WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iceland is the world's most peaceful nation while the United States is ranked among the bottom third, according to a study released on Tuesday.
The "Global Peace Index," compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked the United States 97th out of 140 countries according to how peaceful they were domestically and how they interacted with the outside world.
The United States slipped from 96th last year, but was still ahead of foe Iran which ranked 105th. It, however, lagged Belarus, Cuba, South Korea, Chile, Libya and others which were listed as more peaceful.
Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003, leading to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, ranked lowest on the index. Afghanistan, another country invaded by the United States this decade, was also in the bottom five, along with Sudan, Somalia and Israel.
Commenting on the U.S. ranking, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said to realize a more peaceful and prosperous world, "Often times, you have to do difficult things and a lot of times, people don't agree with them. They don't like them."
"A lot of times you fall down in these lists but at the end of the day it is in defense of democracy and the way of life we have enjoyed over the past several decades," he added.
The United States has come under strong international criticism for the invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath.
Its image has also been damaged by the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.
Small, stable and democratic countries were found to be the most peaceful in the index, with 16 of the top 20 coming from western or central European democracies.
The index looks at 24 indicators of external and internal measures of peace, including U.N. deployments overseas and levels of violent crime, respect for human rights, the number of soldiers killed overseas and arms sales.
The Group of Eight major economic powers were a mixed bag. Japan ranked fifth, Canada 11th, Germany 14th, Italy 28th, France 36th and Britain 49th. Russia was near the bottom at 131st, the only one in the group below the United States.
Based on a comparison of 121 countries in the same index last year, scores were slightly improved for levels of crime, political instability and the potential for "terrorist acts," said a statement accompanying the release of the index.
The index was launched under the auspices of the Institute for Economics and Peace, a new think tank that looks at the relationship between economics, business and peace.
Supporters of the index urged policymakers to focus more on education, wealth, and well-functioning government and pointed to the role of business in creating more stability.
Reporting by Sue Pleming; editing by Mohammad Zargham