WASHINGTON– The U.S.-coalition military campaign that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003 has placed Iraq in a much-improved situation today, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said during a nationally televised news program yesterday. “I think Iraq is much better off than it was before we went in in ’03 and got rid of Saddam Hussein,” Cheney told host Bob Schieffer on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

“I think we are close to achieving most of our objectives,” he added.

Violence and death in Iraq today are sharply down, Cheney said, while Iraqis are firmly on the path to democracy after decades of cruel and despotic rule under Saddam.

“We’ve seen a significant reduction in the overall level of violence, more now than any time since we’ve been there in the spring of ’03,” Cheney said. “We’ve seen the elimination of one of the world’s worst regimes. We’ve seen the Iraqis write a constitution [and] hold three national elections.”

The United States and Iraq signed two agreements that became effective Jan. 1, Cheney said, that underscore Iraq’s status as a sovereign nation and call for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi soil. The strategic framework agreement establishes the foundation of a long-term bilateral relationship between the United States and Iraq, while the status-of-forces agreement stipulates how U.S. forces are affected by Iraqi laws.

“All of those things, I think, by anybody’s standard would be evidence of significant success,” Cheney said. “And I think we’re very close to achieving what it is we set out to do five years ago when we first went into Iraq.”

On New Year’s Day, the Iraqi government assumed authority for the Baghdad compound – known generically as the Green Zone — that contained the U.S. military headquarters as well as the top U.S. diplomatic office in Iraq. Senior-level U.S. military and diplomatic offices in Iraq were transferred to the new U.S. Embassy in Iraq, which also is in Baghdad.

Cheney saluted the U.S.-coalition military campaign launched in March 2003 that toppled Saddam’s regime by early April of that year. The fugitive dictator was captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 and was tried and found guilty for his crimes by an Iraqi court. He was executed on Dec. 29, 2006.

Saddam, the vice president said, had “totally underestimated” President George W. Bush’s resolve to either coerce the dictator to resign or kick him out by military force.

Saddam had directed “one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century,” Cheney said. The late dictator, he said, had “started two wars, had killed hundreds of thousands of people – including many of his own – with weapons of mass destruction.”

Before the onset of hostilities, Bush provided Saddam the opportunity to surrender his power and leave Iraq forever, but the dictator refused, Cheney noted.

Instead of departing Iraq, Saddam attempted “to bluff his way through,” the vice president said. “And we called his bluff.”

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