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New Iraq plan the latest twist on long, winding road

By Charles J. Hanley
AP Special Correspondent

The burly U.S. Army colonel, his armored column fresh from a drive into the heart of Iraq, stood beneath helicopters amid the graceful minarets of a place called Fallujah.

"The local sheiks would like your troops to leave the center of town," he was told by a reporter.

He drew himself up to his full, commanding height. "I don't talk about where my forces will be located," he shot back. "That is at the discretion of Coalition Forces."

That April night nearly four years ago, three weeks after American forces entered Baghdad, hours before a flightsuit-clad President Bush stood beneath a banner proclaiming "mission accomplished," someone in Fallujah tossed two grenades over a wall and into the colonel's compound, wounding seven of his men.

Opening shots

What neither colonel nor president could know, tasting victory that spring of 2003, was that those grenades were just opening shots on a long, painful road, full of battles and bombings, of tens of thousands of lives lost, of forgotten milestones and turning points, new strategies, policy reversals and policy reruns. The road has now wound once more through the White House, for one more effort by the U.S. leadership to find its way to success in Iraq.

A look back at Iraq shows that the turnabouts began soon after retired Gen. Jay Garner, named to head the U.S. occupation, touched down in Baghdad in April 2003.

To fill the lawless vacuum, Garner set about quickly to assemble a provisional government from among the former opposition to Saddam Hussein's fallen regime. That would lift the U.S. hand from Iraq within "months," Garner said, and allow the Pentagon to reduce the 150,000-member U.S. invasion force to 30,000 by summer's end.

But on May 6, the White House abruptly replaced Garner with L. Paul Bremer, an ex-diplomat who spoke of a longer U.S. occupation. He pledged that electricity and other services would quickly be restored, the U.S. military would crush die-hard Saddamist "dead-enders," and U.S. advisers would transform the Arab country into a democratic, free-market society.

In his first acts, however, and with Washington's backing, Bremer undermined his own goals. He disbanded Iraq's army and fired thousands of members of Saddam's old Baath party from positions in government, universities and state-run factories. The first decree put hundreds of thousands of angry, jobless young men — many with guns — onto Iraq's streets. The second turned many of Iraq's educated, skilled elite into America's enemies.

April's grenades in Fallujah, where conservative Sunni Muslims lashed out at foreign occupiers, evolved that summer into a low-level war of roadside bombs and mortar attacks. U.S. troop levels changed little.

"Bring 'em on," President Bush said of the insurgents. In August, Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority said confidently that "only in isolated areas are there still attacks."

Lowering expectations

A week later, a truck bomb struck the U.N. offices in Baghdad, killing 22. Death tolls soon swelled as the bombings escalated — of mosques, police stations, even funeral processions. Foreign Arab "jihadists," Sunni extremists, began joining the homegrown struggle in Iraq.

By November 2003 the Americans were dropping Bremer's visions of transforming Iraq, opting instead for an eight-month timetable for handing sovereignty back to the Iraqis, who were to field a U.S.-trained army to take on the insurgents.

But the U.S. training program proved slow, producing Iraqi battalions that were too few and too poorly trained. Shifting gears, the Americans, desperate for intelligence on the insurgency, had begun rounding up hundreds of young Iraqi men and throwing them into Abu Ghraib prison, making new enemies, overwhelming the system and setting the stage for 2004's prisoner abuse scandal.

At a White House meeting in late 2003, Gen. John Abizaid, new chief of the U.S. regional command, said the insurgency must be quelled in three months or the "center of gravity" would be lost among the Sunnis, Bremer disclosed in his memoir.

Then, on Dec. 13, came a seeming blow to the resistance: Saddam was captured. The insurgents have been "brought to their knees," claimed Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, U.S. 4th Infantry Division commander.

But this "turning point" proved illusory, as would others to come — the handover of sovereignty, the elections of 2005, the formation of a permanent Iraqi government and the killing of terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

Deadly spread

At each point, the violence only spread. The U.S. military, which had planned to hand over the cities to Iraqis and draw down its forces to 105,000 in 2004, instead boosted its numbers through the year, to 160,000 by December.

The bombings grew deadlier, targeting crowds. A shadowy
array of "mujahedeen" groups took to kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages. Bremer and his staff hunkered down in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone and the U.S.-led
reconstruction of Iraq found-ered.

In April 2004, the many-sided conflict exploded. The U.S. Marines attacked insurgent-controlled Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and U.S. troops for the first time skirmished with Shiite militias in the south. Those engagements proved indecisive, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Richard Myers, assured Congress in May, "I think we are on the brink of success."

The optimism was belied by events. An Iraqi army battalion ordered to Fallujah had refused to fight. Photographs of tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib were feeding Iraq's anti-American fervor. A Washington Post poll showed for the first time that more Americans opposed the war than supported it — by 50 percent to 48 percent. Public support slid downhill from there.

In November, the U.S. military struck a telling blow on the battlefield, routing the insurgents from Fallujah in a house-by-house campaign that left the city devastated. "We have broken the back of the insurgency," declared Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler.

But through 2005, as Iraqis voted three times for two parliaments and a constitution, the hit-and-run insurgency kept the Marines pinned down in Fallujah's Anbar province, and the Army on edge in Baghdad and elsewhere. Roadside bomb attacks against U.S. forces almost doubled year to year. The cumulative U.S. death toll, 140 in the invasion itself, topped 2,000 in 2005.

The Pentagon tried again to plan troop reductions, for early 2006 "as Iraqi forces become capable of taking the lead." The White House issued a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," and President Bush laid out its basics at the U.S. Naval Academy in November 2005: Pulling back from Iraqi cities and onto fewer bases, running fewer patrols.

But Iraqi forces remained weak, and of suspect loyalty, police and soldiers often answering first to tribal or religious leaders, rather than the central government. Congress was told that only one Iraqi army battalion could fight without U.S. help.

The face of war changed again on Feb. 22, 2006. Terror bombers destroyed a treasured Shiite shrine in Samarra, setting off a yearlong wave of sectarian bloodletting in which at least 12,000 people died, most at the hands of Shiite and Sunni death squads. Baghdad became a city of routine slaughter.

Bush reversed course — "modifying" the "operational concept," he called it — and in mid-2006 approved a buildup of U.S. forces in Baghdad, for Operation Together Forward II, a renewed attempt to pacify the Iraqi capital.

American and Iraqi units were to sweep through neighborhoods, clearing them of weapons and insurgents, but too few Iraqi troops were deployed to secure the gains afterward. Violence actually increased. The situation was now "grave and deteriorating," Washington's blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group reported in December.

Before Together Forward II, Pentagon planners expected the number of U.S. troops to drop below 75,000 in 2007. But administration officials said Bush on Wednesday night would announce he is sending 21,500 additional troops to augment the 132,000 in Iraq.

As 2006 ended, Saddam was hanged, the 3,000th U.S. casualty was registered, the cost of war stood at $8 billion a month and U.S. funds for reconstruction had largely dried up.

The U.S. command in Baghdad looked ahead to 2007 as a year of transition, spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said, adding, in an echo of past predictions, "You're going to see the government of Iraq in the lead."

———

Charles J. Hanley has reported periodically from Iraq since 2002.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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