Losing Iraq

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Michael Kirk
Jim Gilmore
Mike Wiser

Jim Gilmore

Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser

Michael Kirk

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Iraq, the inside story of the war we left behind.

PETER BAKER, Author, Days of Fire: ISIS began moving through places where so many Americans had given their lives to liberate.

ANNOUNCER: A story over a decade in the making.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, Fiasco: August 2003 is when the real war for the future of Iraq began. The Jordanian embassy gets blown up. A few days later, the U.N. gets blown up.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Bring ‘em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.

NARRATOR: Through two American presidencies.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, Iraq Director, NSC, 2008-09: The president decided he wanted this behind us. He wanted to normalize Iraq, when it’s a country that’s not normal.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2007-09: The war was over. We were out. Let the chips fall where they may.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Bush Natl. Security Advisor: When the last American troops leave, Maliki begins a pretty concerted crackdown on the Sunni population.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE investigates Losing Iraq.


Col. BRIAN McCOY, USMC (Ret.): The Iraqis had gathered around the statue and were throwing their shoes at it.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, Author, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: What struck me was the Iraqis couldn’t pull it down themselves.

Col. BRIAN McCOY: It was obvious it wasn’t going to happen. It would be a pretty anti-climatic moment if we didn’t help.

Twitter #LosingIraq

BARBARA BODINE, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance: It was a dramatic moment. It was an American flag that went on it first. That’s almost a metaphor for what’s happened since. You know, then, ultimately, well, an Iraqi flag was put on it and enough photographs were taken of Iraqi cheering.

STEVEN W. CASTEEL, Advisor to Interior Ministry: By the way, that statue was very heavy. The problem was much more involved than I think anyone thought of.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It made me worry. Something told me, you know, this isn’t going to be quite as easy as we thought.

NARRATOR: In those early days, there was great optimism.

Col. R. ALAN KING, U.S. Army: People were just—pure exhilaration. At that point in time, you think, “This might just work.” And I remember seeing a guy with a—carrying a huge couch on his back. And he turns and says, “Yay, America!” You know?

JOHN BURNS, The New York Times: There were flowers. There were shouts of joy. There were people clambering on the tanks and kissing the tank crews. But by the time this happened, and within a matter of an hour of the Marine tanks coming up the Canal Expressway, of course, the looting had begun.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Ctr. for Strategic and Intl. Studies: And all of a sudden, the Iraqi people started looting, attacked the ministries, basically created a series of events, which didn’t stop with that. Less than two U.S. brigades were in isolated positions in a city of more than five million people, having no idea of what might come next.

NEWSCASTER: Iraqis are looting on a grand scale. It is a clear sign that while war might be ending, there is trouble ahead.

NARRATOR: In Washington, the Bush administration brushed aside the bad news.

DONALD RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense: I picked up a newspaper today, and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about “Chaos!” “Violence!” “Unrest!” And it just was, “Henny Penny, the sky is falling.” I’ve never seen anything like it! It’s just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country!

NARRATOR: But behind closed doors, some of Rumsfeld’s generals were worried.

Gen. JACK KEANE, Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-03: In ‘03, from a military perspective, from the time we took the regime down, we never made a commitment to secure the population. And we never had enough resources to do it.

NARRATOR: General Jack Keane was acting Army chief of staff.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, Fiasco: General Keane is really highly admired across the Army. He’s kind of a soldier’s soldier. And he had argued in the tank before the invasion of Iraq, “Don’t invade Iraq.”

NARRATOR: Looking back, Keane says that the war plans drafted by Secretary Rumsfeld and commanding general Tommy Franks did not include adequate plans for securing the country.

Gen. JACK KEANE: I think it’s driven, in part, by my own failures when I was there as a senior military leader contributing to General Franks’s plan, that we never even considered an insurgency as a reasonable option.

NARRATOR: On the ground, even as tensions were rising, General Franks had a surprise announcement.

MICHAEL GORDON, Co-author, Endgame: A very striking thing happened. General Franks gave guidance that his commanders should be prepared to withdraw all American forces, except for a little more than a division which would remain, by September 2003.

NARRATOR: More than 110,000 troops were told to prepare to leave. A division, about 30,000, would handle Iraq.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: There was this power vacuum. Nobody quite knew what was the plan. The soldiers thought they were all going home.

NARRATOR: It was a message the president delivered personally when he flew 30 miles off the coast of California to reassure the world that the major combat phase of the war in Iraq was over.

[May 1, 2003]

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free. [cheers]

THOMAS RICKS: Bush never said “mission accomplished,” but that banner was hanging up right behind his head as he gave that speech. And it really was a premature victory speech that didn’t recognize what was going on in Iraq.

NARRATOR: The administration’s strategy was to pull the troops out of Iraq and hand over responsibility to an American civilian. In Washington, Vice President Cheney’s office had just the man for the job, a little known diplomat named L. Paul Bremer III.

Amb. L. PAUL BREMER III, Administrator, CPA: Well, I was contacted by two people, Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense, and Scooter Libby, who was the vice president’s chief of staff, both of whom I had known for decades.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Bremer is old friends with Scooter Libby, who is Cheney’s chief of staff, and Libby put Bremer’s name forward. And Bremer was sort of the right kind of conservative.

NARRATOR: In Bremer, Cheney had given Secretary Rumsfeld a businessman, a diplomat, managing director of Kissinger and Associates.

THOMAS RICKS: Here’s a guy who had worked for Henry Kissinger, but doesn’t know a whole lot about the Middle East, doesn’t speak Arabic, doesn’t know the region.

Amb. JAMES DOBBINS, Fmr. Asst. Secretary of State: What he lacked was the practical experience, and it was that lack of experience that commended him, in large measure, to the Bush administration.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, it’s my honor to announce that Jerry Bremer has agreed to become the presidential envoy to Iraq.

NARRATOR: President Bush made it official. Bremer was now in charge of the occupation. After a two week-crash course on Middle Eastern politics, he arrived in Iraq to head what was known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, the CPA.

L. PAUL BREMER: We flew on a C-130 into Baghdad. The thing that was striking to us was the fact that a lot of the buildings were on fire.

NARRATOR: Baghdad had been burning for one month.

MICHAEL GORDON: There’d be buildings on fire. The fires would just have to burn themselves out because there was no fire department.

Amb. CLAYTON McMANAWAY, Amb. Bremer’s Deputy: There’s no government. There were no police. The army was gone.

NARRATOR: As they drove into the city, Bremer made a decision and promptly announced it to his new staff.

L. PAUL BREMER: I did one thing that wasn’t very smart, which was suggest to the staff meeting that I thought we should shoot the looters, that our military should have authority to shoot the looters, which they did not have at that time.

DAN SENOR, Sr. Advisor to Amb. Bremer: His point was you only needed to shoot a few of them to make that point and the looting would stop.

L. PAUL BREMER: It wasn’t very smart to do because somebody on the staff immediately told the press that I had suggested shooting the looters, and we had a problem.

NARRATOR: Military commanders refused to go along with Bremer’s idea.

Col. H.R. McMASTER, U.S. Army: Well, of course, it’s against our code of honor. There just is not sufficient justification to shoot somebody because they’re carrying a computer out of the old Ministry of, you know, Education building.

NARRATOR: And so ended Paul Bremer’s first day in Iraq.

THOMAS RICKS: And I think one thing Bremer found out that day was that he had no command over the military.

NARRATOR: Bremer’s headquarters were in a heavily fortified area of Baghdad called the Green Zone.

THOMAS RICKS: The Green Zone became the Emerald City, walled off from the rest of Iraq. The rest of Iraq, electricity is intermittent at best, sewage problems, dusty, dirty, potholes. Inside the Green Zone, it’s calm, it’s quiet.

NARRATOR: As Bremer settled in, he knew he would have to deal with Iraq’s complicated sectarian politics.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES, Military Strategist, CPA: This is one of the most fractious places you could have picked, with more problems in terms of—it’s right on the Shia/Sunni divide. It has the Kurds. It has 20 years of dysfunctional government.

