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).
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.
Today it doesn't take a historian to know that what then looked like the end only masked a new beginning. With the March 20, 2008, anniversary U.S. casualties stand close to 4,000 and Iraqi deaths number well over 10 times that number. (Based on a compilation of deaths reported by news agencies, icasualties.org tallies over 48,000 Iraqi security forces and civilian deaths since 2005.) Military historians like Hanson, as well as combat-savvy military personnel, now search their archives to find precedent in the war's length as opposed to its speed.
"Americans cannot fight a Seven Year's War," Gen. George C. Marshall wrote in the aftermath of World War II, with much of Europe facing famine and Japan in ruin. Support for the war in Vietnam collapsed in 1968, according to military historian Earl Tilford, "seven years after John F. Kennedy made our first major increases in advisers and changed their mission to a combat one."
Air Force Major Steven A. Givler, who completed two tours of duty in Iraq and has volunteered for a third (he is likely to be sent to Saudi Arabia instead), also is revisiting World War II history for perspective on Iraq. "People questioned whether Italy was a worthwhile campaign or a distraction from the impending invasion of France," Givler said, noting that one Allied unit lost 1,400 men in a single day's fighting in Italy but gained little ground. "Many doubted whether Italy could be conquered at all, because the Germans held the mountaintops, and still more people questioned whether, if we could drive the Germans out of Italy, it would do us any good."
According to Givler, "Distraction or not, Italy provided a fulcrum by which the allies began to shift the weight of the German war machine, and Iraq is serving the same purpose today. Al-Qaeda and Iran and other members of the axis arrayed against us consider Iraq an important center of gravity, and they are throwing everything they have there. And we are grinding them up."
If that assessment sounds optimistic, then take a close look at U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David H. Petraeus on a recent walking tour of a Baghdad neighborhood: He is wearing no body armor and no helmet.
Since the surge in U.S. military strength began a year ago, violence is down 60 percent nationwide, according to Pentagon statistics. And, according to Petraeus, those who fueled much of the violence are talking to each other. "A big part of the effort, over the last year, has been to determine who is reconcilable, who, literally, is willing to put down his rifle and talk, who is willing to shout, instead of shoot," Petraeus said during his walking tour.
That is not just the inside view. Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, once a widely quoted critic of the war, is something of a convert: "No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area," he reported after a trip to Iraq in February. "A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire . . . has transformed the battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. provides sustained support to the Iraqi government-in security, governance, and development-there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state."
That would be good news for minorities like the Yezidis, who endured the largest single terrorist attack of the war last year, when multiple bombings killed over 500 Yezidis in northern Iraq. And it would be good news for the millions of Iraqis currently uprooted by insurgency and living in northern Iraq villages, like Eklas Danoohana, and for Iraqi refugees further away in Damascus, Amman, or Athens.
Earl Tilford, professor of history at Grove City College and a retired Air Force officer who also taught at the Army War College and Air Force Air Command and Staff College, told WORLD that last year's surge "took the initiative away from the terrorists and resulted in considerable progress towards returning the country to stability. Convincing local tribal leaders to join the anti-al-Qaeda struggle constituted a major political triumph for U.S. forces and the Iraqi government."
But the terrorists "are sentient foes," Tilford warned, and "there is a long way to go before Iraq can stand alone against terrorists and Iranian ambitions." Premature withdrawal of forces, according to Tilford, "risks disaster."
Both Tilford and Cordesman agree that the U.S. military must keep pressure on while the Iraqi government moves to establish credibility and viability as a political entity. That will mean some military presence even if troop withdrawals begin next year. It is a presence, Tilford suggested, that in time may come to be "measured in decades."
March 20: Operation Iraqi Freedom begins.
March-April: The Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan's Purse announce they will provide humanitarian relief in Iraq, sparking criticism that such groups could send the wrong message to Iraqis that the war is a crusade to convert the nation to Christianity.
April 7: British forces take control of Basra.
April 9: Baghdad falls to U.S. forces and with it Saddam's statue.
May 1: Bush gives "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
July 22: U.S. forces kill Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay.
Dec. 13: U.S. forces capture Saddam Hussein.
Jan. 28: Former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay testifies before Congress that no WMDs have been found in Iraq and that pre-war intelligence was wrong.
March 2: Suicide attacks in Karbala on Shiite Muslims' holiest day kill at least 100 people and wound 300.
