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This distillation of Weekly Review events related to the Iraq War was compiled, selected, and edited for context by James Sligh. The lines themselves were written by many different Harper’s Magazine editors, notably Roger D. Hodge and Paul Ford. Like the Weekly Review, this history is intended to be an overview, emphasizing significant events, themes, and eccentricities. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Please note that some items have been reordered for thematic consistency, so events are not necessarily listed chronologically within a given year.
In the first State of the Union address of his presidency, George W. Bush identified Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” Former vice-president Al Gore said that Iraq was a “virulent threat” that called for a “final reckoning.” Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate that Bush had decided to overthrow Hussein but had not yet settled on a strategy. Senator Trent Lott (R., Miss.) suspected the presence of Al Qaeda elements in Iraq, and Bush warned that the country could be six months away from developing nuclear weapons. “I don’t know what more evidence we need,” he said. Congressional Democrats explained that they were reluctant to oppose the war because of the November election.
The CIA began covert operations in Iraq’s northern Kurdish territories, and the Pentagon hired actors to play hecklers in a fake Arab town in southern California that had been set up to prepare troops for the invasion. Senior military officials announced the formation of a new intelligence unit, dissatisfied with reports concluding that Iraq had no connection with Al Qaeda and no intention of attacking the United States.
UN weapons inspectors in Iraq found three gin factories, all well-stocked. Iraqis celebrated Saddam Hussein’s 65th birthday and announced that three novels by Hussein would be taught in schools the following year. The U.S. warned that it reserved the right to use nuclear weapons on Iraq if necessary.
In January, Iraqi dissidents met with President Bush, who told them he favored a quick transition to democracy in Iraq after a short military occupation; White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that the president had not yet decided whether to invade. “Let us hope,” said King Abdullah of Jordan, “that whatever happens between Iraq and the international community is as quick and painless as possible.”
Millions of people around the world demonstrated against the coming war; more than a million people rallied in London, and 500,000 gathered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Protests took place in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Melbourne, Paris, Rome, Seoul, Tokyo, and at least 600 other cities. President Bush warned of reprisals against Mexican-Americans if Mexico failed to support the invasion. UN weapons inspectors in Iraq complained that the intelligence tips they’d been getting from the United States had been “garbage after garbage after garbage.” George Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq.
A coalition of nations, including Bulgaria, Mongolia, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, joined the United States and Britain in what was christened Operation Iraqi Freedom. American and British casualties were heavier than expected, and soldiers said they were having a hard time distinguishing Iraqi forces from civilians. Congress debated a budget that contained no provisions for funding the war. The Moroccan government reportedly offered to send 2,000 monkeys to help clear land mines.
In the north, Kurds were driving Arab families from their homes. Baghdad and other cities were in chaos: mobs were looting businesses, government offices, private homes, and the National Museum, whose massive collection of ancient artifacts spanned more than 7,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization. “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes,” said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Ministry for Religious Affairs was set on fire, incinerating thousands of Korans, some a millennium old. “When Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258,” said a ministry official, “these books survived.” Pizza Hut and Burger King set up their first franchises in Iraq.
On May 2, President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in an S-3B Viking airplane and, clad in a military flight suit with the words “Commander in Chief” printed on the back, informed the assembled sailors that the war on Iraq had been won.
The head of U.S. forces in Iraq said that his troops faced “a classical guerilla-type campaign,” and that they might have to double their expected tours of duty. A suicide bomber in a new cement truck blew up the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and killed 23 people. A two-year-old girl was shot dead in her home by American forces after a roadside bomb went off next to a military convoy. Americans “engaged and killed” a Reuters cameraman. An American soldier who was drinking beer after hours at the Baghdad city zoo shot and killed a Bengal tiger that had bitten another soldier who was trying to feed it.
The CIA team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq pointed to a single vial of botulinum toxin that had been stored in an Iraqi scientist’s refrigerator since 1993; President Bush said that the report justified the invasion. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans introduced the new Iraqi dinar, printed in Britain, minus the face of Saddam Hussein, and encouraged investors to come to Iraq.
A suicide bomber driving an ambulance struck the offices of the International Red Cross; the bomb left a six-foot-deep crater and broke windows a mile away. Within 45 minutes, bombers had struck four police stations in other neighborhoods; at least 34 died and more than 200 were injured. Guerrillas hiding in a grove of date palms shot down an American military helicopter near Fallujah. Most of the 36 soldiers wounded or killed were leaving Iraq on furlough.