NARRATOR: Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party had brutally controlled the country’s majority Shi’ites and the Kurds. Now Bremer was determined to change that.

MICHAEL GORDON: The idea is, you would remove Saddam’s agents from the government or people loyal to him, make room for Shi’ites and Kurds, who it was assumed would work together in some sort of collegial way.

NARRATOR: And Bremer had a plan to remake the Iraqi government.

Amb. ROBIN RAPHEL, Reconstruction Coordinator, CPA: Bremer hadn’t been there very long—literally a day—and these papers were coming out of his briefcase. I was in the office, outside of the front office, and began reading them, and so on.

NARRATOR: It was called CPA Order Number One. It would end Sunni domination of the government and bring in rival ethnic and religious groups, the Kurds and the Shi’ites.

Gen. JAY GARNER (Ret.), Dir., Office of Humanitarian Assistance: I’m walking down the hallway, and Ambassador Robin Raphel says, “Have you seen this?” She has a piece of paper. I said, “No. What is it?” She says, “De-Ba’athification order.” I said, “Wow.” So I read it real quick there in the hall. I said, “This is too deep.”

NARRATOR: Retired general Jay Garner was one of the few Americans who knew his way around Iraq. He’d worked there before.

Col. THOMAS M. GROSS (Ret.), Office of Humanitarian Assistance: He was very, very, very angry. And Jay’s very personable. His head was down. He was walking fast-paced all over. I could tell he was very upset about it.

Gen. JAY GARNER: I walked down, and a CIA guy, a great guy, was coming across the hallway. And I said, “Hey, Charlie, have you read the de-Ba’athification?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why I’m here.” I said, “Well, let’s go in and talk to the ambassador.”

NARRATOR: Garner was worried that Bremer seemed not to understand how things worked in Iraq.

Gen. JAY GARNER: So we went in and we talked to Ambassador Bremer for a few minutes. And I said, “You know, this is too deep.” I said, “Let—give Charlie and I about 45 minutes to an hour. Let us digest this thing, and then let us recommend some changes to you and come back here, and we’ll get on the phone with Rumsfeld to see if we can’t soften this a bit.”

THOMAS RICKS: And Bremer kind of says, “Look, you don’t understand. I’m not asking you, I’m telling you this is what I’m going to do. I’m not asking for your advice.” And they argue a bit more. And finally, Bremer says, “Look, I have my orders. This is what I’m doing.”

Gen. JAY GARNER: And so I said, “Well, Charlie, what do you think?” And to the best of my memory, Charlie said, “Well, if you do this, you’re going to drive 30,000 to 50,000 Ba’athists underground by nightfall. And the number’s closer to 50,000 than it is to 30,000.”

NARRATOR: Ambassador Bremer says he does not recall the conversation with General Garner and the CIA officer.

L. PAUL BREMER: He may have come in and spoken to me at great length about it. I just don’t remember it, honestly don’t remember it.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t remember these guys coming in and saying—

L. PAUL BREMER: Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

INTERVIEWER: —“This is 30,000 to 50,000 people, and my God, what are you doing?”

L. PAUL BREMER: I just—you know, I was working 20 hours a day in that period, as well, and this wasn’t the only thing on my list of things to do the first five days I was there. I had a lot of other things to do.

INTERVIEWER: But this is a big one, right?

L. PAUL BREMER: There were a lot of big things that first five days. There were a lot of big things the first 48 hours. So I don’t remember every meeting. I don’t say it didn’t happen. All I’m—I knew there were concerns. I knew the agency made the assessment that there were about 20,000 people to be thrown out of work. And I judged in the end that that was a risk that we were worth—we were willing to take.

[May 15, 2003]

And those who were on high before, in particular the Ba’athists, who used their power to repress the Iraqi people, will be removed from office.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think, frankly, there wasn’t a single person in the CPA who understood what Order Number One meant. It created a climate where people could be expelled as university teachers or grade school teachers, not simply people who had some kind of tie to the senior structure.

Col. THOMAS M. GROSS: Two reasons we wanted to keep the Ba’athist Party intact. One, the only folks who have experience running the government, so we needed to keep them. Number two, the Sunnis need to have a voice. And if you don’t give people a voice, they have relatively few options. And what the Middle Eastern history and Middle Eastern—what it tells you is their next option is violence.

NARRATOR: With the de-Ba’athification order, Bremer made a decisive statement. In doing so, he gave the CPA staff, the military and the Iraqis the first indication of who he was.

JAMES DOBBINS: Tough, could get things done. Anybody who was Henry Kissinger’s right-hand man had to have a certain amount of steel in his personality.

NARRATOR: And then seven days later, another decisive and controversial announcement, CPA Order Number Two, the decision to dissolve the Iraqi military.

L. PAUL BREMER: I think the decision not to recall Saddam’s army, from a political point of view, is the single most important correct decision that we made in the 14 months we were there.

NARRATOR: It was a decision that had been quietly authorized by the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. But just nine days before the war began, the president had agreed to keep the Iraqi army.

FRANKLIN C. MILLER, Bush Natl. Security Council: The briefing recommended that the regular Iraqi army be maintained as an institution because we believed that it would dangerous to put 300,000 men on the street with guns, without jobs.

[ More on the turning points of the war]

NARRATOR: The U.S. commanders, desperate for boots on the ground, had been counting on a pacified Iraqi army to do the grunt work.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES, Military Strategist, CPA: We actually had people negotiating with Iraqis to bring them back, and there were a lot of Iraqis saying, “OK, we can bring back units.”

Col. PAUL HUGHES, Office of Humanitarian Assistance: They were clearly anticipating, at least as late as 9 May, having available Iraqi forces for us to use in the reconstruction effort.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES: Now you have a couple hundred thousand people who are armed, because they took their weapons home with them, who know how to use the weapons, who have no future and have a reason to be angry at you.

Col. THOMAS M. GROSS: Who knows how many folks who got disgruntled and went to the other side. I will tell you this, 72 hours after the decision was made, the first major attack from the airport road took place, and got two of our military police killed. And it’s been downhill from there.

NARRATOR: And for commanding general Tommy Franks, it was just one more reason to retire.

Gen. MICHAEL DeLONG, Gen. Franks’s Deputy: All the recommendations that we were making weren’t being taken by Bremer or Rumsfeld. So that’s when Franks said, “I’m done.” They said, “Well, give you the—you can be chief of staff of the Army.” He said, “No, I’m done. What would I do?” The president asked him— “Nope.”

NARRATOR: And then the top military commanders in Iraq all left.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, Fiasco: So across the board, it’s almost like people are wiping their hands, saying, “Great job, fellas.” You know, “You guys play the next game. We’re out of here.”

NARRATOR: But even as the generals left, the fighting was far from over. What would become known as the insurgency had begun.

Col. R. ALAN KING, Deputy Director, CPA: The military had been disbanded. The sheikhs were telling me that the insurgents were paying them money, you know, paying them up to $500 per operation. If they could videotape to show that they had killed someone, they got a bonus.

Col. THOMAS M. GROSS: It’s got a military spin on it. Now you weren’t seeing looting, criminal things, as much as you were seeing grenades off of bridges, all types of things.

NEWSCASTER: In Iraq, it’s been another violent day. Two car bombs—

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ‘em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.

NEWSCASTER: There has been another spasm of violence in Iraq.

NEWSCASTER: —killed at least five Iraqis in the center of Baghdad today—

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: We were in a state of denial. We were looking on these as sort of a small group of isolated diehards that we could largely ignore.

DONALD RUMSFELD: In Iraq, difficult work remains. Coalition forces have captured now some 32 out of 55 of the most wanted. They’re making progress against the dead-enders who are harassing coalition forces. Just as they were unable to stop the coalition—

NARRATOR: Then, a defining moment. Any debate about whether there was an insurgency was settled. It began with a car bombing at the Jordanian embassy.

