Timeline: Struggling to Find a Strategy for Success in Iraq

CLICK on each year in the graph below to view a detailed timeline of the events and decisions that have led up to the latest effort -- a troop "surge" -- to try to bring security to Iraq. The graph charts the attacks on Coalition and Iraqi troops and civilians since the start of the war. It comes from the Government Accountability Office's May 2007 report "Rebuilding Iraq: Integrated Strategic Plan Needed to Help Restore Iraq's Oil and Electricity."

2003 Adrift




April 11

Days After Saddam's Ouster

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld answers press questions about looting and violence, saying, "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here."

"We didn't have a plan"

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference

April 16

Gen. Tommy Franks arrives in Baghdad

Out in a Few Months

Gen. Tommy Franks, who led U.S. invasion forces, visits Baghdad and tells his troops to expect a new Iraqi government within 60 days and a pullout of all but 30,000 of the 110,000 troops in country by Sept. '03.

"We never even considered an insurgency"

May 1

"Mission Accomplished"

Onboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, President Bush announces the end of major combat operations in Iraq before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

Unchecked Looting

Looting sweeps across Iraq -- threatening everything from weapons caches to museum artifacts -- as U.S. troops do little to intervene. Commanders suggest they lack enough soldiers to battle remaining Saddam loyalists and control looting.



Two Key Missteps

L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, head of the U.S.-led occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), bans (PDF File) Ba'ath Party members from top positions in politics or education. He then orders (PDF file) Iraq's army disbanded.

His actions are meant to undermine the remnants of Saddam's regime, but instead fuel widespread resentment, unemployment and a budding insurgency. Plans to turn control over to Iraqis by summer '03 are put on hold.

A dangerous situation


Command Changes

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the most junior lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, is selected to take command of all ground forces in Iraq.

Soon after, Gen. Franks announces his retirement. Gen. John Abizaid succeeds him as head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).




An Unprepared Commander?

Once a tank division commander, Sanchez seems unprepared for the random bombings, assassinations, sniping and growing signs of a guerilla war in Iraq.

"We were in a state of denial"


The aftermath of an improvised explosive device

Attacks Escalate

In August, a truck bomb destroys U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, there are riots in Basra in the south, and a large car bomb explodes outside the Jordanian embassy, killing 17 and injuring dozens. The increasing scale of insurgents' attacks puts Iraqis on edge.

However, in the northern city of Mosul, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus uses counterinsurgency tactics to secure the city and protect the population: regular foot patrols, local elections and well-funded rebuilding projects. But when he and his troops depart Mosul in early '04, the smaller Stryker brigade that replacing them doesn't maintain their program. The city relapses into violence.

"We never made a commitment"



Bremer Wants More Time

CPA head Paul Bremer outlines in a Washington Post op-ed piece a multi-year plan for rebuilding Iraq. The administration and Pentagon rebuff the idea.


"A Long, Hard Slog"

A Rumsfeld memo to Defense Department colleagues indicates concern that the war won't be quickly resolved. "It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another … but it will be a long, hard slog."

"What's the strategy?"


Back To Top

2004 Going Downhill






Insurgency Grows

U.S. forces intercept a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, shedding light on an organized insurgency aiming to derail democracy in Iraq.

In the following months, violence erupts across Iraq, including suicide bombings killing over 100 on Feb. 1 in Irbil and an attack on a Karbala mosque on March 2, a Shi'ite holy day, killing over 85 people.

Transfer the problem to Iraqis


No Plan

Military scholar Andrew Krepinevich meets with Rumsfeld and criticizes the lack of concrete plans for achieving and measuring success.

No measurements

An Officer Applies Lessons Learned

Col. H.R. McMaster, 3rd Armored Cavalry, draws on what he encountered on his first tour in Iraq to institute new training in counterinsurgency tactics at Ft. Carson, Colorado.

"Absence of strong guidance from above"


Marines fighting in Fallujah

Fallujah I

In late March, four U.S. contractors are killed in Fallujah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold; the burned bodies are dragged through streets and two hung from a bridge. The U.S. resolves to get control of the city.

On April 6, 2,000 Marines advance on Fallujah, but Iraqi troops fail to show up. Three days into the battle, with outrage over civilian casualties threatening political stability, Bremer convinces Sanchez and Abizaid to call off the attack.

"A black eye for the U.S."



Shi'ite Uprisings

While troops battle Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and elsewhere in the north, Shi'ite uprisings take root in several southern cities. The violence is stoked by Moqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite Mahdi Army, a militia estimated to comprise up to 70,000 fighters.

Moqtada al-Sadr

April 27


Scandal at Abu Ghraib

60 Minutes II breaks the story of U.S. soldiers' abuse and torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. It would turn out this prison was just one of a much larger network of prisons where aggressive and confusing interrogation policies led to brutal abuse of Iraqi detainees by ill-trained U.S. troops. The revelations further alienate the Iraqi people.

May 18


Bremer Requests More Troops

Bremer asks Rumsfeld -- in a private, hand-delivered message -- for 40,000 more troops to help in reconstructing Iraq. Rumsfeld does not reply.



Petraeus Trains Iraqi Troops

On his second Iraq deployment, now-Lt. Gen. Petraeus is tasked with overseeing the training of Iraqi soldiers.

"No small order"

June 15

New Commander, New Strategy

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, worsening violence and the American withdrawal from Fallujah, Rumsfeld dispatches four-star Gen. George Casey to Iraq to replace Gen. Sanchez and implement a new exit strategy: Casey is ordered to train and shift responsibility to the Iraqi army -- ASAP.

Inheriting the wind

Casey Arrives in Iraq

Rumsfeld's approach is to reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq and not step up U.S. efforts to win. So Casey is charged with keeping a lid on things, without adding more American troops.

"A chaotic situation"

June 28

Transfer of Sovereignty

Fearing insurgent attacks, CPA head Bremer hands over sovereignty two days early to an appointed Iraqi interim government. The new government is charged with planning for the next milestone: nationwide elections in January 2005.

Editor's Note: For more about events during the one-year period of the U.S.-led occupation gov't, see FRONTLINE's chronology from "The Lost Year in Iraq."

Aug 5.


Casey Signs Theater-Wide Campaign Plan

The signature of the plan (still classified), is that U.S. forces would keep a "light footprint," staying on large forward-operating bases and only engaging the insurgents when absolutely necessary. Part of the argument is that a large troop level inflames Iraqis' feelings against the coalition occupation.

"A short war strategy"



Fighting Sadr in Najaf

Al-Sadr's Shi'ite Mahdi Army rampages in Najaf, forcing Casey to bring his troops out. During the three-week conflict the Mahdi Army holes up in one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines. Surrounded, a cease-fire is negotiated. Many of his fighters return home to Shi'ite Sadr City in Baghdad and clashes subsequently increase between the Mahdi army and U.S. forces.

After weeks of negotiations, a truce is signed in early October. Casey spends $1.2 million buying back weapons from Sadr's militia and an additional $330 million in reconstruction funds for Sadr City.

"Iraqi-style politics"


Rumsfeld and his generals

A New Emphasis

Casey and Rumsfeld begin shifting their focus to a political solution to Iraq's problems. With a national election scheduled in January, Casey's forces will leave their bases to help build a safe environment for the elections.

Redefining "standing up" Iraqis


Gen. Casey Assembles Brain Trust

Casey brings together Ph.D.s and academics from the military academies to advise him on strategy. The team is led by Col. William Hix and includes counterinsurgency expert Kalev Sepp. They call themselves "Doctors Without Orders." "The play on words went both ways," says Sepp. "Nobody knew how long they were going to be serving in Iraq -- they literally didn't have their follow-on orders -- but the other was that there was a sense of no constraint in thinking."

Sepp is tasked with coming up with a list of best practices of counterinsurgency campaigns; he examines 53 historical counterinsurgencies and develops a list of 12 best practices (PDF file), of which only one -- emphasizing intelligence -- is being followed by the United States.

Nov. 2

Bush Re-elected

In the 2004 election, President Bush defeats John Kerry. On the eve of his second inauguration, the president refers to the vote as his "accountability moment" on the Iraq war.


Nov. 8

An image from the Fallujah II assualt

Fallujah II

Casey and his advisers decide that Iraqi elections cannot be held without clearing out Fallujah, which has again become a safe haven for Sunni insurgents. But Casey's advisers worry about the impact of the assault on Sunni Iraqis. Civilians are urged to leave the city; it is estimated only 400 remain when the assault begins

The 10-day battle is intense: U.S. and coalition forces are estimated to have killed at least 1,000 insurgents and suffer 54 Americans dead, 425 seriously wounded, and 8 Iraqi soldiers dead, 43 wounded.

