A Look Back: The Beginning Of The War In Iraq

Dec 3, 2011
Originally published on December 4, 2011 4:30 am

December marks the beginning of the end of the U.S. war in Iraq.

The withdrawal has already begun as hundreds of U.S. troops are leaving Iraq every day; military vehicles, personnel and weapons are being shipped out of the country, and by Dec. 31, all U.S. troops will be gone after a conflict that started nearly a decade ago.

NPR is taking a look back at the last eight years of the war: the turning points, the costs and expectations about what comes next.

The Beginning

In April of 2003, many people watched the massive U.S. bombing campaign of Baghdad on TV. The "shock and awe" campaign, as it came to be known, marked the start of the war for all involved, including the journalists tasked with covering the conflict.

At the time, Anne Garrels was the senior correspondent for NPR in Baghdad. She told weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin that Iraqis were terrified and that covering what was happening in the city was very difficult.

"They were living in a profound dictatorship so they didn't know themselves and they were terrified of talking to foreigners. So it was very hard to get information, not impossible, but the information was modest at best. So we walked into the bombing campaign pretty ignorant about the country."

Weeks later, when U.S. troops advanced into the city, the hotel Garrels was staying in was hit by a tank shell fired from across the Tigris River. Her driver, Amer, ran in and told her they had to leave.

Across the river, Col. David Perkins, now Lt. Gen. Perkins, was commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division attacking Baghdad. He told Martin that a tank commander mistook a shoulder-mounted camera held by a journalist at Garrel's hotel for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG, and fired at it. Some of Garrel's colleagues were injured and killed in the blast.

It would prove to be one of the most confused moments of the advance on Baghdad: U.S. forces firing on what they thought was an enemy staging ground. Perkins was trying to get clarity on whether the building was filled with journalists. He turned to a reporter embedded with his brigade and told him to get on the phone.

"Call all your reporters at the Palestine [Hotel], and tell them to take bed sheets off their bed and hang them over the balcony so that we can confirm what hotel that this is. And eventually a couple of bed sheets started coming over the railings. ... I said, as of now, no more, direct fire [or] indirect fire across the river, until we get a good assessment of everybody who's over there so that we know what's going on."

Garrels and Perkins paint different pictures of the events in the days that followed. As she and the press corps made their way through Baghdad, she talked to Iraqis who weren't sure whether to celebrate and embrace the Americans or grieve and fight back.

"And it was that ambivalence, more than ecstasy at the Americans being there. They said, 'We should have done this. You shouldn't be here.' Again and again people said, 'We don't want you here but you have to be in control.' And the fact that over the coming weeks and months the U.S. was not in control, disappointed and disillusioned even those who had supported the invasion."

In contrast, Perkins recalled standing in the streets with a sergeant when an elderly Iraqi man and his grandson slowly approached the soldiers.

"The grandfather went to sergeant and said: 'Do you mind if my grandson touches you?' And the sergeant looked, a little leery, being in the combat zone, and [the grandfather] said: 'Well, you know, I've lived my whole life in a very oppressive regime and under the heavy hand of the dictator.' And he said, 'I just want my grandson to know that as he grows up and hopefully flourishes in a democracy I want him to be able to say that he touched the person that gave him that chance.' This was the legacy this grandfather wanted his grandson to have."

Though they had different views of those first days of the Iraq War, Garrels and Perkins both said no one seemed to know what was going to happen next — not the U.S. administration nor the Iraqis themselves.

Over the next four weeks, NPR will have more reflections and analysis of the war in Iraq as the drawdown continues and the last of the U.S. troops prepare to leave.

A few related stories from recent days:

-- "Camp Victory, Emptied Of U.S. Troops, Is Handed To Iraqi Government." (The Washington Post)

-- "NATO Running Out Of Time To Negotiate Troop Extension In Iraq." (Foreign Policy)

-- "Many Americans Regard The War In Iraq As Over. But Tell That To The Troops' Families." (Los Angeles Times)

[Steve Mullis is an NPR.org producer.]

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, in for Guy Raz.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain takes a detour on his path to the White House.

HERMAN CAIN: So as of today, with a lot of prayer and soul searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign.