THOMAS RICKS: August 2003 is when the real war for the future of Iraq began. August 7th, the Jordanian embassy gets blown up. A few days later, the U.N. gets blown up.

DAN SENOR, Sr. Advisor to Amb. Bremer: I am in Ambassador Bremer’s front office. We get the news and we go into his office, and that’s where things take off.

NARRATOR: The United Nations’s top envoy, Sergio de Mello, had been killed.

L. PAUL BREMER: It was a very emotional situation for everybody involved.

[August 19, 2003]

We will leave no stone unturned to find the people who did this.

REPORTER: With this new kind of an attack, how can you secure this city and this country?

L. PAUL BREMER: We’ll do our best to find these people before they attack and to deal with them. And we will.

NARRATOR: To the experts, it was clear. America was still at war.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES: I knew for absolute certain when they had the series of bombings—the police station, the Jordanian embassy, the Red Cross and the U.N.—that was clearly a campaign to drive out all of the elements that could help the United States govern a country.

NARRATOR: The Pentagon’s plan to send more than 100,000 troops home by the end of the summer was now out of the question. In September 2003, the secretary of defense boarded a C-17 Globemaster to go see Iraq for himself. Impatient, he kept asking all of the brass that traveled with him the same question.

THOMAS RICKS: “When are you going to get this thing wrapped up,” is the phrase I heard Rumsfeld use. “When are you going to get this thing wrapped up?”

NARRATOR: Rumsfeld spent a couple of days looking around, and realized his commanding general, Ricardo Sanchez, didn’t know what was happening.

JOHN BURNS, The New York Times: They had absolutely no intelligence. Sanchez said, “No intelligence.” He said, “That’s not a term of art.” We had no intelligence on the enemy. We didn’t know who we were fighting. We didn’t know what resources they had. We had no strategy for fighting this enemy. And the demand from Washington was for intelligence.

NARRATOR: Sanchez, desperate, pushed his commanders hard. Thousands of Iraqis were swept up in raids that fall.

Col. R. ALAN KING: It was their reality that, you know, we had these dragnet arrests. You’d go into a village and just arrest everybody.

NARRATOR: Sanchez needed a place to hold and interrogate the prisoners. There was one not far from Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s most feared prison, Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib became the de facto boot camp for the insurgency.

THOMAS RICKS: The biggest single tactical mistake was to stuff Abu Ghraib with tens of thousands of Iraqis, who may have been neutral about the Americans when they went in, but weren’t when they came out.

NARRATOR: Rumsfeld also took a hard look at what Paul Bremer had been doing. He told Bremer the Defense Department had decided it wanted Iraq given back to the Iraqis as soon as possible.

L. PAUL BREMER: The policy side of the Pentagon was saying, “The best way to cut all of this short is simply to hand over power to some Iraqis. Find us some Iraqis. Give them authority. We’ll end the occupation. We’ll get out of here.”

NARRATOR: Bremer had no idea who to hand the government to. He had formed a governing council of various Iraqi leaders, but had no confidence in them.

L. PAUL BREMER: And I told Secretary Wolfowitz, who was pushing this idea of early sovereignty, just handing sovereignty over, I didn’t think the governing council was up to this. They couldn’t organize a two-car parade. They were simply not able to make decisions in a timely fashion, or any decisions.

NARRATOR: Bremer was overruled. He was given until June 2004 to form a coalition government and wind down the American occupation.

THOMAS RICKS: And basically, the new policy is three words, “We’re outta here.”

L. PAUL BREMER: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him! Saddam Hussein was captured Saturday, December 13th, at about 8:30 PM local in a cellar in the town of Ad-Dawr, which is about 15 kilometers south of Tikrit.

1st SOLDIER: Two hands appeared. The individual clearly wanted to surrender. That individual was removed from the hole.

2nd SOLDIER: He said that, “I’m Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq, and I want to negotiate.” And then the response from the U.S. soldiers was, “President Bush sends his regards.”

NARRATOR: Some hoped Saddam’s capture would calm the insurgency. But four months later, one incident threatened to undo everything. Up in the Sunni heartland, in Fallujah, four American contractors were murdered.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES: Dragged around and hung off the bridge. Two of the bodies are hung off the bridge. This creates a “We must do something” response.

NARRATOR: The president wanted revenge. For the first time, he reached directly into the process and ordered the Marines to retaliate.

Col. GARY ANDERSON (Ret.), Military Strategist, DoD: Marines understand an order. Well, they shaved off their mustaches, fixed bayonets, and went in and did what Marines do best.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH, Consultant, DoD: Fallujah becomes kind of an Iraqi Alamo. Only in this case, the defenders survive.

DEXTER FILKINS, Author, The Forever War: Americans were moving into the city. They were killing people. Al Jazeera was showing images of mosques on fire and civilians, you know, being injured and killed.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH: The impression is portrayed that the Americans are going in and wantonly killing civilians along with the insurgents.

DEXTER FILKINS: And it was unsustainable for the Iraqi leadership, which at the time wasn’t elected, to continue.

NARRATOR: The spectacle of heavy Iraqi casualties threatened to cause Bremer’s governing council to fall apart. The June handoff of sovereignty hung in the balance.

Amb. ROBERT D. BLACKWILL, Dpty. Natl. Security Advisor, 2003-04: Once it flies apart, there’s no one to transfer sovereignty to. And we can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again in two months.

NARRATOR: Bremer appealed to the president to stop the Marines. The president pulled back. The Marines were now ordered to simply surround Fallujah and contain the insurgents.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH: This is a double loss. The Americans look indecisive. They look incompetent. They also look inhumane in the eyes of a wide number of people in the Middle East.

NARRATOR: But with the pullback, Bremer’s fragile coalition held. And on June 28th, 2004, he pushed through an interim constitution, formed a new government, and handed Iraq back to the Iraqis.

L. PAUL BREMER: —sincerely, L. Paul Bremer, ex-administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. [laughter]

NARRATOR: It was time to go home.

L. PAUL BREMER: The intelligence was suggesting that the terrorists and the insurgents were planning a major series of attacks on June 30th to embarrass us, make it look as if we were being chased out of Iraq, not that we were leaving on our own.

NARRATOR: They were worried about surface-to-air missiles.

L. PAUL BREMER: So we had to devise a way to get out that didn’t involve a C-130. And we had to keep, of course, all of it secret.

NARRATOR: For the cameras, Bremer appeared to leave on this airplane.

L. PAUL BREMER: And we pulled up the stairs and we just sat in the C-130. We sat there for about 15 minutes while the press and everybody went away. And then we went off, out over the cargo that was in the C-130, in the back, and flew on a helicopter to another part of the airport. And instead of going out on a C-130, we went out on a government plane, a smaller government plane to Jordan, safely.

BARBARA BODINE, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance: It says a lot about the security in the country by the time we did turn over sovereignty that that is the way that we had to leave.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It was sort of an ignominious departure. It was yet another metaphor.

NARRATOR: Bremer left behind the new governing council, 140,000 American troops, and a war that really had just begun.

NEWSCASTER: —yet another spasm of violence in Iraq—

NEWSCASTER: Chaos returned with a vengeance—

NEWSCASTER: —14 young men abducted, tortured—

NEWSCASTER: It is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war.

NEWSCASTER: The insurgents have stepped up their attacks since an interim Iraqi government—

NEWSCASTER: Innocent victims of the car bombs—

NARRATOR: The summer of 2004 was the height of the political season. The president was running for reelection. The insurgency was still raging. The last thing the White House wanted was any more bad news from Iraq.

NEWSCASTER: —top military officer in Iraq is being replaced—

NEWSCASTER: The Pentagon is expected to replace—

NARRATOR: It was time to try a new general.

NEWSCASTER: —General George Casey, Jr., will take over—

NARRATOR: Rumsfeld reached into the Pentagon bureaucracy for a four-star general and found George Casey.

