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September 1, 2005

Iraq War Costs Now Exceed Vietnam's

by Jim Lobe

The U.S. Treasury is paying out more each month to sustain the war in Iraq than it did during the Vietnam War, according to a new report that calls the ongoing conflict "the most expensive military effort in the last 60 years."

The 84-page report, "The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War and the Case for Bringing the Troops Home," says that the total bill for the war in Iraq has come to some $204 billion, or an average of $727 per U.S. citizen, not counting an additional $45 billion which is currently pending before Congress.

The report, which comes as Congress braces itself for the multi-billion costs of cleaning up after the unprecedented devastation inflicted this week on New Orleans and the broader Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, also does not include at least another $25 billion request that the Pentagon is believed to be preparing to sustain operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next year.

Released by two think tanks, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the International Relations Center, that have strongly opposed the Iraq war, the new study is their third since mid-2004 to attempt a comprehensive accounting of the human, social, and international – as well as financial – costs of the war on the U.S. and Iraq.

The new report also includes a plan by IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis for an "immediate and complete withdrawal of troops, military contractors and U.S. corporations backing the U.S. occupation."

The plan calls for U.S. troops to cease all offensive actions, withdraw from population centers, and redeploy to Iraq's borders to help Iraqi forces secure them, and for Washington to reduce the size of its embassy in Baghdad, and announce that it has no intention of maintaining either permanent bases in Iraq or control of its oil.

Similar steps have recently also been advocated by conservative critics of the war, such as the former director of the National Security Agency, ret. Gen. William Odom.

Bennis also called for Washington to negotiate with Iraqi insurgents over the mechanisms of withdrawal and endorse talks between them and U.S.-backed Iraqi leaders.

The Pentagon, according to the report, is currently spending $5.6 billion per month on operations in Iraq, an amount that exceeds the average cost of $5.1 billion per month (in real 2004 dollars) for U.S. operations in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972.

"While fewer troops are in Iraq, the weapons they use are more expensive and they are paid more than their counterparts who served in Vietnam," according to the report, which noted that at current rates, Washington could spend more than $700 billion over 10 years – $100 billion more than the total cost of the Vietnam War.

If the $204 billion appropriated for the war so far had been used instead for social programs, according to the report, it could have paid for the health care of the more than 46 million citizens without medical insurance, the hiring of 3.5 million elementary school teachers, or the construction of affordable housing units for nearly two million people.

The same amount of money would also be enough to effectively cut world hunger in half and still cover the costs of life-preserving anti-AIDS medication, childhood immunization, and the clean-water and sanitation needs of the world's developing nations for almost three years.

Those costs do not include long-term costs on the U.S. economy, including interest payments on that portion of the record federal budget deficit that is related to the war or the economic impacts on the families and small businesses of thousands of reservists and National Guard who have been called up to serve in Iraq.

Nor do they include the health-care and other benefits and disability payments to Iraq war veterans, which, according to a recent estimate published in the New York Times by Linda Bilmes, a public-finance expert at Harvard University, will likely cost $315 billion over 45 years.

Bilmes also estimated the potential impact of the war on the price of oil at five dollars a barrel, which, if sustained until 2010, will cost the U.S. economy some $119 billion.

But the economic costs to the U.S. are not the only measure of the war's costs.

Nearly 1,900 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the March 19, 2003, invasion and more than 14,000 have been wounded.

Iraqis have borne a much higher toll, however. The new study quotes records of the number of Iraqi civilians killed as a direct result of the war and ensuing occupation at between 23,489 and 26,706, and the number of wounded at between 100,000 and 120,000.

Those figures do not take into account the death toll arising from indirect causes of the war and occupation, such as crime and infrastructure breakdowns. According to one study published last October by the British medical journal The Lancet, Iraq had suffered nearly 100,000 "excess deaths" between March 2003 and September 2004.

A joint Iraqi-UN report released last May found that 223,000 Iraqis are suffering from a chronic health problem directly caused by the war.

In addition, the new study cites reports that up to 6,000 Iraqi military and police units have been killed since the war started, with the vast majority of those casualties incurred over the past year.

Despite these tolls, as well the reported killings or arrests of 40,000 to 50,000 alleged insurgents, the number of resistant fighters in Iraq, according to the Pentagon's own estimates, has risen from 5,000 to 20,000 over a two-year period.

Meanwhile, electricity generation in Iraq, which finally surpassed prewar levels in July 2004, has not increased, while unemployment is estimated at between 20 to 60 percent, according to the report.

U.S. national security has also been degraded, according to the report, which cited recent State Department figures indicating that the number of "significant" international terrorist attacks has more than doubled since 2003, while terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased nine-fold.

Army recruitment this month remained at 11 percent behind its annual targets, while the Reserve and Army National Guard shortfalls are running twice as high. In addition, roughly 48,000 members of the National Guard and Reserve, a disproportionate number of whom are police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel in their home communities, are currently serving in Iraq.

The absence of these "first responders" back home has become a major preoccupation for local and state governments, including those in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama hardest hit by Katrina.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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