Entering Year 5 of an unpredictable war
At 10:16 p.m. Eastern time on March 19, 2003, a grim President Bush addressed the world from the Oval Office.
Earlier that day, he announced, American forces had launched an invasion “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
“Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force,” Bush said that night. “And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory.”
On Monday, four years later, more than 140,000 American servicemembers in Iraq face the latest twist in a conflict that has morphed from an overland rush to a deepening sectarian conflict.
While many Pentagon planners and administration officials initially projected the war would be won in weeks, some of Bush’s words that night have taken on an eerie resonance.
“A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict,” Bush said then. “And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.”
The American military’s “sustained commitment” now focuses on tamping down a sectarian battle for Baghdad, a continuing struggle to support Iraq’s fledgling government, and keeping the war from widening to a regional conflict.
Many of the war’s critical junctures can be invoked simply by name: Fallujah. Tal Afar. Ramadi. Abu Ghraib. Mahmudiyah.
Others take a bit more explaining: The growth of the insurgency. The hunt, capture, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein. The rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the manhunt that ultimately killed him. The reconstruction efforts hampered by both insurgent attacks and mismanagement. The sectarian conflict that changed the nature of the war.
By the end of 2005, three elections and the adoption of a new Iraqi constitution had buoyed American hopes that progress was being made. For 2006, the plan was to put the focus on training Iraqi forces and — possibly — to begin reducing the number of American troops on the ground.
But in February of that year, the bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra brought the problems between Sunnis and Shiites to the fore. By the end of 2006, the U.S. military and President Bush were discussing a new direction. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the war, was replaced. And on Jan. 11, saying “the situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and it is unacceptable to me,” Bush announced that new course.
The strategy — to increase the number of American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad and to base them in the heart of the city — focuses on the biggest test of the “clear, hold, build” strategy that had begun in 2005, most notably in Tal Afar.
And in March 2007, according to the Pentagon’s just-released “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report, “the term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shiite-on-Shiite violence, al-Qaida and Sunni insurgent attacks on coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence.”
But, it acknowledges, “some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a ‘civil war,’ including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities and mobilization, the changing character of the violence and population displacements.”
In today’s Stars and Stripes, we look at how a few individual lives have been affected by the past four years in Iraq.