THOMAS RICKS: He’s a second generation Army general. His father was a general who died in Vietnam. He goes out to Iraq, yet he’s never led troops in combat.

DEXTER FILKINS: Here’s a guy in charge of the biggest American war since Vietnam, and nobody knows who he is.

NARRATOR: Casey was ordered to minimize American casualties, to train and shift responsibility to the Iraqi army ASAP.

FREDERICK KAGAN, Military Historian: The objective is to get Iraq under control at a basic level, train up Iraqi security forces, turn over responsibility to the government, and leave.

NARRATOR: The plan was to prepare Iraq for elections.

Gen. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-03: The political strategy was to stand up a representative democracy, a representative government, as quickly as possible.

NARRATOR: That summer, General Casey put Rumsfeld’s plan into action. They called it the “light footprint.” The American force would retreat to large bases and only engage the insurgents when absolutely necessary.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, Fiasco: You had war tourism, units based on big forward operating bases, FOBs, going out and doing patrols from Humvees, and then coming back to their base. If that’s the way you’re operating, you’re not in the war, you’re simply a war tourist.

Gen. JACK KEANE: When you look back on that and analyze it, it’s a short-war strategy. Nowhere in there is a plan to defeat the insurgency. So we had no military strategy to defeat the insurgency.

NARRATOR: The first challenge to Casey’s light footprint strategy came from Baghdad’s Shi’ite slums. As anger over the American occupation grew, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr gained thousands of new followers.

MUQTADA AL SADR: [subtitles] The battle of Holy Najaf. Say with me, “No to occupation! No, no occupation!”

CROWD: [subtitles] No, no occupation! No, no occupation!

NARRATOR: With the support of Iran, Sadr’s Shi’ite militia, the Mahdi Army, had taken up arms in the holy city of Najaf.

Col. WILLIAM HIX, Chief Strategist to Gen. Casey: The challenge to the new coalition authority was such that it really couldn’t be ignored.

NARRATOR: He had set up his headquarters inside the shrine of Imam Ali Mosque, daring the Americans to attack. They did.

DEXTER FILKINS: And I actually was with the Mahdi Army when this battle was going on. And the Americans were kind of, you know, just dropping bombs literally right next to the shrine and just kind of wiping out the Mahdi Army.

NARRATOR: Sadr was surrounded. But the White House didn’t want to risk destroying the mosque. They ordered Casey to cut a deal.

Maj. THOMAS MOWLE, Strategy Advisor to Gen. Casey: I don’t think it was ever called a ceasefire or a peace agreement, but essentially, it was. Sadr agreed to have his militia not oppose the Americans. We bought back a lot of weapons from his militia. And that part of Baghdad became very peaceful.

NARRATOR: The payoff to Sadr was substantial. Casey spent $1.2 million buying back some weapons and $330 million more in what were called “reconstruction funds.” They hoped they had bought some peace and quiet.

NEWSCASTER: Four car bombs went off almost simultaneously this morning—

NEWSCASTER: The attacks came during the busy Baghdad commute—

NARRATOR: Now it was the Sunni insurgents who posed a threat to the upcoming elections. The key insurgent stronghold was familiar territory for the American military, Fallujah.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH, Consultant, DoD: Fallujah becomes a kind of sanctuary for insurgents, for radicals, for al Qaeda elements in Iraq.

DEXTER FILKINS: Bomb factory after bomb factory after bomb factory. I mean, they were just making the car bombs and shipping them to Baghdad.

THOMAS RICKS: The problem that Casey faces and his advisers are telling him is, “You’re not going to be able to hold elections here as long as Fallujah is out there.”

NARRATOR: Once again, Casey’s light footprint was set aside. He drew up plans for a full-scale attack.

Gen. GEORGE CASEY: Tonight, Iraqi security and coalition forces kicked off offensive operations in Fallujah—

DEXTER FILKINS: We went into Fallujah at about 10:00 PM, and the fighting started immediately. It’s pitch black outside. And we all started piling out of the troop carriers. We went in on foot. And you could see the RPGs sailing out of the city towards us. And I thought, “My God, you know, what have we gotten into here?”

NARRATOR: The battle raged for 10 days.

THOMAS RICKS: Fallujah 2, first of all, is an extraordinary, difficult and violent battle, I think the most intense combat U.S. forces had seen, certainly, since the Vietnam war.

Col. KALEV SEPP (Ret.), Gen. Casey Strategy Advisor: Much of the city was simply flattened by the attack.

Col. THOMAS X. HAMMES: Fallujah is, at that point, a victory for the United States.

DEXTER FILKINS: The city was basically destroyed after that.

NARRATOR: There was jubilation among many of the commanders. They believed the insurgency had been irreparably harmed.

Gen. GEORGE CASEY: With the liberation of Fallujah, they no longer have any safe havens anywhere in Iraq. And it was driven home to them that they cannot defeat the coalition forces.

LAWRENCE KAPLAN, The New Republic: I think there’s a resurgence of optimism and that the worst is behind us.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: In the battle for Fallujah, the terrorists hid weapons in the cemetery. They hid ammunition in private homes. They hid bombs in mosques. But they could not hide from the United States Marines! [cheers]

NARRATOR: But Casey’s military success may have backfired politically. Sunni refugees carried tales describing what they saw as a brutal American assault.

Maj. THOMAS MOWLE: Ultimately, if you draw out all the events that followed Fallujah, that certainly decreased the Sunni Arab support. And in that sense, it did help the insurgency and it did turn people to be more violently opposed to the American presence than they had been before.

NARRATOR: On election day, Rumsfeld’s plan for democracy was about to be tested.

DEXTER FILKINS: I got up that morning at 7:00. I went out in the streets. And there was no vehicular traffic allowed anywhere in the country.

Lt. Col. DONALD G. ROSE (Ret.), Gen. Casey Strategy Advisor: It was a day of incredible tension.

DEXTER FILKINS: So the streets were empty. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, no one’s going to come out to vote.” People started to trickle out. By 10:30 in the morning, there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people out to vote.

Lt. Col. DONALD ROSE: The stories that started coming in about millions of Iraqis lining up to vote were quite encouraging.

DEXTER FILKINS: It was a really extraordinary thing, people wearing their best clothes, husbands and wives with their children, people lining up.

Lt. Col. DONALD ROSE: And pictures of the people with their purple fingers started to be broadcast around.

NARRATOR: There were celebrations. But angry about Fallujah, the Sunnis had boycotted the election.

DEXTER FILKINS: If you look at the January election, it was a big turnout, but the Sunnis didn’t vote.

NARRATOR: As the votes were being counted, Casey’s inner circle knew there was a problem.

Maj. THOMAS MOWLE: We never imagined that a boycott by the Sunni Arabs could be that complete. It appears that overall, Sunni Arab turnout was probably about 10 percent.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Everybody understood very quickly we’d elected a government that divided the country. And everyone who had to work in the Green Zone or the area knew that beneath this political structure, there was a virtual vacuum.

Col. WILLIAM HIX: And so in that vacuum, the insurgency began to step back up in an effort to undermine that political process and undermine the legitimacy of the new government.

Gen. JACK KEANE: When we did not secure the population, the enemy realized that the population was fair game. We were not securing them. The Iraqis couldn’t do it yet. So what did they do? They began to kill people.

NEWSCASTER: We’re following reports today of two suicide bombings in Baghdad—

NARRATOR: The Bush administration told a different story.

Vice Pres. DICK CHENEY: I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The victory of freedom in Iraq will strengthen a new ally—

Gen. JACK KEANE: The rhetoric that the president was evidencing in his remarks—he would use terms like “win,” “We’re going to defeat the insurgents,” “victory”—that all would lend itself to a military strategy whose purpose was to defeat the insurgency. We never had that as a mission in Iraq.

NEWSCASTER: Explosives detonating just after 7:00 AM this morning underneath the golden dome—

NARRATOR: Now Casey would face Iraq’s greatest crisis yet. Al Qaeda had gained a foothold in the unrest.

