John Moore, Associated Press
BAGHDAD — In the beginning, it all looked simple: topple Saddam Hussein, destroy his purported weapons of mass destruction and lay the foundation for a pro-Western government in the heart of the Arab world.
Nearly 4,500 American and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives later, the objective now is simply to get out — and leave behind a country where democracy has at least a chance, where Iran does not dominate and where conditions may not be good but "good enough."
Even those modest goals may prove too ambitious after American forces leave and Iraq begins to chart its own course. How the Iraqis fare in the coming years will determine how history judges a war that became among the most politically contentious in American history.
Toppling Saddam was the easy part. Television images from the days following the March 20, 2003, start of the war made the conflict look relatively painless, like a certain type of Hollywood movie: American tanks speeding across the bleak and featureless Iraqi plains, huge blasts rattling Baghdad in the "shock and awe" bombing and the statue of the dictator tumbling down from his pedestal.
But Americans soon collided with the complex realities of an alien society few of them knew or understood. Who were the real power brokers? This ayatollah or that Sunni chief? What were the right buttons to push? America had its own ideas of the new Iraq. Did most Iraqis share them?
Places most Americans had never heard of in 2002, like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, became household words. Saddam was captured nine months after the invasion. The war dragged on for eight more years. No WMD were ever found. And Iraq drained billions from America's treasury and diverted resources from Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida rebounded after their defeat in the 2001 invasion.
In the early months, America's enemy was mostly Sunnis angry over the loss of power and prestige when their patron Saddam fell. In September 2007, the bloodiest year for U.S. troops, Shiite militias — part of a community that suffered terribly under Saddam — were responsible for three-quarters of the attacks in the Baghdad area that killed or wounded Americans, according to the then-No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno.
Saddam had not tolerated al-Qaida. With Saddam gone and the country in chaos, al-Qaida in Iraq became the terror movement's largest and most dangerous franchise, drawing in fighters from North Africa to Asia for a war that lingers on through suicide bombings and assassinations, albeit at a lower intensity.
As American troops prepare to go home by Dec. 31, they leave behind a country still facing violence, with closer ties to the U.S. than Saddam had but still short of what Washington once envisioned. Iranian influence is on the rise. One of the few positive developments from the American viewpoint — a democratic toehold — is far from secure.
In 20-20 hindsight, the U.S. probably should have seen it coming. By 2003, communal rivalries and hatreds, fueled by years of Saddam's suppression of Kurds and Shiites, were brewing beneath the lid of a closed society cobbled together from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Saddam's rule of terror kept all these passions in the pot. Lift the lid and the pot boils over. Remove Saddam and a new fight flares for the power that the ousted ruler and his Baath Party had monopolized for decades.
A day after Saddam's statue was hauled down in Baghdad, the U.S. arranged what was supposed to be a reconciliation meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, bringing together prominent clerics from the majority Shiite sect eager for a dominant role in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam's Sunni-dominated rule.
One of them was Abdul-Majid al-Khoie, son of a revered ayatollah. Al-Khoie had fled to Britain during Saddam's crackdown against Shiites after the 1991 Gulf War. Now he and the other clerics were back in Iraq, freed from Saddam's yoke.
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