Five years after the United States and its allies launched the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of a majority of the United Nations members, no one knows how many Iraqis have died.
The world knows that more than 2 million have fled the country. Another 1.5 million have sought safety elsewhere in Iraq. It knows that the combined horror of car bombs, suicide attacks, sectarian killing and disproportionate US counter-insurgency tactics and air strikes have produced the worst humanitarian catastrophe in today's world.
Five years on, the war has nearly vanished from the media, be it newspapers and TV screens.
Yet Americans and Britons continue to fight and die there.
The US has learnt one lesson from Vietnam: do not count the civilian dead. Hence no one knows how many Iraqis have been killed in the five years since the invasion. Estimates put the toll at between 100,000 and 1 million, and now a bitter war of numbers is raging.
Five years on, who can be said to have won the war is an open question to the US, its allies and Iraq.
Certainly the winner is not Iraqi civilians. Democracy and stability the war initiators have promised them is far beyond reach.
The power and prestige of the US around the world continues to suffer from the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
No weapons of mass destruction – the key justification the US and Britain used for the war – have been found. The Pentagon acknowledged last week that a review of more than 600,000 captured Iraqi documents showed "no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network".
What matters now, especially to Iraq's long-suffering people, is how the country can be helped toward recovery.
The correction some Democrats have offered to the US military occupation of Iraq is exceptionally naive. It is easy for them to call for the withdrawal of US troops and leave the tasks – bringing an end to sectarian conflict, devising a way to share political power, and creating a functioning government that is capable of rebuilding Iraq – to the Iraqis to complete.
With the situation bitter in the country, the chance for an Iraq to be stable and self-governing, not a haven for al-Qaeda and a source of instability in the region, look dim.
It was a terrible mistake to invade Iraq; it would be another to simply leave the mess to the Iraqi people.
(China Daily March 20, 2008)