Five Big Moments In The Iraq War

With the Iraq war officially over and the pullout of U.S. forces nearly complete, host Scott Simon talks with Tom Ricks, author of The Best Defense blog, and Jon Lee Anderson from The New Yorker about the most influential turning points of the war.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It began with an oval office speech on March 19, 2003...

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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war.

SIMON: ...came to an official end this week at a military ceremony in Baghdad.

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SIMON: In the more than eight and a half years since the first bombs fell and the first cruise missiles were launched, a series of decisions and events changed the outcome of the war and lives of millions of Iraqis. We've reached out to two acclaimed journalist who cover Iraq and ask them what do you see as the turning points in the War in Iraq and what followed? We'll hear about life in Iraq in a moment, but we begin with journalist and author Tom Ricks.

I found it interesting, several of your most important moments came in 2003 before the fighting actually began.

TOM RICKS: Yeah. I think the single biggest factor that characterized the war, that determined the way it went, was the basic decision to invade a country preemptively on false premises. We've never done that before. I don't think we'll ever do it again, I hope. In retrospect, it smells of panic. I think the whole country was kind of knocked off balance by 9/11, and then kind of woke up one day a couple of years later and said what did we do? Why are in Iraq? What does this have to do with the war on terror?

SIMON: You also list the refusal to plan for what happened after we got to Baghdad in not having one person in control of the U.S. effort in Iraq.

RICKS: This still puzzles me exactly why we would invade a country without really much of an articulated notion of what we were going to do once we got there. The Bush administration civilians, led by Paul Bremer, have a revolutionary mission. We're going to transform Iraq. We're going to turn it into a beacon of democracy that will change the Middle East. The military goes in and basically says quietly, we don't do that. So from the get-go, we had the civilian American effort at odds with the military effort; one side trying to be revolutionary, the other side trying to bring stability.

SIMON: Tom Ricks, your next moment is the recognition that we were facing an insurgency.

RICKS: This was finally when the U.S. military stepped up. John Abizaid, the American commander, really put his foot down and insisted in the summer of 2003 we are facing an insurgency. Remember until that point, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has said we are not. These were a few dead enders, they're going to be gone in a short period. And until that time, the Bush administration had been in deep denial. I think it continued to be in forms of denial for another several years.

SIMON: You final moment is the surge, but you focus on a specific aspect of it which has less to do with the surge of troops than a surge of payments.

RICKS: Yeah. The surge, people in America tend to remember it as the injection of about 30,000 additional American troops into Iraq, but the much more important difference was the shift in American attitudes. Instead of telling Iraqis what to do, how to do it, we're going to ask them what to do and how to do it. And the response that people got was there were a number of things you can do differently, and you probably could pay off the Sunni insurgents to stop fighting.

And so we put a hundred thousand Sunni insurgents on the American payroll to the tune, if I recall correctly, at about $30 million a month. And I think it was the right thing to do.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

RICKS: You're welcome.

SIMON: Now we turn to Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker. He covered life on the ground for Iraqis. He starts with two controversial decisions made in 2003, the decision to stand back while the country while looted, and disbanding the Iraqi military.

JON LEE ANDERSON: These were devastating decisions. I knew a lot of Iraqis and they were all essentially waiting to be told what to do. That didn't happen. Instead, an orgy of looting ensued, which really didn't end for months. And the (unintelligible) regime which was, you know, gone to hide and lurk in the shadows, watched and noticed this behavior. It showed a lack of control, a lack of a plan, and they were able to loot arsenals and armories of weapons and explosives and allowed the insurgents that would, to become the insurgents that could.

And in the midst of this chaos, Paul Bremer issued two decree laws, one after the other. One was to disband the Iraqi army, and the other was to ban and effectively criminalize the Ba'ath party. This was to alienate a huge percentage of the population, and indeed, that's exactly what it did.

SIMON: You cite another decision, the arrest in 2004 of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

ANDERSON: The Shiites stood to gain most from the displacement of the Saddam regime, but there was one fellow, a young man, a firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who was gathering a large kind of mob, a rabble, that would periodically demonstrate and shake their fists and say that they wanted the Americans to go. Well, things got to a head, and in March 2004, Paul Bremer decided to arrest him, whereupon Muqtada al-Sadr immediately rose up in arms and so did all of his followers.

By the end of April, the Americans were facing twin insurgencies, from the Shiite population as well as the Sunni, and things were never ever the same after that.

SIMON: Jon Lee Anderson, you noticed scandal that has become well-known around the world, Abu Ghraib.

ANDERSON: Those two words have done probably more damage to America's image around the world than many others. The humiliation of Iraqis by a foreign occupying troop caused the deepest sort of indignation, and this was key because it was something that al Qaida, which had been trying to find a way to get into Iraq and find a constituency, it made it much easier for it to find one, and of course it did find one. And from this time on, the really gruesome and grizzly nature of the war began.

SIMON: Your final moment that you list as event that many people believe set of a sectarian war in Iraq.

ANDERSON: The bombing in February 2006 by Sunni insurgents of the very revered Shiite mosque in the city of Samarra north of Baghdad. It has to be said that ever since the beginning of the post-invasion conflict in Iraq that the Sunni insurgents had been attacking the Shiites, and yet the Shiites had strenuously sought to hold back their hot-headed young men. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and killing began in earnest at that point.

This also allowed Iran to come into the war in a way it hadn't before, covertly, with its own killing squads on the Shiite sides.

SIMON: Mr. Anderson, thank you so much.

ANDERSON: You're welcome.

SIMON: Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker and Tom Ricks who writes the Best Defense Blog for Foreign Policy Magazine.

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