Iraq War Enters Sixth Year with Wave of Violence

The war's sixth year begins in Baghdad with rockets falling into the U.S.-protected Green Zone over the weekend, while the overall U.S. military death toll tops 4,000 after a roadside bombing claims more American lives.

Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales (Ret.) tells Robert Siegel that the enemy in Iraq has evolved, even as U.S. forces have improved their defenses against irregular attackers operating anonymously in small units and employing suicide and roadside bombs.

He says they have built larger bombs, and found more clever ways of hiding explosives and detonating the devices.

As well, Iraqi insurgents often are launching their attacks from densely populated regions, "so even though the point of launch can be determined with great precision, the ability to shoot back is limited," Scales says.

"You simply can't load up artillery guns and throw rounds into a crowded neighborhood. So the enemy has time — while the U.S. forces are clearing the area, putting together a patrol, launching helicopters — to simply fade away into buildings and hide away in alleys."

But Scales says this does not mean that the Iraqis who live in these neighborhoods support or are intimidated into cooperating by the insurgents. He says the hit-and-run attackers usually drive in from miles away and are gone before the populous even knows they are there.

Ultimately, Scales says it is very difficult to respond to suicide bombers, in particular.

"There is so little you can do when you're facing an enemy who is enthusiastic about death. ... They want to create an impression among the Iraqis and Arabs in the region that U.S. efforts to build this period of tranquility [are] interrupted by these periodic spikes. And so the more dramatic they can make it, the more deaths that they can cause, that really plays to their ends," Scales says.

From the Beginning: A Look at Five Years of War

Iraqis return from a looting spree at Saddam Hussein's former palace in Baghdad. i i

Iraqis return from a looting spree at Saddam Hussein's former palace near Baghdad International Airport in April 2003. Scott Nelson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Nelson/Getty Images
Iraqis return from a looting spree at Saddam Hussein's former palace in Baghdad.

Iraqis return from a looting spree at Saddam Hussein's former palace near Baghdad International Airport in April 2003.

Scott Nelson/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers guard the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in August 2003. i i

U.S. soldiers guard the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, where a massive truck bomb devastated the United Nations headquarters, in August 2003. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers guard the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in August 2003.

U.S. soldiers guard the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, where a massive truck bomb devastated the United Nations headquarters, in August 2003.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the city was eerily silent. Then, suddenly the Iraqi capital burst into chaos. Looters thronged the streets, taking whatever they could. When asked why they didn't intervene, American officers said they had no orders to do so.

The initial chaos marked the beginning of five tumultuous years in Iraq. NPR's Anne Garrels, who has traveled back and forth to Iraq since before the war began, talks to Steve Inskeep about her experiences.

Here, a look back at a few of those key moments and memorable people of the last five years:

Baghdad, Spring 2003

Many were shocked at the lack of security after the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Among them was a doctor at a major Iraqi hospital — the only doctor who dared show up for work there on the day Garrels caught up to him.

"We want a government now to help with the electricity and the water supply. This is very dangerous. It's more serious than American war itself," he said.

U.N. Headquarters Bombing, August 2003

From a distance, it might have been possible to think the situation in Iraq was under control in the summer of 2003. Then, a massive truck bombing hit the United Nations in Baghdad, killing U.N. representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his staff members. After that bombing — which amounted to only the second major attack on a civilian target — the United Nations all but pulled out.

Battle of Fallujah, Fall 2004

In 2004, a steady stream of violence continued. In the fall, the U.S. military decided to retake Fallujah, which had become an insurgent stronghold. As the troops readied for battle, a group of them who had never seen combat revealed to Garrels their concerns about how they would perform.

"We all don't know what it's going to be like, you know. We can't. We've never been put in that situation," one Marine said.

Two members of that group were subsequently killed in Fallujah when they stormed a house that had been booby-trapped by insurgents. American troops now have much more experience in Iraq, but multiple deployments have taken their toll.

Sectarian Violence, 2005

Months before the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra that sparked an incredible outburst of sectarian killing, the violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims was already growing.

In 2005, a Shiite cleric from Samarra complained that nothing was being done to stop it.

"We keep meeting and meeting, getting nothing. These meetings are useless. No one does anything. The people need help," he said.

Shiites in Samarra were being killed, threatened and pushed out of the area, despite pleas for government help. That bubbling conflict burst into the open when the shrine was bombed in 2006.

U.S. Troop Surge, 2007

The United States increased its troop numbers and changed tactics the following year. Previously hunkered down on huge bases, soldiers began living in the communities.

Capt. Eric Peterson set up one of the first combat outposts in the Gazalia neighborhood of Baghdad. Talking about one of the Iraqis he had enlisted for help, Peterson said, "He was a part of a crowd that pretty much said, 'Hey, about 12 months ago we were actively trying to kill Americans.' I mean, he does not hide that fact."

Since then, security in the neighborhood has improved, but the situation remains fragile. More than a year into the surge, the streets of Baghdad may be safer, but it's difficult to judge just how much.

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