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 Hussein's minority Sunni Muslim government. But the war that removed Hussein 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 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.