugees have arrived in America. (, 6/18/09)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why are specific casualty figures for Iraqi citizens unavailable?
3. Why did so many Iraqis leave Baghdad? Where have they gone? What problems do they face? Why don't more of them return to Iraq?
4. Does the US owe more help to Iraqi refugees, especially those in this country? Why or why not? If so, what specific kinds of help?

Student Reading 3:

Bringing the war to a 'responsible end'

There are sharp differences of opinion about the Iraq war. Supporters argue that the war got rid of the dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime, which repressed Iraqi citizens, especially the majority Shiite population. And they maintain that the war has eliminated the threat Iraq posed to US security—even if there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Opponents of the war counter that President Bush was dead set on war more than a year before the US invaded and that the Bush administration deliberately misled the country into an aggressive, illegal conflict for which they have not been made accountable.
One of those opponents, Michael Walzer, argues that whatever one's view of the war, "In the same way that we think of just and unjust wars, we need to think of just and unjust withdrawals." He cites "Great Britain's hasty retreat from India in 1947 and the estimated one million people who died" following the partition of India into two countries—India and Pakistan. "Occupying powers typically behave as the British did, putting the safety of their own troops and civil servants, and the reputations of their political leaders, before any other considerations..."
But, Walzer believes, an occupier has "obligations—and this is true whether the initial occupation was a good idea or a bad one...Even the displacement of a brutal and repressive regime brings death and destruction in its wake, uproots many people, damages the economy, shuts down schools and hospitals, subjects the local population to foreign rule, if only for a time. When foreigners depart, they must make sure that their departure doesn't produce further disastrous disruptions."
Such a disruption, he says, resulted when the US withdrew from Vietnam. "Careless exits leave many people at risk, who are killed...or forced to flee like the Vietnamese 'boat people.' Departing powers must help such people restart their lives in safety, enabling them to reestablish themselves at home or providing neighboring countries with subsidies to shelter them."
Walzer concludes that "in all cases, an ethical withdrawal requires an occupying power to adopt two fundamental guidelines. First, make a good-faith effort to leave a stable government behind..." This means at least "a government that is legitimate in the eyes of its own people and that is capable of providing basic services—including law and order." It also means providing " ongoing financial and technical aid after they leave, even if the country they are leaving is not likely to be a reliable ally in the future."
In Walzer's view, a second imperative is to "do whatever is possible to safeguard the people most at risk in the country now on its own...If people are at risk because they worked for ("collaborated" with) an occupier, as in the case of translators, drivers, guards, informers, and many others in Iraq, it is especially necessary to offer them and their families asylum. Great Britain's behavior after the American Revolution provides a classic example of an imperial power doing the right thing. Over several months and hundreds of sailings through early December 1783, Britain removed thousands of Loyalists and sympathizers from its former colonies, sending 29,244 evacuees from New York to Nova Scotia alone."
"The Obama administration cannot undo the mistakes that the Bush administration made or the crimes that it committed in Iraq," writes Walzer. "But it can do the next best thing. It can mitigate their consequences for the Iraqi people and provide a model for how a modern occupation should end..."
("A Just Withdrawal," The New Republic, 9/25/09. Michael Walzer is professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. He and Nicolaus Mills, professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, are co-editors of the book, Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.)

For critical thinking

Michael Walzer's contention that an occupier, like the US in Iraq, has "obligations" is a controversial argument that can be used to engage students in a process of critical thinking.
For a detailed description of one such process, see "Teaching Critical Thinking: The Believing Game and the Doubting Game" in the "Ideas and Essays" section of This approach has students read or listen closely to remarks on a controversial issue, then become involved in "the believing game" and "the doubting game."
1) Believing Game. The believing game asks students to enter as fully as possible into a point of view—in this case, Walzer's—that may be unfamiliar or even disagreeable to them. They are asked to suspend judgment and experience this viewpoint and to look for virtues and strengths that might otherwise be missed. In groups of four to five, students discuss the view's merits for 10-15 minutes; then for another 10-15 minutes they raise questions about these merits while still in a believing mode. This is not a role play. It is a serious effort to find points with which students can agree, to make only supportive statements, and to ask only believing mode questions (e.g. I'm having trouble with one of Walzer's points. Can someone explain how the US might guarantee leaving behind "a government that is legitimate in the eyes of its own people"?)
2) Doubting Game. The more familiar doubting game asks students to ask critical questions and state facts and reasons that cast doubt on Walzer's argument. This time students spend 10-15 minutes in their small groups making a serious effort to find points where they don't agree with Walzer and make only opposing statements.
3) Integration. The small groups now spend 10-15 minutes integrating their thinking based on what they have heard and thought during the believing and doubting games. The following questions may help:
  • Has your view of Walzer's comments on the "obligations" of an occupier changed in any respects since you first read them?
  • If so, how and why? If not, why not?
4) Class discussion.
5) Assessment. Lastly, students assess their experience with this approach to critical thinking. For specific questions and issues you might ask them to address, see "Teaching Critical Thinking: The Believing Game and the Doubting Game."

Suggestions for further inquiry

  1. President Bush's stated reasons for invading Iraq
  2. UN investigation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
  3. The charge of war crimes for the US invasion of Iraq
  4. Vandalism and theft at Iraq's archaeological museum after US troops took Baghdad
  5. Origins of Sunni-Shiite conflicts
  6. Shiite ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad
  7. Reagan administration support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq's war with Iran
  8. The Gulf War
  9. Origins of the Awakening Councils
  10. Impact on American service men and women (and their families) of repeated deployments to Iraq
  11. Physical and mental (PTSD) injuries of US troops
  12. Withdrawals by occupying countries in other wars. This might be the British withdrawal from the American colonies, British withdrawal from India, or US withdrawal from Vietnam
See "The Plagiarism Perplex" for a suggested approach to the development of an inquiry project and "Thinking Is Questioning" for a discussion of teaching students how to ask good questions for inquiry.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: