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The Cost of a Lie: Half a Million Dead in Iraq

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A new, and apparently sound, estimate that around half a million people died in George W. Bush's disastrous war in Iraq would be horrific enough if sectarian conflict in the country did not continue to claim many dozens of lives daily, well after Barack Obama pulled troops out.

The former leaders have created an unstoppable death-hydra that no Hercules can slay.

Rather than democratize the Middle Eastern nation in their heady zeal to remove the now-late Saddam Hussein from power, the effect of the blundering U.S.-led coalition's invasion of the country 10 years ago has been almost the opposite: Iraq is now riven and torn apart by religious sect-lines as Sunni and Shia Muslims blow each other up in their quests for dominance and control.

Bush and his chief war-partner, then-British prime minister Tony Blair, sold their war plan on a premise that, post-evasion, swiftly turned to gargantuan fabrication. Saddam never had mass-destruction weapons; he never had the capability to launch missiles at the UK within 45 minutes; there was no yellowcake uranium from Niger; and on it went in the frenzied drumbeat to war.

Now Bush is retired and largely silent, no doubt spending his dusty Texas days wondering how he can burnish his two-term legacy for the benefit of visitors to his gleaming presidential library and museum in Dallas, which opened to some fanfare earlier this year but was shuttered due to the federal shutdown as House Republicans bickered with the government over the budget.

(This lead one to wonder why the swaggering former president could not have invested some of his own dollars to keep it open the way New York State did with the Statue of Liberty. However, a library cafe, store and the George W. Institute remained open during the federal shutdown, making one wonder why cash from these could not have been used to fund the library's opening. This is the sort of muddled thinking that resulted in the Iraq mess.)

While George W. is up to his neck in relics of his past, Tony Blair has morphed into a one-man money machine, touring the world with words that may not be imbued with wisdom but are undeniably of experience. He is also, rather peculiarly, peace envoy to the Middle East under the auspices of the Middle East Quartet comprising the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia. For a man who aided in bringing war to the Middle East to now try to instill peace in it while that conflict rages on -- amid many others -- is indeed mind-bending. (The Palestinians declared that his new job and the organization he represents are "useless, useless, useless.")

If anyone is waiting for either man, Bush or Blair, to apologize for the extraordinary death toll in Iraq, they will be in for an eternal wait. All Blair will admit to is that the "coalition of the willing" was right to depose Saddam. "Responsibility," Blair said in 2010, "but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. I believe he was a monster, that he threatened not just the region but the world.

"And in the circumstances that we faced then, but I think even if you look back now, it was better to deal with this threat, to remove him from office."

There had always been discrepancies over the exact toll resulting from the war in Iraq, or something approximating an exact toll. Estimates had ranged wildly, from over 100,000 to more than 1 million. Now, a team of American, Canadian and Iraqi researchers has carried out a survey of 2,000 households in 100 regions of Iraq whose results have been published in the journal PLOS Medicine. The researchers found that from 2003 to 2011, around half a million people died due to the conflict and related failures such as a lack of health care.

They concluded: "'Beyond expected rates, most mortality increases in Iraq can be attributed to direct violence, but about a third are attributable to indirect causes (such as from failures of health, sanitation, transportation, communication, and other systems). Approximately a half million deaths in Iraq could be attributable to the war."

With that grotesque level of human extermination, it is tempting to ask how those who launched the conflict, on a premise that turned out to be an almighty lie, can sleep at night. But it's a safe bet that Bush and Blair get plenty of wholesome, uninterrupted sleep and are fulsomely well-rested. Neither man visually carries the scars of torment or deathly regret; they both seem to be thoroughly enjoying their more than comfortable lives, even though their actions decimated others' and the deaths just keep mounting, long, long after the "shock and awe" campaign began and ended.

Is it right to blame leaders -- directly -- for such loss of life? When there was no real reason for war in the first place, the only ethical answer can, of course, be yes.

And herein lies one of the main paradoxes of Western powers and their actions. If such monumental loss of life at the hands of a government, or a collection of like-minded leaders, in, say, Africa, occurred, the International Criminal Court in the Hague, would be gearing up for prosecutions. The tragedy of many tragedies in this case is that Bush and Blair remain untouchable and unaccountable.