An incident televised worldwide comes to symbolize the brutality: A Marine is taped killing an unarmed man inside a mosque.

Many U.S. commanders are jubilant, believing the insurgency has been irreparably harmed. But Fallujah's Sunni refugees tell tales of a brutal U.S. assault, and some top observers worry Fallujah backfired, decreasing Sunni Arab support for the coalition's goals and helping fuel the insurgency.

Fallujah's Legacy

Nov. 19


Raid on a Sunni Mosque

In a crackdown on clerics supporting the insurgency, U.S. and Iraqi troops raid Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque -- one of the most revered Sunni shrines -- just after Friday prayers. Four die and nine are wounded in the raid; dozens are arrested.

"Are there mosques maybe we want to leave alone?"

Back To Top

2005 A Fragile Equilibrium




Jan. 30

A voter's purple finger on election day

National Elections

An estimated 58 percent of Iraq's population defy threats of violence to vote in the first elections since Saddam Hussein's ouster. The Bush administration points to the voting as a sign of success, but the vast majority of Sunnis boycott the election and thus are disenfranchised from the political process, dashing hopes of establishing a representative Iraqi government. The Shia now dominate the new government.

The sectarian divide

Feb. 10

At a Tipping Point

After one of his early trips to Iraq at the request of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow writes a memo describing Iraq as being at a tipping point.

A "fragile equilibrium"


Feb. 17

Vacancy at the Embassy

America's ambassador in Iraq, John Negroponte, is appointed director of national intelligence. Iraq will be without a U.S. ambassador until Zalmay Khalilzad's arrival four months later.

Lost opportunity?



A family mourns

Insurgents Step Up Attacks

Seeing the new Shi'a-dominated government is dividing the country and creating a virtual vacuum, Sunni insurgents ramp back up their attacks in an effort to undermine the government.

"The population was fair game"



Training Iraqi Forces Becomes Priority

The hope for an exit strategy shifts from fighting insurgents to concentrating on the training of Iraqi security forces -- army and police. But with the Shi'a winning power in the elections, thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi policemen soon fall under the control of Shi'ite cleric, Abdul Aziz al Hakim and his Shi'ite militia. This will help fuel the sectarian dynamic: Shi'a against Sunni, and Sunni reprisals.

Giving Iraqis the lead


Cheney's Predictions

Vice President Cheney says in an interview on Larry King Live May 30, "I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think that they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency." He will defend his assessment for at least a year.

"Overly optimistic"

The Tal Afar Way

In contrast to Rumseld's "light footprint" approach for U.S. troops, Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Calvary Division implements a much different strategy in the insurgent stronghold of Tal Afar. McMaster applies a "clear, hold and build" approach: clearing insurgents door-to-door, holding neighborhoods by stationing U.S. troops among the people and rebuilding by distributing to Iraqis reconstruction funds.

Tal Afar's Lessons

U.S. soldiers with the children of Tal Afar



Ambassador Khalilzad Takes Charge

New U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad arrives in the country after discussing the "oil spot" strategy with Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.) -- a strategy rooted in clear-hold-build counterinsurgency tactics. Khalilzad assembles a team to study how it can be implemented.

Resistance from the military


"As the Iraqis Stand Up, We Will Stand Down"

In a June 28 national address, President Bush focuses on the strategy of training Iraqis to take charge of their country's security.

Casey Tells Congress He Has Enough Troops

Casey testifies on June 23 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at is adequate. "If I assess that I need more troops, I will ask for them," he adds. Secretary Rumsfeld, also testifying, supports Casey's position.

Troop Levels



Assessing U.S. Counterinsurgency Efforts

Gen. Casey sends advisers Col. William Hix and Kalev Sepp to look at how counterinsurgency tactics are being executed by individual units. They judge that lower-level officers tend to be the most creative -- and the most successful.

"Mixed assessment"


Recommendation: More Troops Needed

Back from his latest trip to Iraq, State Dept. adviser Philip Zelikow writes a memo to Secretary Rice calling for a surge of additional troops to clear, hold and build. The plan is modeled on Col. McMaster's work in Tal Afar, one of the few successful efforts Zelikow encountered.