MARTIN: More on Cain's announcement and what it means for the Republican bid for 2012 in just a moment.

But first, this month marks the beginning of the end of the U.S. war in Iraq. The withdrawal has already begun. Hundreds of US troops are leaving Iraq every day. Humvees and weapons are being shipped out of the country. And by December 31st, all U.S. troops will be gone - the official conclusion to a war that started almost eight years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCASTS)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We are now hearing reports. Air raid sirens are going off in Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We all felt this blast. And when we look in the direction of the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels where a number of our colleagues are working, we saw this white mushroom cloud.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As of Tuesday night, 10 U.S. troops and two members of the Iraqi security forces have been killed.

BUSH: And you can know that our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done.

MARTIN: For the next several weeks, NPR will be taking a look back at the last eight years of the war - the turning points, the costs and expectations about what comes next. Today, we begin at the beginning, spring 2003: the U.S. bombing campaign and the fall of Baghdad. That's our cover story today told by two people who were there, watching events unfold from very different perspectives.

ANNE GARRELS, BYLINE: My name is Anne Garrels. In 2003, I was the senior foreign correspondent for NPR, and based in Baghdad.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVID PERKINS: My name is Lieutenant General David Perkins. And in 2003, I was Colonel Perkins commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division.

GARRELS: It was a city that was very hard to cover. Iraqis were terrified. They were living in a profound dictatorship, so they didn't know themselves and they were terrified of talking to foreigners. So it was very hard to get information, not impossible, but the information was modest at best. So we walked into the bombing campaign pretty ignorant about the country.

PERKINS: This is my first time in combat, was as a brigade commander. Now, luckily, all of my subordinate battalion commanders had been in Desert Storm. And so, of course, they had that experience. But we were, I think, very guarded to make sure that we didn't just template to say, well, this is how it happened in Desert Storm. This is how it's going to happen here.

GARRELS: When the bombing campaign started, it was unlike the bombing campaign of 1991. This time, the idea was not to destroy the infrastructure totally. So it was quite targeted. I literally watched a missile go past my window, turn left, and hit the phone exchange.

MARTIN: That was the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign in Baghdad. Weeks later, U.S. troops advanced into the city.

GARRELS: The morning when the troops actually arrived in Baghdad, I woke up at five in the morning because it was silent. It was absolutely quiet. And I went downstairs. All of the Iraqi officials had disappeared. I mean, there was a sudden change. I was up in my room reporting and a tank hit the hotel. Suddenly, Amer, my driver, ran in and said, we've been hit. And you've got to get out. We've got to get out.

MARTIN: General Perkins saw events unfolding from across the river.

PERKINS: I was there. In fact, that was our brigade. And that was, I believe, on the 7th, the day that we attacked into Baghdad. So you can imagine the chaos that goes into, with an armored formation, going into a city with five million, et cetera. And one of my tank battalions was going along with the sort of the west side of the Tigris River, the regime district side of the river. And they started getting hit with indirect fire and sniper fire.

A tank commander is surveying the far side of the river and he spots on the balcony of what turns out to be the Palestine hotel, somebody that appears to have binoculars, you know, observing what was going on, and then somebody with a device on his shoulder, which appeared to be an RPG or rocket launcher.

GARRELS: And so we ran down - I was on the 17th floor - we ran down and it was just above me where we - where something obviously had happened. And unfortunately, some of my colleagues were injured and killed.

PERKINS: Unfortunately, these people turn out to be two reporters, as you know. And what was on his shoulder was a camera and the other person, I think, actually did have binoculars, just trying to, you know, kind of giving a blow by blow.

MARTIN: It would prove to be one of the most confused moments of the U.S. advance on Baghdad. U.S. forces firing on what they thought was an enemy staging ground. General Perkins was trying to get clarity. Was the building filled with journalists? He turned to a reporter embedded with his brigade and told him to get on the phone.

PERKINS: Call all your reporters at the Palestine and tell them to take bed sheets off their bed and hang them over the balcony so that we can confirm what hotel that this is. And eventually, a couple of bed sheets started coming over the railings. After the bed sheets came out and everything, and then the reports came up, that battalion commander called me up and said, hey, sir. I just got a report from one of my tank commanders that I think he did fire a tank round toward this building where we did see the bed sheet come up. I said, as of now, no more direct fire, indirect fire across the river until we get a good assessment of everybody who's over there.