March 15: Four Southern Baptist missionaries are gunned down in Mosul. Carrie Taylor McDonnall, 26, survives.
March 31: Insurgents kill four Blackwater USA contractors, mutilating the bodies before hanging them from a bridge.
April 4: U.S. troops begin first assault on Fallujah.
April 9: American contractor Thomas Hamill, 44, is kidnapped but escapes 24 days later.
April 28: Images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib emerge.
May 11: Islamic militants release video depicting the beheading of American contractor Nick Berg, 26, who was allegedly killed in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal.
May 15: Evidence of WMDs in Iraq is discovered after a roadside bomb containing sarin gas detonates.
June 28: The United States hands power over to Iraq.
Sept. 16: Briton Kenneth Bigley and Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong are kidnapped and later beheaded.
Sept. 28: Two Italian women are freed after being held hostage three weeks, sparking rumors the Italian government paid a ransom.
Oct. 19: Margaret Hassan, a 59-year-old British aid worker with CARE International, is abducted and later presumed dead.
Nov. 8: U.S. forces launch second assault on Fallujah.
Jan. 4: Baghdad Province Gov. Ali al-Haidari is assassinated.
Jan. 30: Iraqis elect the 275-member Transitional National Assembly.
Feb. 28: A suicide car bomb in Hilla kills at least 125 people, many of whom were Iraqi police and army recruits.
April 7: Jalal Talabani is sworn in as Iraq's president. He appoints Ibrahim al-Jaafari to serve as prime minister.
Aug. 7: Cindy Sheehan protests outside Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch.
Oct. 15: Iraqis vote in favor of ratifying the draft constitution.
Nov. 19: U.S. Marines kill 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha, allegedly in retaliation for a fellow Marine's death.
Nov. 30: Bush unveils the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.
Dec. 15: Iraqis vote to elect a parliament.
Feb. 21: At a Washington counter-terrorism conference, 12 hours of captured Saddam Hussein audiotapes are released, revealing Saddam discussing a previously undisclosed nuclear weapons program and promising in the mid-1990s that the United States would be visited in the future by "terrorism with weapons of mass destruction."
Feb. 22: The al-Askari Mosque, a Shiite holy site located in Samarra, is bombed, destroying its golden dome and igniting sectarian violence.
March 9: American peace activist Tom Fox, kidnapped in 2005 with three others from Christian Peacemaker Teams, is found dead. The remaining hostages are rescued March 23.
March 30: After 82 days in captivity, Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll, 28, is freed.
April 21: Jawad al-Maliki replaces Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister.
May 20: Iraq's first constitutional government takes office.
June 8: Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi dies during U.S. raid.
June 20: The mutilated bodies of kidnapped U.S. soldiers Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Thomas Tucker, 25, are found.
Nov. 8: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigns.
Nov. 23: A series of car bombs and mortar attacks on the Shiite Muslim district of Sadr City kills at least 144 people.
Dec. 6: Iraq Study Group Report is released.
Dec. 30: Saddam Hussein is hanged for crimes against humanity.
Jan. 10: Bush announces a troop surge.
Feb. 10: Gen. David H. Petraeus takes command of U.S. forces in Iraq.
April 10: U.S. forces begin construction of the Baghdad Wall. Prime Minister Maliki halts the project April 22.
April 28: A suicide car bomb in Karbala during evening prayers kills at least 58 people and wounds 170.
May 1: Bush vetoes emergency war spending bill that includes a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal: "Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible."
June 24: Three Iraqi army officials, including Ali Hassan al-Majid ("Chemical Ali") are sentenced to hang for carrying out the Anfal campaign.
Aug. 14: Suicide truck bombs kill more than 500 members of the minority Yezidi community.
Sept. 10: Gen. David Petraeus reports to Congress on the war.
Sept. 13: Calling it a "return on success," Bush announces a gradual troop reduction.
Sept. 13: Sunni sheik and U.S. ally Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi is assassinated.
Sept. 16: Employees of the private security firm Blackwater USA open fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqi civilians.
Feb. 22: Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announces he will extend by six months the cease-fire over his Mahdi Army.
March 2: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Iraq-the first official visit of an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
March 19: United for Peace and Justice to hold a Mass Nonviolent Direct Action protest in Washington, D.C.
-compiled by Kristin Chapman