"We shouldn't be trying to win this by a field goal"


Oct. 15


Iraqi Constitution Approved

The national referendum on the new Iraqi constitution becomes a close vote when Sunnis who sat out the parliamentary elections in January turn out in large numbers. Despite their opposition, the constitution is ratified.

Sunnis shut out


Rice Champions "Clear-Hold-Build" Strategy

On Oct. 19, Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stating that, "our political-military strategy has to be to clear, hold, and build," together with Iraqi forces.

In a November press conference, Secretary Rumsfeld refutes Rice's position, asserting Iraqis must be the ones to hold and build.

The secretary of state's decision

Petraeus Leaves Iraq

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, recalled from Iraq, is sent to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where he oversees training for troops heading to Iraq. There he also co-authors the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual.

"Almost pushed aside"?


"National Strategy for Victory"

The White House releases the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." The plan provides eight "strategic pillars" to support the conditions required for victory and presents "clear, hold, build" as a guiding principle. Warning that "victory will take time," the plan champions the role of Iraqi forces in winning the war, but warns the U.S. must be prepared to stay in Iraq until victory is secured.

Straight Out of Nixon's Playbook?

Casey Creates Counterinsurgency Academy

Based on a recommendation from Col. William Hix, Casey establishes a Counterinsurgency Academy in Taji.

Why was it needed?

Back To Top

2006 Simmering Civil War




Feb. 22


Bombing in Samarra

Bombs destroy the golden dome of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines, igniting a wave of sectarian violence in which thousands of Iraqis will die over the months that follow (see chart above). Many experts view it as an attempt by al Qaeda to stimulate a civil war, making the country ungovernable

"They got what they wanted"

March 15

Iraq Study Group Formed

Congress announces the creation of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton. The panel also includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Retired Gen. Jack Keane and retired Col. Kalev Sepp serve as its military experts.

"Mixed feelings"


March 20

Revisiting Tal Afar

As part of a media blitz in response to the rise in sectarian killings. President Bush highlights Tal Afar as a success story in a speech in Cleveland. But a Washington Post story notes that sectarian violence had returned to the city after Col. McMaster's division departed.



"A Plan for Victory in Iraq"

Scholar Frederick Kagan publishes "A Plan for Victory in Iraq" in the Weekly Standard, in which he argues for major clear, hold and build operations.

Timetable for Security Handover

On May 27, the United States promises to hand over Baghdad security to the Iraqis by the end of the year.


Camp David Meeting

No longer able to ignore the seriousness of the sectarian conflict, the White House begins to crystallize its views. Staffers support the idea championed by Secretary Rice of a new policy - "clear, hold, build" - and organize a meeting to get the president on board. Well-known military scholars are invited to Camp David on 6/13 and 6/14 to meet with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and generals. Staffers hope the meeting will be the start of a substantive review of war strategy. Midway through, however, Bush decides to fly to Baghdad to meet the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

After Bush's return from Iraq, there is no major shift in Iraq policy.

High hopes

Bush's surprise meeting with Maliki


A Drawdown Proposal from Casey

During a visit to Washington, Gen. Casey presents another version of his plan for drawing down U.S. troops, but it is quickly shelved as violence continues in Iraq.

Casey's drawdown plan

Al Qaeda in Iraq Leader Killed

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is successfully targeted in a U.S. airstrike in Baquba on June 7.

A missed opportunity?


Operation Together Forward

A day after his Baghdad meeting with President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki announces the first phase of Operation Together Forward, aimed at stemming the bloodshed in the city with curfews, checkpoints and Iraqi-led patrols.


Abizaid: No Troop Reductions

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Aug. 3, CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid rules out any reductions in the number of U.S. troops because of the surge in sectarian violence. The previous month, Abizaid commented sectarian killings were now a more pressing problem than the insurgency.

Summer of Bloodshed

Random violence plagues Baghdad. An Aug. 6 New York Times article by Dexter Filkins shows violence actually increased in areas handed over to Iraqi forces.

Also in August, a Marine Corps intelligence memo concludes that the United States can no longer defeat the insurgency in western Iraq or counter the popularity of Al Qaeda in that area.

Chaos in Baghdad


Operation Together Forward II

U.S. and Iraqi forces commence the second phase of Operation Together Forward in Baghdad. The plan calls for U.S. troops to clear neighborhoods of insurgents and for Iraqi forces to hold those areas. But there are too few U.S. troops, the Iraqi government fails to provide the requested forces, and the Iraqi police is infiltrated by sectarian fighters. The operation, which lasts until Oct. 24, fails to quell the violence in the capital.