GARRELS: I went down into the lobby and, you know, we were all trying to help and get a vehicle so that we could take the injured to the hospitals. And then we just continued reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Police say that the three vehicle bombs were driven by suicide bombers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible) such devastation that it brought part of a building down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Inside the hotel, you can see where debris has fallen down off the ceilings inside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Maybe 1,000 kilograms of explosive in that truck or more. And it probably killed a number of those guards that were trying to stop the truck in its tracks.

MARTIN: Thinking that it was now safe to go out, Anne Garrels and the rest of the press corps left the Palestine hotel and started walking around to get a sense of what had happened.

GARRELS: Suddenly, we were free to move around the city in a way that we had never been before. People were talking to us in ways that they had never before. But people were terribly confused.

MARTIN: The next day, April 9th, another seminal moment. A handful of Iraqis showed up in one of the main squares in Baghdad and started trying to pull down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein. American television networks broadcasted live coverage. A theatrical ending to what the U.S. military was calling the liberation of Baghdad. But outside the tight shot of the TV cameras, the scene was a bit different.

GARRELS: There were so few Iraqis, in fact, trying to tear down this statue that the Marines had to do it. They intervened and they pulled down the statue. But, you know, the pictures, if you focused in on the few Iraqis who were there - I mean, there were crowds but not huge crowds - it looked pretty joyous. Everybody was going, yay, when the statue was pulled down. But there were far more Iraqis in the side streets, just standing in their gardens, in their front doors, going, what is going to happen next?

MARTIN: And the fighting wasn't over.

GARRELS: I remember going along side streets where there were clashes between some remnants of Saddam's forces and the American troops. And, in fact, there were some wounded on the streets, and I helped grab a couple of them and take them to their house just a few feet away and we went in the house and talked to the families.

MARTIN: The Iraqis she spoke with weren't sure whether to celebrate or grieve, embrace the Americans or fight back.

GARRELS: And it was that ambivalence, more than ecstasy at the Americans being there. They said, we should have done this. You shouldn't be here. Again and again, people said, we don't want you here, but you have to be in control. And the fact that over the coming weeks and months, the U.S. was not in control, disappointed and disillusioned, even those who had supported the invasion.

MARTIN: The general saw things differently.

PERKINS: I remember I was on the street and I had a sergeant next to me, American sergeant.

MARTIN: An elderly Iraqi man and his grandson slowly approached the American soldiers.

PERKINS: The grandfather went to the sergeant and said, do you mind if my grandson touches you? And the sergeant kind of looked and, you know, a little leery, being in the combat zone. He said, well, he says, you know, I've lived my whole life in a very oppressive regime and under the heavy hand of the dictator. And he said, I just want my grandson to know that as he grows up and hopefully flourishes in a democracy, I want him to be able to say he touched the person that gave him that chance, and this was the legacy this grandfather wanted his grandson to have.

MARTIN: That's the image General Perkins held on to in those first days, a far more reassuring thought than the questions and chaos that filled the streets of Baghdad. Everyone felt it. The general...

PERKINS: After we were there for a while, it became clear that this is going to be an evolving challenge. Probably nobody knows what's going to happen. Both sides, I think, were trying to figure out what's next. Both sides really didn't understand probably who they were facing.

MARTIN: And the journalist.

GARRELS: Everyone was ignorant about Iraq: the U.S. administration, the Iraqis themselves and certainly us journalists. But we didn't know what was going to happen next.

MARTIN: That was Anne Garrels, former senior foreign correspondent for NPR, and Lieutenant General David Perkins, both reflecting on the first days after U.S. troops took Baghdad almost eight years ago. And it was just the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCASTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The American Marines are returning fire with everything they've got. (Unintelligible).

BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Radio up, radio up. Radio up. Direct shot. Direct shot.

MARTIN: NPR will bring you more reflections and analysis of the war in Iraq over the next four weeks as the drawdown continues and the last U.S. troops prepare to leave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.