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Iraq Five Years Later

by Geraldo Rivera | Mar 21, 2008

March 2007

On assignment with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan in March 2003, we were a week late getting into Iraq.  By the time we got there, the intense 'Shock and Awe' aerial bombardment that almost killed Saddam Hussein was over. It would have ended the war on the first day. But he escaped; the first of many missed opportunities that negatively altered the course of the war.

The next was the failure to secure the huge caches of ammunition discovered on the road to Baghdad, artillery shells and other high explosives that would later be used with such devastating impact when improvised as roadside booby traps.

Still, riding into Baghdad with the 101st Airborne Division, it was impossible not to feel euphoric. Although widespread looting had already broken out, the civilians were almost universally friendly; the most common greeting, thumbs up, and the cry of 'Bush'.

As the situation unraveled, we called the looters 'Ali Babas' as in the ancient tale, 'Ali Baba and the 40 thieves'; like our civilian and military leaders, at the time failing to recognize that spreading anarchy and the breakdown of the civil order was creating an atmosphere in which a malignant insurgency would soon flourish.

Four months later, in August 2003, I returned to Iraq. Erica and I had just been married, and I raised eyebrows going there straight from our honeymoon in France. And still the situation in Iraq gave reason for optimism. True, we had not found any weapons of mass destruction, and true, nothing resembling a real representative government had been created, but we had a confident new man in charge. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III had replaced the pessimistic retired general Jay Garner, who had been calling for a rapid de-escalation of the size of our military presence and a faster timetable for handing over control to the Iraqis. "It's their country and their oil," Garner said famously.  

But despite the darkening Iraqi horizon, like most reporters I was still stubbornly optimistic that things were on the right track; at one point asking the imperial Ambassador Bremer if he considered himself the Iraqi George Washington, so blind was I to the gathering Iraqi storm in that summer of 2003.

And even with the capture of Saddam, by 2004, nobody was optimistic about Iraq. I.E.D. attacks were becoming commonplace, and intense combat against both Shiite extremists south of the capital, and against Sunnis based in and around Falluja to the west were resulting in widespread casualties. Death was everywhere we went, even piled in the back of pickup trucks. This was the year we almost died in an attack on our convoy just as we were entering our base in Mosul; a city that had been peaceful and cooperative just the year before.

Over the next several visits, the situation steadily went from bad to worse, becoming more and more grim, slipping into what seemed a condition of permanent chaos. The Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal undermined our moral authority, escalating the war's deepening unpopularity, even as casualties continued unabated to increase.

And still, I clung to the battered hope that the historic Iraqi elections of 2005 would be the beginning of the end of the war. Despite the raw violence, like a mother  killed near our position just to prevent her from voting, it was an incredible sight. We watched as Iraqi men and women, most for the first time in their lives cast free ballots for the political parties of their choice. I'll never forget those purple fingers.

But still the war ground on, and by 2006, the glamour had gone out of covering Iraq. It was terrifying, and too many GI's, and too many reporters were being killed and injured, as hope withered. The only reason I kept dragging my sorry ass back to that hellhole was because I continued to support President Bush's increasingly unpopular efforts, and felt I couldn't talk the talk if I didn't periodically walk the walk.

Then came General David Petreaus and the surge that seems the last, long shot chance to salvage our tremendous investment of blood and treasure. And to the astonishment of most, the strategy has succeeded in reducing violence in this battered country. But we are still far from victory, whatever that means.

Many of the Sunni insurgents have turned against al-Queda; most of the Shiite radicals are honoring a cease-fire; many insurgent leaders have been killed or captured; and we have earned the so-called Iraqi government some breathing room to get their act together. If only they were as brave, patriotic, unselfish, honorable, and determined to succeed as our wonderful GI's.

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