Seven Spanish intelligence agents were killed near Baghdad, and American officials said that there were 650,000 tons of ammunition lying around Iraq, most of it unsecured. The American-appointed mayor of Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, was killed after he drove into a forbidden area and got into a “wrestling match” with an American soldier, whose gun went off.
The Pentagon accused Halliburton of overcharging for gasoline in Iraq, and a bank in suburban Baghdad was robbed of about $800,000. Congress worked to cut “gold plated” items from the administration’s request for the reconstruction of Iraq; among the items at issue were 40 new garbage trucks and $9 million for a new postal-zone system. Saddam Hussein was found cowering in a pit on a farm near Tikrit.
Guerillas were killing sidewalk alcohol vendors. Baghdad’s sewage continued to flow untreated into the Tigris River. A rocket attack briefly knocked out Iraq’s international telephone service. Iraqis demanded to know the whereabouts and condition of more than 10,000 men and boys (ages 11 to 75) detained by American forces. Colin Powell said that the invasion had been justified because Saddam would have used weapons of mass destruction if only he’d had any, and the head of the occupation’s Tribal Affairs Bureau admitted that he’d been relying on a British report published in 1918 to make sense of local politics.
Four American mercenaries employed by Blackwater Security Consulting were pulled from their vehicles in Fallujah, hacked to death, burned, and dragged through the streets; the remains of two were then hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River along with a sign that said, “Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans.” The first pictures of American coffins returning from Iraq became public after a website received them via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Six American soldiers, including a general, faced court martial over the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, which was famous for its torture chambers under Saddam Hussein. Photographs of the abuse were broadcast on U.S. television; one image depicted a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his genitals. Unreleased photographs exhibited in private to members of Congress showed Private Lynndie England having sex with other soldiers in front of prisoners, prisoners cowering before attack dogs, prisoners being forced to masturbate, and a prisoner repeatedly smashing his head against the wall. A former prisoner described being sodomized with a nightstick; another said he saw a prison interpreter raping an Iraqi boy as a female soldier took pictures.
American soldiers allegedly put a harness on an elderly woman and rode her like a donkey. The Army extended the service commitment of all soldiers bound for Iraq. American forces attacked what survivors said was a wedding party, near the Syrian border, and killed at least 43 people, including 12 women and 14 children. “There may have been some kind of celebration,” said a U.S. official. “Bad people have celebrations, too.”
The New York Times admitted that it had been manipulated by members of the Bush Administration and Iraqi exiles into running false stories that advanced the administration’s war agenda. The Bush Administration declared that non-Iraqis captured fighting in Iraq were not protected by the Geneva Conventions. The United States took control of Fallujah following Operation al-Fajr (the Dawn).
The Army planned to deploy knee-high robots equipped with machine guns to combat insurgents. The Ukraine withdrew its troops, as did Spain. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq surpassed 2,000. George W. Bush, sworn in for a second time as president, promised to bring “the untamed fire of freedom” to the world.
Iraq held its first national elections. Three thousand people applied in Baghdad to be on a reality television show called “Labor and Materials,” in which a construction crew showed up unannounced and rebuilt a family’s bombed-out home. Militants shot down a commercial helicopter, killing ten; they then shot the sole survivor, the helicopter’s Bulgarian pilot, and distributed a video of the shooting on the internet. It was reported that militants, before carrying out raids or suicide bombings, were taking a methamphetamine-based drug called “pinky” that made them feel superhuman. Militants bragged of eating raw wild cats with their bare hands.
Barbers were being killed for giving Western-style haircuts and cutting off beards. One hundred seventy-three malnourished Sunni Arab prisoners, many of whom had been severely tortured, were found in the basement of an Iraqi Interior Ministry compound. “You know what happens in prison,” explained the ministry’s undersecretary for security. The United States admitted to the United Nations that it had tortured prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay. Two Iraqi businessmen accused U.S. troops of caging them with lions in 2003; the men were also severely beaten after they were not able to tell Army interrogators where to find Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction. “I thought he was joking,” said one of the businessmen, “so I laughed.” A former U.S. soldier named Jeff Englehart said that he witnessed “burned bodies, burned children, and burned women” after a white phosphorus attack on Fallujah in 2004. The Pentagon denied that it had used white phosphorus in the attack, then admitted to it a week later. “It is an incendiary weapon,” a spokesman explained.
