Cover Story
Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey/U.S. Air Force

Endurance test

Five years and 4,000 combat deaths later, U.S. forces mark another Iraq War anniversary. Should future commemorations be marked in years or in decades?

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

TAL USQUF, Iraq- Nestled up a switchback road north of Mosul in a mountain valley called Lalish is the Yezidi temple of Sheikh Adi. Yezidis are an ancient minority in the region who trace their syncretistic religion back to the Zoroastrians. Worshippers make pilgrimages to the ancient site in Lalish to light luminaries fueled by olive oil drawn from clay urns lining the temple's endless dank tombs.

Ask how old the temple is, and a nonplussed guide says, "God made the sun, the land, and the moon, and he made the temple at the same time. It has been here since time began." Iraqis are similarly puzzled when asked about the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led war in Iraq: Hasn't the war always been with us? they seem to say.

For children like Yousif Almashmos, who was born during the March 2003 invasion, the answer is yes. Yousif has seen his family's business in Baghdad destroyed twice by suicide bombs, but last September he started school-having never lived apart from the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the subsequent insurgency (see "Binding up the wounds of war," Sept. 29, 2007).

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And for veterans like Yousif Matty, who spent most of a decade away from his family fighting in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the answer is also yes. For Matty that decade was followed by a "cold war" decade after the Gulf War of 1991. Saddam Hussein's policies forced Matty from his home in Kirkuk into isolation and exile in Iraqi Kurdistan. From then until after the U.S. invasion of 2003, Matty could not make the road trip to the capital, could not visit with relatives, including his aging parents, who lived there, could not travel anywhere freely. The toppling of Saddam meant temporary freedoms: Matty was reunited with his parents and recommenced church work in cities he could not set foot in for a decade.

But as the U.S.-led effort lengthened, hardships returned: Since 2006 Matty has found it difficult to travel to Baghdad. A family home in Kirkuk, refurbished with savings in 2004, is vacant save for vagrants with guns and militant ties. Matty and his family found that terrorist activity and routine bombings made it no longer safe to live in Kirkuk. They moved to a more secure city last year. As he did before the war began, Matty and his family now live in rented quarters with unpredictable water and electricity; they know they may have to move at a moment's notice.

Eklas Danoohana is prematurely gray, judging by the age of her three young children. They live in a one-room apartment off a dirt alley in Tal Usquf, a small town north of Mosul. They took refuge there after her husband received death threats. A member of the Iraqi Security Forces, he was severely wounded in a bombing last year and now has a metal plate in his arm where surgeons reconstructed bone. To help the family survive, the couple's 17-year-old son has made his way to Greece as a refugee, where he works and sends money to the family every week. "Here we have no jobs, only waiting," she told WORLD last September.

These stories only begin to signify the Unfinished Business that is the war in Iraq.

At the five-year mark, a seemingly endless cycle of fighting and insecurity for Iraqis and Americans makes it easy to forget the early days in 2003, when bombs began to drop on Baghdad at 5:35 a.m. on March 20, and a new dawn poised to break.

Tomahawk missiles launched from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea were soon accompanied by laser-guided precision bombs dropped from Stealth fighters. As the skies over the capital lit up in what would soon be known as a campaign of "shock and awe," units from the 173rd Airborne and other divisions already had parachuted inside Iraq's northern mountains, and from the south Army convoys led by the 3rd Infantry Division were on the move across the desert from Kuwait.

In a lightning march U.S. ground forces converged on the capital. Just at sunset in Baghdad April 9, the sun went down on the 24-year-old regime of Saddam Hussein. While Marines atop tanks looked on, Iraqis pulled down a bronze statue of the Iraqi dictator in Baghdad's central Firdos Square. It had all happened in precisely three weeks. "The present race to Baghdad is unprecedented in its speed and daring and in the lightness of its casualties," noted historian Victor Davis Hanson at the time.

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