The United States' presence in Iraq is not a liberation — it is nothing short of an occupation.

That was the message from Iraq war veterans who spoke to a small group of 12 people who gathered at the Salt Lake Main Library on Thursday night for a public forum on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's not even covert; it's overt — it's an occupation," said Andy Figorski, who served two deployments in Iraq between 2004 and 2007.

The veterans said that the occupation was never about helping the Iraqi people but was, instead, engineered to line the pocketbooks of a group of "profit-mongers" while the American soldiers pay the ultimate price.

"People are getting extraordinarily rich off the blood of the soldiers," said Jeff Key.

Key said the main reason he enlisted in the Marines and went to Iraq is because he believed what he heard about the extent of Saddam Hussein's cruelty and he wanted to help liberate the people.

"When I got to Iraq and saw we destroyed the infrastructure, I knew weren't there to free the Iraqi people," he said. "You only do that if you intend to occupy."

The veterans, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, say they have all been accused of not being patriotic for speaking out against the war and the government. Figorski, who left Iraq by Medevac when his Humvee was blown up by a roadside bomb, has a different view.

"A lot of people I've encountered say I'm not patriotic," he said. "I don't think they have read the Declaration of Independence. They may display it, but I don't think they've actually read it."

Key, who has a total of 50 U.S. flags in his living room, said he loves his country and would not rather live anywhere else in the world, but he believes it is patriotic to question the government.

"We all lose if we surrender the idea of patriotism, liberty and freedom," he said.

The forum will be repeated at the Main Library on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the fourth-floor meeting room.