WASHINGTON, March 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In the weeks leading up to the war, U.S. President George W. Bush insisted that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States and its allies.
One reason was fears Hussein might someday put weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.
The Hunt For Weapons Of Mass Destruction
Here is how Bush phrased that argument on February 9, 2003, a month before the war began.
“One of the greatest dangers we face is that weapons of mass destruction might be passed to terrorists who would not hesitate to use those weapons," Bush said. "Saddam Hussein has long-standing, direct, and continuing ties to terrorist networks.”
Bush had to make this argument repeatedly because Hussein had abruptly opened Iraq to UN weapons inspectors -- something he'd refused to do for nearly four years. Other countries, including some traditional U.S. allies, urged the United States to await the inspectors' findings before going to war.
But Washington began the invasion before the inspections were complete. And by autumn it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
Meanwhile, other armaments in Iraqi ammunition dumps -- poorly guarded, or not guarded at all, by the invading coalition force -- fell into the hands of those willing to carry them off.
Over the past three years, Iraq has been marked not only by bloodshed, but also by dizzying change.
Political Change And A Growing Insurgency
The changes include two parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum, and a permanent, non-provisional parliament finally met on March 16. However, factional disputes continue to prevent the new parliament from forming a government.
The nature of the violence also has evolved. First there was the combat in which Hussein was deposed, and then the early resistance, presumably from former members of Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Eventually some foreign fighters set up what their leader, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, called the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers.
Today, Iraq also is beset by a vicious spate of sectarian violence, marked mostly by attacks by rival Shi'ite and Arab-Sunni militant groups. That intensified dramatically on February 22 ,with the destruction of a mosque in Samarra that is a key Shi'ite shrine.
Nathan Brown, who specializes in Middle Eastern governance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research center in Washington, tells RFE/RL that Iraq could have made more progress over the last three years.
Brown argues that the fault lies with what he calls the Bush administration's poor planning and almost naively optimistic assumptions.
“We're looking at a political system that doesn't seem to be able to hold together, a society that seems to be facing civil war, and an American presence there that probably should have been winding down now but seems to be at this point essential to avoiding even more bloody conflict in the country," Brown said.
Brown says that the Bush administration concentrated on taking Iraq through free elections, the first in its modern history.
But he says Washington failed to address the problem of building a new consensus among Iraq’s major communities – the Shi'ites, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds.
“The issue was simply postponed, and that's something that's very difficult to do now, now that you've got very entrenched interests and a lot of bad blood among the various actors," Brown says. "It would have just been an awful lot easier and would have probably stood an awful lot more chance of success three years ago.”
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard agrees that the chief problem in Iraq is political.
Allard -- a former intelligence officer who now writes and teaches military history -- tells RFE/RL that Iraq's Shi’a, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds need to work together to ensure security and stability not only in their country, but in the region as a whole.
“The thing that is interesting to me is that it's still not clear, three years into this, the answer to one fundamental question: Is this one country or three?" Allard says. "Because if you think it's bad now, let me remind you that it can get a lot worse. If you were to have civil war breaking out, what you're likely to have is also a regional conflict, because most of the countries over there that abut Iraq all have critical interests of their own populations at stake.”
He says that the conflict in Iraq is now about more than defeating an insurgency and providing security. He says it is about helping to reconcile opposing political factions so they can build a society.
"What you have to do is not only provide the military might, but [also] the psychological, diplomatic, and every other form of momentum to make this conflict into a success," he says. "And unless you do all those things, you're going to lose it. That's what worries me more than anything else. We can win, and right now we simply have not gotten the act together to do so."
Part Of The War On Terror
Among the many changes that have marked this 3-year-old war is the reason for fighting it. Today, the Bush administration acknowledges that intelligence about Hussein's suspected illegal arsenal was faulty. But it repeatedly cites a new basis for American military presence in Iraq: the war against terrorism.
“We're staying on the offensive," Bush said during a speech on July 11, 2005. "We're fighting the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so we do not have to face them here at home.”
This may comfort Americans, but it offers little comfort to the Iraqis, according to Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian native and the director of Middle East studies at George Washington University in Washington.
Jouejati tells RFE/RL that it is perfectly understandable for Bush to do all he can to protect the American people -- but not on Iraqi soil.
“This is not fair to the Iraqis and it's not fair to anyone else," Jouejati says. "Now that the U.S. borders look as though they are far more sealed than ever before, terrorism is occurring first and foremost in Iraq against Iraqi civilians. Every day that goes by, there are tens of innocent Iraqi civilians that are killed. While Americans may be safer, Iraqis certainly are not.”
Jouejati warns that by subjecting the Iraqi people to the American fight with Al-Qaeda, Bush risks turning many Iraqis -- the people he is supposedly trying to help -- into new enemies.
Bush Urges Iraqis, Americans To Persevere
U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech on March 1 that the transformation of Iraq will succeed, but that Americans and Iraqis must persevere to make that happen.
“I wish I could tell you that the violence is [decreasing] and that the road ahead will be smooth," Bush said. "It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come. The terrorists are losing on the field of battle, so they are fighting this war through the pictures we see on television and in the newspapers every day. They are hoping to shake our resolve and force us to retreat. They are not going to succeed.”
Bush also called on Iraqis to be more willing to compromise as they set up a government made up of Shi’a, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds that can stabilize the country and end the bloodshed.
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.
RFE/RL correspondent CHARLES RECKNAGEL also covered the beginning of the war from Kuwait and Iraq. Here are some links to his reports:
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the beginning of combat operations in Iraq, click here.