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Iraq: Three Years After Operation Iraqi Freedom

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> A missile strike in Baghdad in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (CTK) Iraqis will mark another milestone in their long journey toward a democratic state on March 20 -- the third anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Over the past three years, progress has come in fits and starts, measured most notably on the political front. Economic progress has come much more slowly, stifled by a dilapidated infrastructure and raging insurgency.

The past year has seen significant progress on the political front. The transitional government got started in the late spring following months of political wrangling. Iraqi lawmakers soon afterward reached a compromise with Sunni Arab leaders, who had boycotted January's national election, to work together to draft a post-Hussein constitution. By the time Iraqi's marked one year of self-rule on 28 June, Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi'a were working side-by-side on the drafting committee.

While many Sunni Arab leaders were unhappy with the result, one leading party -- the Iraqi Islamic Party -- backed the document when it was put to a referendum in October, after securing a guarantee that some articles would be reviewed during a four-month, post-referendum period.

Despite a boycott by most Sunni Arab parties, 16 of Iraq's 18 governorates approved the document, and all Sunni parties quickly set their sights on the December legislative elections.

Electing A National Parliament

Three of the largest parties formed a coalition called the Iraqi Accordance Front. This act itself demonstrated a new amity among the parties, which had previously held diverse platforms. The tactic worked, and the front won 44 seats in the 275-member parliament.

At the same time, the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which comprised the two main Shi'ite political parties, grew more fractured during the transitional period, and several prominent party members left the alliance to form their own parties ahead of the elections. The alliance remained largely intact, however, despite increasing internal divisions.

The leadership -- or lack thereof -- of transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was at the core of the problem. Al-Ja'fari was widely criticized by Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and even some Shi'ite leaders for his mismanagement of ministries and government funds, his inability to negate the insurgency, and his inability to control Iraq's militia-dominated security forces.

Sunni and Shi'ite leaders clashed on a host of other issues, including the de-Ba'athification project, federalism, corruption, the role of neighboring states in the conflict, and rising religious fundamentalism.

The Mediating Role Of Talabani

Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani can be largely credited with keeping the political scene from degenerating into chaos. He played a key role in bringing Sunnis to the table and keeping them there -- through the constitution talks through the election and after.

As tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs rose following scores of suicide attacks and revenge killings, many of which were blamed on Shi'ite militiamen purportedly working under the cover of security forces, Talabani worked to keep up the dialogue between Sunni and Shi'ite leaders.

In the post-election political wrangling, Sunnis and Kurds presented a united front against the UIA, calling for the formation of a national unity government. The UIA countered with calls for a cabinet proportional to the election results.

The Kurdish Question

Kurdish leaders faced a challenging year as well. President Talabani criticized al-Ja'fari's "monopolization of power" on several occasions, and claimed that the prime minister has sought to marginalize the role of the presidency in the new Iraq.

Kurds have also faced increased criticism over events in Kirkuk, a governorate located south of the Kurdistan region. Kurds claim a historic right to Kirkuk, while Turkomans and Arabs have said that the oil-rich governorate should remain outside the Kurdish region.

Oil trucks in Kurdistan (RFE/RL file photo)

Kurds also clashed with the central government over drilling rights after it was revealed that the Kurdistan Regional Government had begun drilling in the Dahuk Governorate. Shi'ite leaders claimed that Kurds were in violation of the constitution for not seeking permission to drill, while Kurds argued that the Oil Ministry was aware of the project.

Iraqis took another step forward with the opening of the Al-Dujayl trial against former President Saddam Hussein and seven other high-level regime members for crimes against Shi'ite Arabs in the town of Al-Dujayl following a failed assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982. The trial opened in October, and has proceeded -- albeit not without controversy -- to the halfway mark.

The Insurgency Rages On

As Iraqis struggled to advance their nation politically, the insurgency continued to rage throughout much of the country. Insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, and population centers has taken its toll on public morale and has left Iraq's failing infrastructure nearly in ruins. Electricity output is at its lowest level in three years, with much of the country getting by on 10 hours a day. In Baghdad, insurgent attacks, outdated equipment, and increased demand have left the city functioning on three to five hours a day. Unemployment, however, has dropped from 50 percent in 2003 to between 30 and 40 percent today.

It remains difficult to gauge the strength of the insurgency, particularly in light of what appears to be an increase in reprisal attacks by Sunni and Shi'ite groups that may or may not be linked to insurgent groups.

