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.
In April 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 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.
[Steve Mullis is an NPR.org producer.]