Image: Smoke billows from Iraq Planning Ministry
Ramzi Haidar  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Smoke billows from the Planning Ministry building in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, after a missile strike during the U.S. invasion.
By Richard Engel Chief Foreign Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/20/2009 7:15:58 PM ET 2009-03-20T23:15:58

Six years ago today I thought there was a good chance I was going to die. With a helmet crooked on my head and a flak jacket over my shoulders, I sat on a tiny generator on a balcony of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel. 

From this dark and uncomfortable perch — I turned the lights out in my room so I couldn’t be seen from the streets — I watched American bombs and cruise missiles explode into orange fireballs.  I watched Iraqi anti-aircraft guns — big, loud, violent-looking Russian-made guns — shoot showers of metal into the air.  I could hear the anti-aircraft guns’ rat-tat-tat and see their ribbons of red tracer fire racing up, hopelessly trying to knock down American fighter jets tearing invisibly through the night sky.  They flew super fast, super loud; helluva machine. 

There was no moon out six years ago tonight, but the sky was bright with stars, TV satellites and the glow of the Iraqi prime minister’s office. From my dark balcony, I watched the office burn across the Tigris River. Visually speaking — if you forgot what was going on — it was beautiful. The stars and flames and ribbons of red tracer rounds popping like fireworks. It was beautiful like a forest fire might be beautiful — perhaps even smelling of fresh toasted pine — if your house happens to be far away. 

During the invasion I was kept alive for three simple reasons. 

1. Nothing explosive or heavy fell on me from the sky.  I was lucky.

2. Saddam Hussein’s government didn’t turn on foreign journalists, even Americans, despite what we all feared.

3. I had my fixer, driver and friend Ali keeping me fed and hidden from angry Iraqis and rogue security agents. 

I spoke with Ali today. He’s in Sweden now. A refugee.  Back then, he was a shy university student.  Now he works in a grocery store.  I doubt anyone knows the young man bagging groceries lost his father in the war and was kidnapped and tortured by radical militiamen.  They hung him upside down and beat him with a rod for eight hours, accusing him of being a spy because he worked for American media.  Ali misses Iraq, despite what happened.  He misses his mother.  Over a bad cell phone connection we reminisced.  

The five wars in Iraq
I believe there have been five different wars in Iraq and that the sixth war is under way — America’s exit strategy. 

War One: Shock and awe
March-April 2003
The first war was the ferocious 21-day drive to Baghdad.  It was the “left hook” as U.S. troops crossed the berm in Kuwait, swerved into Baghdad and seized the airport.  U.S. troops pushed into the center of Baghdad, and Saddam’s government simply was no more.

War Two: Nation-building
For a year Iraqis waited while the new U.S. administration in Baghdad tried to rebuild Iraqi society, purging Saddam’s Baath Party and dissolving the army.

It was a peaceful time, but it was disastrously mismanaged.

The United States proved it knew how to destroy Iraq’s army and bureaucracy but clearly had no plan to replace it. It was also a time of radical social change.

The Americans — both the White House and the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer — promised Iraqis democracy, and Shiites, the majority, took them at their word.

For Shiites, democracy meant majority rule. Within days of the fall of Saddam’s government, Shiite political parties and militias began to overrun Sunni mosques and rename streets in Baghdad after Shiite heroes. Religious Shiites resumed mass pilgrimages banned under Saddam to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iran, the world’s greatest Shiite power, started to pump in hundreds of millions of dollars to empower Iraqi Shiites and win influence. The second war, the war of nation-building, was peaceful, but the ground was set for conflict.

War Three: Insurgency
Iraqi Sunnis, the backbone of Saddam’s regime and security services, lashed out in the spring of 2004. 

Sunnis had waited peacefully for a year – confused but seething in quiet — as the U.S. administration in Baghdad bungled its attempts at nation-building. By the spring of 2004, many Sunnis decided they’d had enough.

Sunnis, especially members of Saddam’s previous government and army, felt betrayed by their American “liberators.”  They were out of jobs and humiliated. They were also terrified by the growing power of Shiites and Iran. Many Sunnis grew up fighting Iran and had a state-fueled paranoia about their Persian Shiite neighbor. Now Iraqi Sunnis were watching Iran and Iraqi Shiites take over.

Some disenfranchised Sunnis decided to reached out for help. Al-Qaida, the world’s most radical Sunni movement, was waiting with open arms. Iraqi Sunnis formed alliances with al-Qaida militants, including the brutally effective Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

Sunni militants began attacking U.S. troops and Shiites, whom they considered American-empowered Iranian stooges. The third war, the war of the Sunni insurgency, lasted about two years.