A Pentagon study found that 28 percent of returning U.S. troops required medical or mental health treatment, and that nearly 20,000 returning soldiers had reported nightmares. Danish soldiers in Iraq and Kosovo were issued soothing pillows that chirped like birds. A U.S. national guardsman who served in Iraq was sentenced to 25 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to shooting an Iraqi soldier with whom he had had consensual gay sex. A report on American intelligence failures concluded that the Bush Administration’s evidence of biological weapons in Iraq was almost entirely derived from reports made by an Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball,” who was described by those who knew him as “crazy” and “a congenital liar.” A Nevada congressman called for liberals to be used as human shields in Iraq; he later apologized for plagiarizing his remarks.
U.S. auditors found that almost all of the $120 million in Iraqi oil revenue allocated to fund reconstruction had gone missing. The war was costing the United States $100,000 a minute. A study concluded that only 75 psychiatrists remained in Iraq.
The U.S. Army was using a computer game called “Tactical Iraqi” to teach Marines how to interpret Iraqis’ gestures. It was revealed that in 2004, a U.S. Special Operations unit imprisoned Iraqis in Hussein-era torture chambers, then used them as targets in paintball games. It was reported that Iraq’s Shiite party had ordered the Health Ministry to stop recording deaths resulting from execution-style shootings. “We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more,” said Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister of Iraq, in March. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.”
Shiites were abducting Sunnis in daylight on crowded streets. A doctor in Baghdad admitted to killing 35 policemen and soldiers who were being treated at his hospital. At least 60,000 Iraqis fled their homes to avoid sectarian violence. A fight broke out in the lobby of Iraq’s parliament building after a cell phone played a Shiite ringtone. Some Iraqis were changing their names to avoid being identified as either Sunni or Shiite. “I don’t want my children to die,” said the Shiite father of Ali, Hassan, and Fatima, “just because of their names.” The Iraqi defense ministry announced that an average of one person per hour was being killed in Basra, and in Baquba the heads of 8 Sunni men were found in Dole banana boxes. Shiite militias in Baghdad were setting up checkpoints, demanding that passersby provide identification, and shooting Sunnis on the spot. “The gangs also raided houses and shouted at the people there, ‘You pimps, Sunnis, we will kill you,’” explained an eyewitness. “And they did.” Senator Trent Lott asked a group of reporters, “Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference?” A survey published in The Lancet by U.S. and Iraqi doctors found that 654,965 Iraqis had died as a result of the war.
A sniper with the U.S. Marines who had killed as many as 60 insurgents in Iraq said of his work, “It’s like hearing classical music playing in my head.” Marine Corporal Joshua Belile apologized for appearing in “Hadji Girl,” an Internet-distributed video in which he played guitar and joked about killing an Iraqi family. Two tennis players and their coach were killed in Baghdad for wearing shorts. The President went jogging with a U.S. soldier who had lost both his legs in the war.
The body of the first Eskimo to die in the war was returned to Barrow, Alaska, 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle; it took 20 men a full day to dig his grave through the permafrost. A leaked “Index of Civil Conflict” from Central Command in Iraq indicated that the country was sliding from a green zone marked “Peace” toward a red zone marked “Chaos.” Saddam Hussein was hanged.
Mercenaries lost their immunity from war-crimes prosecution. The head of Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity was accused of graft. Iraqi refugees were flooding Syria and Jordan, newly accounting for at least 5 percent of the countries’ total populations. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least 200 members of an apocalyptic cult. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Iraqis to paint “magnificent tableaux” on barrier walls that “depict the ugliness and terrorist nature of the occupier, and the sedition, car bombings, blood and the like he has brought upon Iraqis.” A Pentagon report concluded that violence in Iraq had become more evenly distributed throughout the country, and eighty percent of Iraqis were reporting “attacks nearby.”
Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia expressed hope that “wherever possible, the Iraqis should bear the brunt of the sectarian violence.” South of Baghdad, a handsome Sunni insurgent nicknamed George Clooney was shot by members of his own tribe and turned over to U.S. forces. The United States denied having approved the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s purchase of 105,000 Russian-made assault rifles from the Italian mafia.