Many of the insurgent attacks since mid-2003 have been blamed on pro-Hussein Ba'athist groups and Sunni Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Neighboring Syria was openly criticized for failing to control the flow of foreign fighters across its border with Iraq.

In addition, there is increasing evidence that Iranian-backed forces are operating in Iraq. All groups share the goal of destabilizing the government and driving multinational forces out of the country. Iranian and Sunni Islamists also want to establish an Islamic state in Iraq.

However, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces defeated insurgent strongholds in the western Iraqi town of Tal Afar in September. In the subsequent months, it appears that locals and security forces have succeeded in keeping the insurgents out.

U.S. troops fighting in Tal Afar in September 2005 (epa)

Other operations were launched in the towns of Husaybah, Al-Karabilah, and Al-Ubaydi in November, and helped drive insurgents from those areas of western Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation in Al-Anbar in November, but the tide only began to change when locals committed to joining the effort. That moment appeared to come in January. At least 80 Sunni Arabs were killed and 61 wounded outside a police recruitment center in Al-Ramadi on January 5, when two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests among a line of 1,000 men lined up outside the building to apply for jobs.

Local residents blamed Al-Qaeda militants for the attack. The recruitment drive, organized with the help of several local tribal leaders, prompted the leaders to vow to drive out the insurgents they had until-then sheltered.

Al-Qaeda In Iraq

In a matter of weeks last summer, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi declared war on the Shi'a and formed an assassination brigade to hunt and kill members of a Shi'ite political organization; threatened Sunnis on the constitution drafting committee; vowed to kill Sunnis who voted for the constitutional referendum; and verbally attacked his onetime spiritual mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi when the latter "advised" al-Zarqawi against targeting Shi'a and civilians.

He also clashed openly with Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri over operational and doctrinal issues.

By the end of 2005, it appeared al-Zarqawi was losing support in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) announced in January that it had aligned with five other insurgent groups to form the Mujahedin Shura Council.

The announcement of the council signaled an attempt by the leader to purport an ongoing affiliation with nationalist resistance groups in an attempt to downplay increasing local opposition to his movement.

The formation of the council also sought to give religious legitimacy of his operations through the use of the name Shura, which is an Islamic principle that calls for the community to administer its affairs through mutual consultation. His Al-Qaeda group has issued nearly all of its statements since January through the council's name.

On March 16, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched the largest air assault in Iraq since 2003 on terrorist strongholds near Samarra. Iraqi officials have said that the operation, dubbed Operation Swarmer, targets Al-Qaeda militants based there, though some caution that the majority of those militants appear to be Iraqi nationals, not foreign fighters.

The small successes against the insurgency have been overshadowed, however, by the countless killings of civilians through car and suicide bomb attacks, gun battles, improvised explosive devices, and targeted assassinations. While most Western-press coverage is devoted to attacks targeting officials, security forces, and journalists, the majority of the victims continue to be ordinary civilians.

The Coming Year

While each year that has passed since the 2003 invasion has been deemed "crucial," the events of the coming year are sure to have a great impact on the long-term stability of Iraq.

If Iraq is to continue down the path of democracy, political parties will need to overcome their history and the polarization that has developed as a result of the new balance of power in Iraq, to work toward the greater good. And it is likely that they will, but how long this will take remains to be seen. It took leaders nearly three months to form a transitional government in 2005. This time around, the challenges are greater. Iraq's political leadership can overcome the challenges, but as time passes and sectarian divisions deepen, the threat of heightened civil conflict will loom ever larger.

Boots On The Ground

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz with U.S. troops in Iraq in March 2003 (RFE/RL)

THE SOUND OF THE GUNS: In the days just before and after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19-20, 2003, RFE/RL worked hard to cover the unfolding conflict. RFE/RL correspondent RON SYNOVITZ was embedded with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division as it crossed the border from Kuwait and drove deep into Iraq. Synovitz stayed with the U.S. troops through mid-April, covering the battle for Baghdad and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Listen to Synovitz's report from the Iraq-Kuwait border on March 18, 2003 (about four minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

Listen to Synovitz's report from March 19, 2003, just hours before the 3rd Infantry Division began to cross into Iraq (about three minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

See also:

Embedded RFE/RL Correspondent Recalls War's First Day

RFE/RL correspondent CHARLES RECKNAGEL also covered the beginning of the war from Kuwait and Iraq. Here are some links to his reports:

Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- The View From Kuwait

Kuwait: Desert Dispatch -- Kuwait City Under Constant Air-Raid Alerts

Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Correspondent Crosses Iraq Border

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the beginning of combat operations in Iraq, click here.

RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.