NEWSCASTER: —one of the country’s most holy Shi’ite religious shrines—

NEWSCASTER: A huge explosion nearly completely destroyed one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites.

LAWRENCE KAPLAN: I think the February 22nd bombing of the Samarra mosque will be remembered as this war’s Tet.

MICHAEL GORDON: A kind of a diabolical attempt by al Qaeda to stimulate a civil war and to create a conflict between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, to making Iraq essentially ungovernable and chaotic and an entity that the Americans can no longer control.

JOHN BURNS: You would have to say that the attack of the Samarra Mosque was an act of evil genius and very nearly brought, I would say, the whole American enterprise in Iraq to the point of complete catastrophe.

Col. WILLIAM HIX: That bombing in Samarra broke the floodgates.

NARRATOR: Over the next 10 days, the Shi’ites responded. Sunni mosques were attacked, imams were killed, their bodies dragged through the streets. The Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr unleashed his Mahdi Army.

LAWRENCE KAPLAN: All bets are off. The Shia begin to fight back with the Sunni, and what was a one-sided insurgency becomes a two-sided civil war.

Gen. JACK KEANE: They got the overreaction that they wanted on the part of the Shia militias, drive the level of violence up higher than it had ever been and bring it to a state where it would be fractured, start to fall apart, disintegrate. The United States has to leave under those kind of conditions, and they begin to achieve their political objectives, in their mind.

NARRATOR: The Bush administration’s response was to take to the airwaves.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Iraqis have shown the world they want a future of freedom and peace.

Gen. GEORGE CASEY: Violence is not raging rampantly across Iraq.

Vice Pres. DICK CHENEY: My view would be they’ve reached a stage of desperation, from their standpoint.

Gen. GEORGE CASEY: The country is not awash in sectarian violence.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans have never retreated in the face of thugs and assassins, and we will not begin now!

NARRATOR: In Baghdad, with violence growing, the Bush team began urgently looking for an Iraqi leader to unite the country and stop the fighting.

MICHAEL GORDON: The thought was that Iraq needed a new prime minister, someone who would be less sectarian, more pragmatic, and certainly more decisive.

NARRATOR: American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was frustrated with the available candidates.

Amb. ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2005-07: I had asked my staff, “Can it be that in this country of 30 million that we cannot find someone who’s a unifier, who can lead this country in this hour of need?”

NARRATOR: Finally, a CIA officer at the embassy had a suggestion, a relatively unknown Shi’ite member of parliament, Nouri Kamal al Maliki.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Bush Natl. Security Advisor: The first time I ever heard of Nouri al Maliki was a phone call from Zal Khalilzad. And I said, you know, “What do you know about him?” And he said, “Well, we don’t know much about him.” “What does the intelligence community know about him?” “Well, they don’t know much about him, either.”

NARRATOR: When Saddam was in power, Maliki lived in exile in Iran and Syria, trying to topple the Iraqi dictator. But he had no real experience in government.

JOHN BURNS: Nouri Kamal al Maliki was kind of a default choice. And Maliki is a man who, not to be unkind, I think you—if you were sitting on a local school board, you’d worry about appointing him to be principal of your local high school.

NARRATOR: But Ambassador Khalilzad was desperate. He arranged a face-to-face meeting with Maliki.

MICHAEL GORDON: During the course of the discussion, Khalilzad put the proposition to him, “Have you ever thought about running for prime minister?”

NARRATOR: Maliki seemed surprised.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: He physically changed when I said that, and he said, “Would you not object to me,” or “Do you not object to me?” I said, “It’s not my place to object.”

NARRATOR: By May of 2006, the Americans had their man. Nouri al Maliki was elected the new prime minister of Iraq.

[ Who is Nouri al Maliki?]

PETER BAKER: Nouri al Maliki was so unknown to so many people in the Bush White House that they weren’t even using his right first name. He finally actually had to correct them and tell them that they weren’t using the right name. And I think it tells you about how little they understood about him when he first came to power. They were so happy to have somebody.

NARRATOR: Maliki was so inexperienced, the president himself scheduled frequent videoconferences in order to school the new prime minister in the art of politics.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: The president wanted to help him be a leader, to be a—what do you do, what don’t you do.

PETER BAKER: The idea being to kind of mentor him, to sort of bring him along. This is Bush teaching Maliki politics.

NEWSCASTER: Democrats took control of the House for the first time in 12 years—

NARRATOR: That fall, President Bush was learning a political lesson of his own.

NEWSCASTER: Democrats will have the upper hand in the new Congress—

WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

NARRATOR: Congressional Republicans suffered an historic defeat in the November midterm elections.

[Nov. 8, 2006]

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Say, why all the glum faces? I mean, look, this was a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumpin’.

THOMAS RICKS: You have the midterm elections, and the U.S. public is saying to President Bush, “This is not working for us. We are losing confidence.”

NARRATOR: It was time to clean house. Rumsfeld was out.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH, Consultant, DoD: It becomes, I think, a very attractive option to say, “Look, this is Rumsfeld’s war, not Bush’s war. Time for a change.”

NARRATOR: And now the president was determined to find a new strategy for Iraq.

PETER BAKER: Finally, only when things were just as bad as they could be, when his presidency was on the line, when the country was completely in rebellion against him, in effect, does he finally say, “OK, I have to step in here and decide what I think is the right strategy.”

NARRATOR: He went looking for fresh ideas and honest assessments. He was offered one by retired general Jack Keane.

Gen. JACK KEANE: I got called by the White House to come see the president and to give him my views, with others, in terms of the way ahead in Iraq.

NARRATOR: Keane advocated a plan he called “the surge.”

Gen. JACK KEANE: I told him that we were in a crisis, that time was running out. And I said the only thing that can work is to bring the level of violence down. And the way to do that is to secure the population, and we don’t have enough forces to do it and we have to surge forces to do it.

NARRATOR: It would be a complete reversal of General Casey’s “light footprint.”

Amb. RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2007-09: Most of his advisers, as I understand it, said, “Don’t do it. It won’t work, and it will cost us a tremendous amount in blood and treasure.” He saw it as our last best hope and went with it.

NARRATOR: On January 10th, 2007, Bush announced the surge.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Good evening. I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

STEVE COLL, The New Yorker: That decision, at a minimum, guaranteed that his presidency would not end with a defeat in history’s eyes, that by committing to the surge, he was certain to at least win a stalemate.

NARRATOR: In private, with his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, the president revealed just how unsure he was.

STEPHEN HADLEY: At one point, he looked up to me and he said, “Hadley, can—do you think this surge strategy is going to work?” And I said, “Mr. President, I think it will, but I do think, Mr. President, it’s our last chance to get this right.” And he says, “Good.” He said, “If you ever decide that you think the surge strategy cannot work, you need to come tell me.”

NARRATOR: To implement the surge, the president replaced General Casey with an unlikely choice, David Petraeus.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. Army: Perhaps it was a sign of how desperate the times were that, you know, I got the nod. I don’t know.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, The Gamble: David Petraeus is an interesting figure, an intellectual, has a Ph.D. from Princeton, enjoys talking to politicians and journalists, and in the Army, that’s kind of three strikes. You know, Princeton intellectual, likes Washington, likes journalists—you’re out, fella.

NARRATOR: Petraeus was a counterinsurgency expert. He knew what would have to happen.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: I said, “Get ready because it is going to get harder before it gets easier. We are going to take away from al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents on one hand, and then Shia militia extremists on the others, the areas in which they operate. We are going to fight them.”

NARRATOR: And Petraeus was blunt with the president.

PETER BAKER: And the president says, “You know, this is really important. You know, we’re doubling down here.” And Petraeus corrects him and says, “We’re not doubling down. This is all in.” He recognizes this is it. If this goes bad, that’s the end of the war, and it’s not going to be good for America.