Iranian and Chinese companies won contracts worth $1.1 billion to build power plants in Sadr City. Raytheon unveiled Silent Guardian, a device that radiates unbearable pain. “You don’t have time to think about it,” said an executive. “You just run.” The ray gun, Raytheon promised, would not be sold to countries with questionable human rights records, although it would be used by the United States in Iraq. A New Jersey woman sent 80,000 cans of Silly String, which can locate trip wires, to U.S. troops in Iraq.
The United States marked the five-year anniversary of the war, whose total cost was estimated to be in excess of $650 billion. The U.S. death toll rose to 4,000. Australia pulled its 550 combat troops out of the country, declaring their mission a success. Iraqi troops took control of Sadr City, and the Iraqi parliament ratified a security agreement requiring American troops to leave the country by the end of 2011. At a press conference in Baghdad a month later, President George W. Bush dodged two shoes thrown at him by Iraqi television reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi. “This is a gift from the Iraqis,” shouted al-Zaidi. “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!”
It was revealed that Blackwater had dropped riot control gas on U.S. soldiers in 2005. Iraqi police cracked down on drivers who neglected to wear their seatbelts. “It is a symbol of civilization,” said Ahmed Wahayid, a taxi driver. “Western people in Europe and America have it.” C3, the firm that developed Disneyland, announced plans to build a $500 million amusement park in Baghdad.
Iraqis voted in their country’s first national elections since 2005, choosing between 14,000 candidates running for 440 provincial offices. “I don’t know who to vote for,” said an inmate at Basra’s Ma’qal prison, “but a sheikh wrote this number on my hand, and I will vote for this number.”
The recently repainted Abu Ghraib prison, decorated with flowers and renamed “Baghdad Central Prison,” was opened to the press. “You really felt the horror [before],” said an official from Iraq’s human-rights ministry. “Now there is more light.” U.S. Army Master Sergeant John Hatley was sentenced to life in prison for killing four bound and blindfolded Iraqis in 2007. “He loved his soldiers too much,” said Hatley’s lawyer, David Court. “That was his crime.”
Iraq held its first National Sovereignty Day, in honor of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities. Former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney said he was worried the withdrawal would “waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point.” Three beheaded bodies were found in the province of Babel.
Iraqi detainees taunted guards from Wisconsin about Brett Favre. “The Packers have got to feel really bad about that one,” prisoners reportedly said. “He’s so good for the Vikings.”
Amid hundreds of rocket and mortar explosions, Iraq held parliamentary elections. Sunni Muslims, who had boycotted previous elections, voted in large numbers. “We have experienced three wars before,” quipped one voter, “so it was just the play of children that we heard.” Twenty-one percent of young American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were unemployed.
WikiLeaks released 391,832 Army field reports from the Iraq War, which revealed rampant burning, lashing, and execution of detainees by Iraqi army and police officers; an increasing reliance on private contractors to augment the dwindling ranks of soldiers; and approximately 15,000 previously unreported civilian casualties. “This is all classified secret information never designed to be exposed to the public,” said the Pentagon’s press secretary.
U.S. combat operations in Iraq officially ended, 2,722 days after U.S. troops invaded the country from Kuwait. Vice President Joseph Biden arrived to usher in “Operation New Dawn,” during which nearly 50,000 American troops would remain in the country and be available for combat missions when requested by Iraqi forces.
Rallies in Baghdad protesting poor government services prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to agree not to run in the next election and to halve his pay. “The current circumstances are pushing us to decrease expenses and salaries,” explained one lawmaker, “and spend them on the low-income classes.” In August, the U.S. military completed its first month without a fatality since the start of the war.
At a 45-minute ceremony in a fortified compound at Baghdad International Airport, U.S. military officials declared the end of the Iraq war. Iraq’s president and prime minister did not attend, and local reporters were not invited. In Fallujah, Iraqis celebrated by burning American flags. “I lost brothers and many relatives because of American bombs,” said a resident of Ramadi. “I benefited by having a good job and a salary with which I can get whatever I need.” Eighty Iraqi civilians were killed during the final week of the war, and David Hickman, a 23-year-old Army paratrooper, was declared the 4,474th and last U.S. soldier to die in the conflict. “To be sure, the cost was high,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “in blood and treasure of the United States and also the Iraqi people.”
Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld published his autobiography, Known and Unknown. “Looking back,” he wrote, “I see there are things the administration could have done differently and better.” “Thank God he was relieved of his duties,” said Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.). “Otherwise, we would have had a disastrous defeat in Iraq.”
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Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books