Iraq: How Did We Get Here?

by Evan Wexler and Michelle Mizner
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

Eleven years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq remains steeped in violence, with militant extremists gaining ground, civil war hanging in the balance and no clear resolution to the chaos.

What went wrong? How did we get here? From “shock and awe” to the rise of ISIS, we’ve traced the pivotal political moments of the Iraq war and its aftermath in the timeline below.

Tonight at 10 pm (check local listings) FRONTLINE will air Losing Iraq, a special 90-minute report that tells the inside story of the war we left behind. The film draws on one of the richest archives in broadcast journalism and includes new, in-depth interviews with policymakers and military leaders.


“Nobody asked me to write that memo… and I don’t think anybody above me wanted to see it.”

– Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq (2007-09)


MARCH 2003

THE MISSING POSTWAR PLAN

The pace of the U.S. invasion was staggering. Within weeks, the Iraqi Army had crumbled, President Saddam Hussein had fled, and American troops patrolled Baghdad.

Then came the hard part: figuring out how to secure and govern a complex nation of more than 30 million people, about whom top U.S. officials quickly realized they knew very little.

But at least one American official had issued a warning. In 2002, Ambassador Ryan Crocker had drawn up a still-classified memo, later dubbed the “Perfect Storm.” It detailed the potentially disastrous consequences of an invasion in Iraq.


“I judged in the end that was a risk we were willing to take.”

– Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (2003-04)


MAY 2003

BREMER GIVES HIS ORDERS…

In May 2003, President Bush appointed L. Paul Bremer, a career diplomat with little experience in the Middle East, as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Within days of his arrival in Baghdad, Bremer issued two controversial orders: to disband the Iraqi National Army, and to remove those with membership in Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from professional positions.

Advisers were concerned that the orders would alienate skilled Sunnis who were willing to participate in the new government. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who briefly led the reconstruction effort after the invasion, told FRONTLINE that he and the former CIA station chief in Baghdad warned Bremer specifically that the de-Ba’athification order would oust 30,000 to 50,000 capable Sunni professionals from the government, leaving them disenfranchised, angry and as potential recruits for the nascent insurgency.

The aftermath of an August 2004 blast in southern Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

… AND THE INSURGENCY ERUPTS

Within 72 hours of Bremer’s order to disband the military, the first major attack on the airport road took place. By August, two major bombings in Baghdad — at the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters — signaled that the insurgency was in full force.

Bremer bids farewell to Barham Saleh, Iraq’s deputy prime minister. (AP Photo/Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen/U.S. Air Force)

JUNE 2004

LEAVING IRAQ TO THE IRAQIS

By the summer of 2003, the White House had a new plan: Get out. The military retreated inside large, fortified bases. Politically, officials focused on an exit strategy: establish a constitution, set up a governing council, and let Iraqis govern Iraq.

On June 28, 2004, Bremer handed over authority to the interim Iraqi Governing Council. But his departure was hardly triumphant: The move came two days ahead of schedule because of fears of an attack.


“Iraq was heading towards a failed state. It was absolute bedlam.”

– Gen. Jack Keane, (Ret.)


FEB 2006

CIVIL WAR BEGINS

Until Feb. 22, 2006, Iraq’s Shia majority had largely borne with patience the string of attacks by Sunni insurgents. But Al Qaeda in Iraq, eager to provoke a sectarian war, pushed them over the edge when it destroyed the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites.

Over the next 10 days, Shia militias took their revenge, massacring Sunnis. In Baghdad, their death squads moved house to house, killing as they went.


“Bush’s view was, ‘If he doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed.’”

– Stephen Hadley, national security adviser 2005-2009


MAY 2006

IRAQ’S NEW LEADER

President Bush determined the U.S. needed a new strategy to quell the bloodshed. That included a new partner in the Iraqi leadership — someone who could rally the Shia but also not be perceived as too sectarian by the Sunnis and Kurds.

Nouri al-Maliki, a minor figure in the Iraqi parliament, emerged as a potential favorite among U.S. officials, despite his lack of experience.


“They started to come to us and say, ‘Here, let us tell you where the bad guys are…’”

– Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, 2007-08


JAN 2007

THE SURGE BEGINS…

The U.S. also needed a new approach on the ground. This time, it was a last-ditch effort to salvage the American incursion in Iraq.

Bush brought in Gen. David Petraeus to lead what became known as the surge — an additional 30,000 U.S. troops who moved off the large, fortified bases and into the neighborhoods.

U.S. forces sustained their heaviest losses during this period. But in August, they caught a break: Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of a powerful Shia militia, called for a ceasefire and stopped attacking coalition forces. The move created a lull in the violence that allowed U.S. forces to focus on the Sunni insurgency.


Maliki “got very much into the swing of things.”

– Gen. David Petraeus, former commander, multi-national forces in Iraq


…AND SUNNIS JOIN THE FIGHT

At the same time, Petraeus, a counterinsurgency expert, also reached out to Sunni tribes who had backed the insurgency, but had also begun to turn against Al Qaeda fighters in their community. The general’s goal: convince them to stop attacking American troops and focus only on battling Al Qaeda. The means: cash.

The U.S. would ultimately pay out about $400 million to the 103,000 Sunnis who became known as the “Sons of Iraq,” or the “Awakening.” But Maliki, a Shia, was wary of engaging with the Sunni tribes. Petraeus persuaded the prime minister to support the effort.

President George W. Bush remained a supporter of Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

2008

BUSH’S LAST DECISION IN IRAQ

The confluence of those three factors — the surge, the “Awakening,” and Sadr’s ceasefire — reduced the violence in Iraq to a low-grade insurgency. Hoping to maintain that progress, President Bush signed an agreement with Maliki before he left office that would ensure American troops remained in Iraq through 2011.

In 2008, Obama ran as the anti-war presidential candidate. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

2009

OBAMA INHERITS THE WAR

As he campaigned for the presidency, Barack Obama promised war-weary Americans that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Within his first month in office, the new president set a pullout date: December 2011.


“We disengaged not only militarily at the end of 2011, we disengaged politically.”

– Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq (2007-09)


2011

THE AMERICANS LEAVE IRAQ…

With the advice of the Pentagon and others, the president considered keeping a small troop presence in the country. But the U.S. and Iraqi governments were unable to reach an agreement on the size or the legal guidelines under which they’d remain. By December 2011, almost all U.S. forces had left Iraq. The U.S. diplomatic effort was also scaled back, leaving Maliki to govern on his own.

A sign of what was to come: fighters parade a commandeered Iraqi military truck through Mosul. (AP Photo)

…AND THE PURGE BEGINS

The day after the American troops left, Maliki issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, forcing him to flee the country. Maliki would go on to push other prominent Sunnis from political office and the military, and ultimately stopped payments to the Sons of Iraq.

The message was clear: there would be no role for Sunnis in Maliki’s Shia regime. For many, their only recourse would be to join the fight against it.


“They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts.”

– Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (2007-09)


2014

THE RISE OF ISIS

Disenfranchised Sunnis found an outlet in a militant group that had recently coalesced in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. ISIS, which had a reputation for ruthlessness, gained a rapid foothold in Iraq, capturing the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi in January, and Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June.

The world was surprised by how quickly the Iraqi army fell to a small force of fighters. Shia militias have stepped in to fill the void, and sectarian killings are on the rise again.

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