NEWSCASTER: Thousands of extra troops, both Iraqi and American, will try to slow down the killing amongst Sunni Arabs—

NEWSCASTER: The surge begins, but the president stands increasingly alone—

NARRATOR: That spring, General Petraeus and almost 30,000 new troops initiated the surge.

NEWSCASTER: The White House is calling its Iraq plan the “New Way Forward.”

NARRATOR: Petraeus ordered tens of thousands of troops off the large bases and out among the Iraqis.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: The priority had to be on securing the Iraqi population and that this could only be done by living with the people. So instead of consolidating on big bases, which is the direction we’d been going in, we went back into the neighborhoods in Baghdad and other areas that were also threatened by this ever-spiraling sectarian strife.

NARRATOR: The job was to separate Sunnis and Shi’ites. That meant fierce engagements with Sunni insurgents and with Shi’ite militia groups.

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: When you take the fight to the adversary, by definition, casualties are going to go up. And casualties went up.

NARRATOR: Door to door, street by street, the American troops fought to seize control.

MICHAEL GORDON: But what they often overlook is just how violent the surge was because the Americans are dropping lots of bombs and using artillery, and all—just about every weapons system you could imagine to try to reclaim lost ground.

NARRATOR: Petraeus’s troops often found themselves in bloody firefights with heavily armed insurgents.

THOMAS RICKS: Spring 2007 was very difficult in Iraq. It was a scary time.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: And it was very, very tough. And it continued to go up and American casualties continued to go up to the May, June timeframe.

NARRATOR: Ambassador Ryan Crocker worked closely with Petraeus during those rough first months.

RYAN CROCKER: Early months of the surge were pretty horrible. We were losing hundreds of troopers, and neither Dave nor I could say it was going to succeed in the spring of ‘07. June was our worst month. We lost more than 120 Americans in combat.

NEWSCASTER: It’s a daily litany of violence—

NEWSCASTER: At least 122 Americans were killed—

THOMAS RICKS: I remember talking to Petraeus, and he was ashen. It was a very rough month in Baghdad. And you really could see guys with their fingers crossed that month in Baghdad, you know, “This has got to start working pretty soon.” Petraeus was very worried in that period.

NARRATOR: As the death toll grew, the political pressure intensified. Some of the president’s men blamed Nouri al Maliki.

PETER BAKER, Author, Days of Fire: There’s a real frustration with Maliki inside the Bush government. He’s just not somebody who’s easy to do business with, and they’re not happy with him. And so, in fact, when opposition to Maliki develops inside the Iraqi government, there’s a real school of thought inside Washington, saying, “OK, fine. Let him go.”

NARRATOR: One of the first to raise concerns about Maliki was national security advisor Stephen Hadley.

STEPHEN HADLEY: There was a sectarian agenda that was being carried out on the ground.

[ NY Times transcription]

NARRATOR: The previous fall, Hadley had authored a memo warning that Maliki’s government was becoming increasingly sectarian. Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries, all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad.

STEPHEN HADLEY: And I tried to frame the issue for the president, knowing that this was a judgment that the president was going to have to make himself.

NARRATOR: And now, over a secure videoconference, both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker gave up on the president’s man.

RYAN CROCKER: There was a moment when Dave Petraeus and I, because we were in the smoke and the dust every single damn day, had had it with Maliki. We said, “Boss, we got to have a change here.’

NARRATOR: But Bush had taken a liking to Maliki. He insisted he would not turn his back on the prime minister.

PETER BAKER: Bush really believes in his gut instinct towards other leaders. He really believes that international affairs is driven at least partly by how heads of state get along and whether they can trust each other. And he thinks he’s gotten a read on Maliki at this point.

RYAN CROCKER: The president effectively said, “You know, guys, I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but just go sit under a tree until that notion passes from your minds. We are going to make it work with Maliki. There is no other alternative.”

NEWSCASTER: For the third month, Americans have lost more than one hundred soldiers—

NEWSCASTER: —deadliest month this year for U.S. troops in Iraq—

NARRATOR: As the news from the battlefield got worse, Petraeus upped the ante.

NEWSCASTER: That number has just gone up and up and up—

NARRATOR: He decided to try to drive a wedge between the foreign al Qaeda fighters and the Sunni tribes that had been supporting them.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: They’d gotten tired of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had been abusive. It had been blowing Sunni Arabs up and Sunni mosques up, in addition to Shia Arabs and mosques. And so they were keen to get these individuals out of their areas.

[ More from Gen. Petraeus]

NARRATOR: Petraeus made a bold move.

THOMAS RICKS: The biggest change Petraeus makes, and the biggest gamble he takes, is he puts the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll.

NARRATOR: In one clandestine meeting after another, millions were handed over to former Sunni insurgents.

U.S. SOLDIER: I’m giving him $10,905,000—

NARRATOR: Petraeus called his Sunni paramilitary group the “Sons of Iraq.”

U.S. SOLDIER: —four, five, six , seven, eight, nine— 7,000— 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000—

NARRATOR: In exchange for fighting al Qaeda, Petraeus also promised the Sunnis a role in the Iraqi government. But inside Petraeus’s war council, it was not a popular move.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: Our own commanders had concerns about this. I had commanders come to me and say, “Hey, sir, we can’t sit down across the table with these guys. They’ve got our blood on their hands.” And I’d say, “Yes, indeed, they do. But that’s how these kinds of fights typically end. You have the reconcilables. We want to get as many as possible of them again to be part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem. And then that will identify the irreconcilables.”

NARRATOR: Petraeus says he initiated the payoffs on his own authority.

THOMAS RICKS: I remember I asked Petraeus once, “How did you get President Bush to approve that?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t need his approval, so I didn’t ask for it.”

NARRATOR: In the end, 103,000 Sunnis joined Petraeus’s army. They cost $400 million. On the streets of Iraq, they started to rebuild.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: We saw a dramatic reduction in violence, and ultimately, over the course of the surge, the level of violence was down by some 90 percent or so.

Gen. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-03: By the end of 2008, clearly, the al Qaeda and Sunni insurgency had been relatively stabilized. And in the al Qaeda’s mind, they were defeated. They actually said that in many of their transmissions that we were able to pick up. And the Shia militia, largely those trained by the Iranians in Basra and also in Sadr City, had been defeated.

NEWSCASTER: Violence in Iraq is on a downward trend—

NEWSCASTER: The story of hope, a better future in Iraq—

PETER BAKER: The numbers are starting to change. The violence is beginning to come down. There’s green shoots of optimism in the White House.

NEWSCASTER: It’s a stunning turn, like a light switch being flipped.

PETER BAKER: Maybe this is the time things are beginning to get better, they hope.

NEWSCASTER: There has been a sharp decline in roadside bombings in Iraq—

NARRATOR: In December of 2008, during the last month of his presidency—

NEWSCASTER: President Bush made an unannounced trip to Iraq Sunday—

NARRATOR: —George W. Bush made one final visit.

NEWSCASTER: Bush’s surprise last visit to Iraq as commander-in-chief—

PETER BAKER: It’s meant to be, in a sense, a valedictory. In effect, the surge has—at least seems to have changed things, turned things around.

STEPHEN HADLEY: The reasons for that trip are, of course, closure. I mean, how could the president, who has started the war in Iraq—how could he leave office without going back to Iraq?

NARRATOR: There was a meeting with his friend, Nouri al Maliki. Together, they signed an agreement that would keep American troops in Iraq through at least 2011.

Amb. ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.N. Ambassador, 2007-09: The policy was that we want to build a long-term partnership with Iraq, and that in the realm of security, some level of security presence was envisaged.

NARRATOR: In effect, President Bush had made sure his successor, Barack Obama, would keep American troops in place for at least three more years.

PETER BAKER, Author, Days of Fire: What he’s done is sort of set the pace of the war for his successor. His successor will come in and have this agreement already signed with the Iraqis, dictating how the next three years will go. And Bush has basically guaranteed that his successor will keep troops there, at least on some level, well into the next term.