Why it failed


Turning Points and Strategy Reviews

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace begins a secret review of Iraq strategy. The Iraq Study Group, returning from a trip to Iraq, realizes that the White House is also conducting its own review.

In mid-September, Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.), known as Rumsfeld's favorite general, is invited to a private meeting with Rumsfeld.

"The strategy was failing"



Midterm Elections; Rumsfeld Out

Democrats retake the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. The day after, President Bush announces Robert Gates will replace Rumsfeld.

Two days before submitting his resignation, Rumsfeld writes a memo outlining 14 options for Iraq, including withdrawing U.S. troops and reducing the number of bases. He does not mention "clear, hold and build."

Thoughts on Rumsfeld

+ More views on Rumsfeld's leadership.


A Blunt Memo on Maliki

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley authors a memo recounting his meetings in Iraq with Prime Minister Maliki and how much of the sectarian violence links back to his Shi'a-dominated government and Shi'a militia forces: "[T]he reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into actions."

Deadly Day in Sadr City

Coordinated car bombs kill 144 and wound 200 in the Shi'ite Sadr City section of Baghdad on Nov. 23. It is the bloodiest single day in the capital since the 2003 invasion.


A Dramatic Admission

On Dec. 19, President Bush, in an interview with, The Washington Post says for the first time that the U.S. is not winning the war in Iraq.


Iraq Study Group Report

The group releases its report calling the situation "grave and deteriorating" and recommending diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria -- and handing security over to Iraqi forces so the U.S. troops can withdraw by early 2008.

President Bush reacts coolly to the report, saying he will consider its recommendations alongside other advice.


A Meeting in the Oval Office

On Dec. 11, two civilian academics, Stephen Biddle and Eliot Cohen, and retired four-star generals Barry McCaffrey, Jack Keane and Wayne Downing meet with Bush and Cheney in the Oval Office. Keane advocates a plan, crafted with military historian Frederick Kagan, to use a troop surge to clear and hold several neighborhoods in Baghdad. The plan is a fundamental departure: tens of thousands of troops clearing Sunni insurgents and Shi'a militia door-to-door, and much higher casualites on all sides.

Recollections of the meeting


Back To Top

2007 Endgame?





New Plan, New Leadership

In an address to the nation, President Bush concedes current strategy is failing and announces a new plan: a surge of 20,000 troops to secure Baghdad, based on Frederick Kagan and Gen. Keane's thinking.

To implement the new strategy, Gen. Casey is replaced by Gen. Petraeus; CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid is replaced by Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific; Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad is replaced by Ryan Cocker.

Views on the surge

+ More opinions on the surge

+ Views on Petraeus and the new team

Gen. David Petraeus


Casey Grilled by U.S. Senate

At confirmation hearings for his appointment as Army Chief of Staff, Casey is harshly criticized by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Views on Casey

+ More thoughts on Casey



Security Situation "Daunting"

The National Intelligence Council issues a National Intelligence Estimate (PDF file). It finds that "Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides' ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism." If these trends cannot be reversed, the report warns, "[T]he overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."




Surge of Troops Continues -- As Does Violence

The surge will not be fully deployed until July '07. Gen. Petraeus says he will issue a report in September on the progress of the Baghdad security plan, which the administration will then review.

Meanwhile, despite an initial drop in sectarian killings, spectacular attacks continue to rock Baghdad. On April 12, a suicide bomber targets the Parliament cafeteria inside the Green Zone, injuring 22 and killing MP Muhammad Awad. On April 18, nearly 200 people are killed in a series of bombings in Baghdad. It is the deadliest day in the capital since the start of the U.S. troop surge.


Bush Appoints "War Czar"

Pentagon director of operations Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute is appointed to the newly created post of "war czar," overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after The Washington Post reported that at least three retired four-star generals turned down the position.




Second Bombing in Samarra

On June 14, more than a year after the Feb. 2006 attack that unleashed a devastating wave of sectarian violence, bombers take down the minarets of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra. A five-day curfew is imposed on Baghdad in hopes of preventing reprisal attacks, and two days later, U.S. and Iraqi forces begin a major offensive against Sunni insurgents in and around Baghdad.

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posted june 19, 2007

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