NARRATOR: But then, as Bush celebrated the agreement—the shoes had come from an Iraqi reporter angry about the deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians in the years since Bush’s decision to invade.

PETER BAKER: President Bush is left sort of humiliated, I think, in front of the world.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Maliki is stricken. I mean, you can see it on his face—humiliated, angered.

PETER BAKER: Bush, I think, found this a rather depressing end to what had been a pretty depressing experience in Iraq. He gets back on the plane. His staff notices that he’s kind of low. He’s just kind of—you know, the wind has been taken out of his sails, so I think it was kind of a deflating moment for him.

NEWSCASTER: President Barack Obama has inherited two wars—

NEWSCASTER: Obama has obviously been dealing with a full plate of foreign policy issues—

NEWSCASTER: —inheriting what was left by the Bush Administration—

NARRATOR: On January 20th, 2009, the war in Iraq was now Barack Obama’s.

NEWSCASTER: Iraq and Afghanistan, the two wars he inherited—

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Ctr. for Strategic and Intl. Studies: To the extent that the president came to office with a new approach, it was he really didn’t like this war.

NEWSCASTER: —first step toward his campaign promise to end the Iraq war—

NARRATOR: The Iraq war was nearing its sixth year. The country was weary.

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Obama had campaigned on the Iraq issue as a candidate. And he had a plan. The idea was that American forces would leave Iraq on a kind of regular schedule, and then we’d hand over to the Iraqis.

NARRATOR: During the campaign, Obama had been warned not to leave Iraq too quickly. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were firm.

RYAN CROCKER: Dave Petraeus and I refused to talk about timelines. We talked about what needed to be done and the need to maintain strategic patience and commitment until those things were done. To set an arbitrary timeline is just telling the enemy how long he has to wait, and that can be very dangerous. And that is the argument we made.

[ More from Amb. Crocker]

NARRATOR: At the end of his first month in office, before thousands of Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, President Obama told Americans what he intended to do about that campaign promise.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end. The situation in Iraq has improved. Violence has been reduced substantially from the horrific sectarian killing of 2006 and 2007.

NARRATOR: He rejected Petraeus’s and Crocker’s advice not to publicly announce a timetable.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. [applause] We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned. Semper Fi! Oo-rah! [cheers]

NARRATOR: He had said all he was going to say about his policy on Iraq.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, Iraq Director, NSC, 2008-09: The president decided he wanted this behind us. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to develop any resources to it. He wanted to normalize Iraq, when it’s a country that’s not normal. He simply wanted to put Iraq behind us.

NARRATOR: The president would focus his attention elsewhere.

PETER BAKER: He pretty much turns his attention away from Iraq. He gives it to Joe Biden, his vice president, to manage. And he focuses instead on Afghanistan, on the economy, on health care. These are the things he wants to be remembered for, particularly the domestic accomplishments. And Iraq is not what he wants to be spending his presidency on.

NARRATOR: In the aftermath, the effects of the announcement were immediate. NSC director Douglas Ollivant saw it firsthand.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Shortly after the U.S. policy for Iraq is announced, the Iraq NSC shop, as we knew it, is shut down. The directors go from six to two, and they’re buried fairly deep in the bureaucracy with no direct access to the president.

NARRATOR: In Iraq, at the American embassy, there was a new hands-off policy.

Gen. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-03: What happened almost immediately that indicated major political change was about to take place is the new Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, told General Odierno that Iraq is going to be treated as a sovereign state. In other words, we were no longer attempting to shape and guide their political maturation. Huge mistake.

NARRATOR: Maliki, who had grown used to frequent conversations with George W. Bush, now rarely spoke to Barack Obama.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I remember when I went to see him, he was quite nostalgic and said, “How is President Bush? I wish I could talk to him,” and so forth. I said, “Do you want to talk with him?” He was very enthusiastic. “Can I really talk to him?”

So I had picked up my cellphone and called the president’s office, President Bush’s office in Dallas. And within a few minutes, they were talking with each other. And I could tell that he missed the ability to reach out to the president.

NARRATOR: Without regular guidance from the Americans, Maliki was on his own.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Middle East politics is a full contact sport. It’s a survival game. And as Maliki figures out that the White House is just really not that vested in Iraq, he’ll take matters into his own hands.

NARRATOR: Within months, the old Iraq hands were getting word that Maliki was beginning to consolidate power and increasing sectarian tension.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Bush Natl. Security Advisor: In 2009, there are complaints coming out of Iraq that Maliki, who was initially criticized as too weak, is now being criticized as too strong and too authoritarian and increasingly sectarian.

NARRATOR: The Iraqi army, trained and equipped by the Americans, was one of Maliki’s first targets.

STEPHEN HADLEY: He begins to de-professionalize the military, removing Sunni commanders, replacing them with Shia commanders. He’s concerned about the reliability of the armed forces.

THOMAS RICKS, Author, The Gamble: Maliki gets rid of a lot of well-trained commanders in the Iraqi army and replaces them with political loyalists. It’s as if he’s more worried about a coup than he is in having an effective military because what good is an effective military if it’s against you.

NARRATOR: And in the Sunni heartland, Petraeus’s “Sons of Iraq” were quickly becoming enemies of the state.

Gen. JACK KEANE: He began to take exception to the Sons of Iraq, which all came from the Sunni tribes. He stopped paying them. Not only that, he began to purge some of them and actually attacked and killed some of them.

NARRATOR: The American ambassador, James Jeffrey, knew Maliki was a problem.

Amb. JAMES JEFFREY, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2010-12: There was a lot of concern about Maliki. I could see that among the Iraqi political figures and also in Washington, all the way to the top—I want to underline all the way to the top—there was a lot of concern about Maliki.

[ More from Amb. Jeffrey]

NARRATOR: Nevertheless, the American government continued to back Maliki.

NEWSCASTER: The timetable to withdraw from Iraq is nearing month by month—

NEWSCASTER: The U.S. military in Iraq has been scheduled to leave Iraq—

NEWSCASTER: There’s still about 46,000 combat troops inside Iraq—

NARRATOR: By the spring of 2011, a deadline was looming in Iraq. The president had promised all American forces would be out of Iraq by December. But at the Pentagon, they wanted to keep a residual force on the ground.

PETER BAKER: Instead of the 50,000 who were there now, they’d like to keep 20,000 to 24,000 troops in Iraq. That arrives at the White House to expressions of great shock.

NARRATOR: In a series of tough meetings in the Situation Room, the president pushed back.

PETER BAKER: They force the Pentagon to go back, to redo the numbers. They come back with a 10,000 troop option. Eventually, they whittle that down to 5,000 troops.

NARRATOR: Even that small number would require a new agreement with Iraq. Over videoconference, Obama and Maliki negotiated in earnest for the first time.

MICHAEL GORDON: When he opened the talks, President Obama made a demand that the Bush administration had not made for keeping American troops in Iraq.

NARRATOR: Obama insisted Maliki convince the Iraqi parliament to bestow legal immunity to the American troops.

MICHAEL GORDON: It wasn’t sufficient to merely have an agreement that conferred legal immunities on these troops. This agreement had to be formally approved by the Iraqi parliament.

NARRATOR: But delivering the dysfunctional parliament’s approval would be difficult, given Iranian influence and Sunni opposition.

PETER BAKER: When Maliki, in effect, said, “This is a big roadblock,” and Washington said, “Well, we can’t do it unless you send this to Parliament,” I think that both side actually were more or less happy to let it fall aside and say “Fine.”

THOMAS RICKS: Nobody really wanted it, neither the Americans nor Maliki. The Americans were pretty sick of Iraq at the time. And frankly, I think the Iraqis were pretty sick of the Americans.

NARRATOR: The negotiations had failed. Still, the president declared victory in Iraq.

[December 14, 2011]

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and all the dying, all of it has led to this moment of success!

VALI NASR, Author, The Dispensable Nation: The Obama administration saw departure from Iraq as a foreign policy victory in of itself, divorced from what the consequences for Iraq would be. So it was a gain for the American budget, it was a reversal of the Bush policy, it was an unburdening of the U.S. military, all of these things which had nothing to do with actually what was happening in Iraq.

NARRATOR: And to celebrate the moment, the president invited a special guest to the White House.

MICHAEL GORDON: They had a joint press conference, where he talked about this new democratic Iraq that was going to be built.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Today, I’m proud to welcome Prime Minister Maliki, the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq.

PETER BAKER: The Americans at this point have, in effect, embraced Maliki. He had been very controversial for a lot of years. But to them, he was going to be the person who was going to lead this new government into the future without American troops.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Prime Minister, as we end this war and as Iraq faces its future, you have a strong and enduring partner in the United States of America. Thank you very much, everybody.

NARRATOR: There was no public criticism of Maliki’s sectarian maneuvers.

Amb. JAMES JEFFREY, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2010-12: Maliki was becoming a problem. On the other hand, the president had taken the position, “Iraq was a mistake. We’ve ended our war in Iraq. The country is on its own.”

NARRATOR: Now, for better or worse, President Obama, like his predecessor, was entrusting Iraq’s future to Nouri al Maliki.

NEWSCASTER: The last 6,000 U.S. forces in Iraq are packing up—

NEWSCASTER: —and marks the end of the war in Iraq—

NEWSCASTER: The last U.S. troops are now leaving Iraq—

NARRATOR: After nearly nine years, over 4,000 Americans killed, more than 30,000 wounded and an estimated cost of $2 trillion, the last U.S. troops left Iraq.

Amb. RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, 2007-09: We disengaged not only militarily at the end of 2011, we disengaged politically. The war was over. We were out. Let the chips fall where they may. Well, I don’t think we thought through exactly how many chips were going to fall and what the consequences of that would be.

NARRATOR: And as American troops headed home, the diplomatic effort was also being scaled back. More than 10,000 State Department employees would begin to leave.

RYAN CROCKER: Senior-level regular phone calls, senior-level regular visits basically ceased. There was exactly one visit to Iraq since the end of 2011 until mid-2014 by a cabinet-level official. And given that we were hard-wired into their political system, they wouldn’t be able to function effectively with each other, among communities, without us. I think that disengagement brought them all back to zero sum thinking.

NARRATOR: With the Americans gone and the attention of the world waning, it did not take long for Maliki to act.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Then when the last American troops leave, he begins a pretty concerted crackdown on the Sunni population.

NARRATOR: Just one day after the last American soldier left, an arrest warrant was issued for Maliki’s rival, the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al Hashimi. They accused him of running death squads and assassinating political enemies, charges he denied.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, Iraq Director, NSC, 2008-09: This is clearly a moment where Iraqi politics begins to fall apart. But Hashimi is really the one who triggers everything that happens afterwards.

NARRATOR: By now, David Petraeus had left the Army to become director of the CIA for the Obama administration. He was the only senior American official in Baghdad that day.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: Ironically, the ambassador was not there. The U.S. four-star was gone. So here I was on the ground as the director of the CIA, ended up in shuttling back and forth between the different parties, with M1 tanks all over the Green Zone pointed at different houses.

NARRATOR: But Petraeus could not broker a deal. Vice President Hashimi was sentenced to death, but smuggled to safety in Turkey, where he is under police protection.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: This was a very serious development. And tragically, what it did, of course, is it started the process of undoing the process that we’d worked so hard to do during the surge and even in the years after the surge.

NARRATOR: In the months that followed, Maliki would go after others. The offices of the Sunni finance minister were raided. Sunni leaders were detained. Mass protests broke out in Sunni provinces.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: It was a catalyst for a renewed sense among the Sunni Arab population that they once again didn’t have a seat at the table in their country and that their leaders were targeted by the government. And that had a very, very harmful effect.

NARRATOR: The tenuous peace between the Sunnis and Shi’ites was broken. Political protesters in a Sunni town were brutally attacked.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think that the goal he had was very clear—- “I am going to use every element of power to both advance my own interests and that of creating a stable Shi’ite control of this state.”

VALI NASR: Maliki’s game plan for the future of Iraq is to consolidate Shia power and basically putting Sunnis in a subservient position. What he sees with the American departure is an opportunity to implement this. There’s not going to be any Americans in his way.

NEWSCASTER: Since the final withdrawal of American troops, Islamists have been gaining ground in the western Anbar Province—

NEWSCASTER: Militants have been are using the sectarian strifes to gain a foothold—

NARRATOR: By 2014, the Sunnis struck back. In the north, a Sunni group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, joined by former Ba’athists and other Sunni insurgents, stunned Maliki by capturing key cities—Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul.

PETER BAKER: ISIS began moving through places where so many Americans had given their lives to liberate. Seeing what amount to al Qaeda-type folks resurgent was a big blow and a big surprise, I think, to a lot of people in Washington, including the White House.

NARRATOR: In short order, ISIS shocked the world by releasing brutal execution videos. As ISIS and their Sunni allies marched to the edge of Baghdad, the Iraqi forces, led by Maliki’s hand-picked generals, were no match.

JAMES JEFFREY: The top leadership up there fled—some 30,000 troops, people say that the total security forces may have been twice as high—basically, fled from the arrival of perhaps a thousand or two of lightly armed al Qaeda forces.

MICHAEL GORDON: What was a surprise to the White House was the rapid collapse of the Iraqi forces. And why was that a surprise? Because we didn’t have any advisors with the Iraqi troops.

THOMAS RICKS: What’s going on in Iraq is not 800 Syrian militants running into Iraq. It’s the Sunni tribes, probably 20 percent of the country, have lost patience with the government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Maliki, and encouraged by the Syrian war, and in part armed by the Syrian war, have risen up.

NARRATOR: And this time, Petraeus’s Sunni paramilitary, the “Sons of Iraq,” did not fight for Maliki’s government.

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS: Not only do you not have the Sunni awakening groups or Sons of Iraq that are helping the Iraqi security forces, you actually have a population that became disenfranchised once again, that developed a feeling that they didn’t have a seat at the table at in Baghdad.

NARRATOR: Now the sectarian killings are back in full force. Muqtada al Sadr’s Shi’ite Mahdi Army is back on the streets and ready for battle. Looking ahead, some see an even bloodier civil war, the breakup of Iraq, or worse.

THOMAS RICKS: I keep on thinking in terms of a Shakespearean tragedy. And I think we’re probably only in Act 4 right now. Act 5, you know, the bloody conclusion of Hamlet or Macbeth, still has not happened.

NARRATOR: At the White House, it is now President Obama whose legacy is being threatened by Iraq.

MICHAEL GORDON: For President Obama, it can’t be satisfying to say you diminished a terrorist threat, you took out bin Laden, you dealt with the situation in Afghanistan, but now a new terrorist threat involving thousands of fighters has emerged in Western and Northern Iraq.

NEWSCASTER: The guerrilla army that roared east to take over big chunks of western Iraq—

NEWSCASTER: In Northern Iraq, a number of districts have been taken over by fighters—

NEWSCASTER: Militants have swallowed up territory, and they’re pushing toward Baghdad—

RYAN CROCKER: This is analogous to Afghanistan, August 2001. This time, it is al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts. They are far stronger. They are far more numerous. They have thousands who hold foreign passports and require no visas to get into the United States or other Western countries. They are well funded. They are battle-hardened and they are well armed. And they now control far more territory exclusively than bin Laden ever did.

MICHAEL GORDON: ISIS has looted the banks in Mosul. They’ve taken all the American arms they can grab their hands on, including the second largest ammunition supply point in Iraq. Having grabbed all this loot and assets in Iraq, they’ve plunged back into Syria and taken Deir al Zor, oil-rich province. They’re expanding their footprint.

RYAN CROCKER: And I can tell you, as we sit here today in Washington, they are sitting in Mosul, figuring out how they’re going to get at us next.

[In June 2014, President Obama ordered up to 300 military advisors back to Iraq.]

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