War Four: Civil war
After two years of abuse from Sunni radicals, Iraqi Shiites started to fight back. From 2004 through the end of 2005, many Shiites sat quietly as Sunni radicals killed Shiite religious leaders, bombed Shiite pilgrimages and husseiniyat (small Shiite mosques) and carried out suicide massacres in Shiite neighborhoods. 

But in February 2006, Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq went too far. The radical group destroyed the Shiite “Golden Mosque” in Samarra. The mosque is linked to the Shiite savior, the Mahdi. It is the place where many Shiites expect the Mahdi to emerge from his Divine Occultation and redeem the world in a similar way that many Christians see the Second Coming of Christ. 

Shiites reacted to the destruction of their holy shrine in Samarra with an explosion of fury and hate. Shiite militias led by the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ignored calls for restraint by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and began to attack Sunni civilians and evict them from their homes.

Sunni and Shiite militant groups were soon in open war, killing each other in the streets. Morgues filled with bodies. Reporters were killed in the crossfire. Iraq became the most dangerous conflict for journalists in recorded history. Sunni and Shiite radicals killed anyone who got between them, including American troops. 

The civil war, the fourth war, lasted from February 2006 to the summer of 2007, 16 months of grinding carnage.

War Five: The surge
Sometime in mid-2006, the Bush administration decided to change course.  Despite public assurances from the White House that the war was going well — and attacks on journalists who claimed otherwise — President Bush and several of his military and political advisers came to the conclusion that more troops were needed, along with a new strategy under a new commanding general, David Petraeus.

In February 2007, Gen. Petraeus (then Lt. Gen. Petraeus) took command in Iraq and implemented what came to be known as “the surge.”

Reinforced with 30,000 extra troops, Petraeus pushed soldiers off big bases on the outskirts of Baghdad and positioned them with Iraqi troops in police stations, abandoned buildings and even shopping malls. It was a fundamental change. Soldiers no longer “commuted” to work. They lived in the battle zone 24/7 and were able to hold territory once they cleared it.

Petraeus also started to pay and arm Sunni tribal leaders to fight with the Americans. The deal was simple: Fight with U.S. forces against al-Qaida and, in exchange, the United States will provide money, power, autonomy and most important, the respect Sunnis felt they’d been denied. Sunnis quickly welcomed the deal. They were losing the civil war to the Shiites and needed an ally.

The Shiite-led government initially rejected the U.S.-Sunni alliance, but later publicly expressed support for the deal as Iraqis welcomed the calm it brought.

War Six: The exit
President Barack Obama set a course to end the war in Iraq. Elected with a promise to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 16 months, Obama modified a plan worked out at the end of the Bush administration. 

The plan calls for U.S. troops to pull back to bases after June 2009. U.S. troops are then to remain in Iraq to safeguard Iraqi elections in December 2009 and the subsequent seating of a new government. After there is a new government in place — expected in the winter or spring of 2010 — most U.S. troops can leave. 

Obama said all U.S. combat brigades would be out of Iraq by August 2010, leaving behind a “residual force” of around 50,000 troops until December 2011. 

After December 2011, all U.S. troops are supposed to be gone. It’s a complicated plan, but has some logic.

December 2009: Iraq elections

Winter/spring 2010: Iraqi government is seated

Summer 2010: U.S. combat troops withdraw

All of 2011: Residual force remains

End of 2011: Final U.S. troops leave.

It’s roughly a three-year withdrawal plan with one basic goal: To protect the Iraqi transition of power and then leave slowly. 

The plan has been welcomed by U.S. military commanders in Iraq, but criticized by some American lawmakers as too slow an exit from a costly war.

So what did the U.S. accomplish?

It took six years and a trillion dollars to replace Saddam’s dictatorship with a somewhat stable government. 

Iraq was a dictatorship. Now Iraq has a “kleptocracy,” a government that exists to steal. 

Larry Kaplow, an old friend from Newsweek who’d been doing excellent reporting in Iraq for years, recently told me there’s a new expression to describe what Baghdad had become: “Iraqi good enough.” Mediocrity, he said, is the accepted norm. His analysis seems about right to me. 

It’s become acceptable, both to American officials in Baghdad and many Iraqis themselves, that Iraqi security forces beat detainees and politicians steal from government coffers; it’s “Iraqi good enough.” 

Iraq isn’t stable, but it’s not in a civil war anymore; it’s “Iraqi good enough.” 

Doctors and intellectuals, who fled the civil war, are no longer leaving the country, but aren’t coming back either; it’s “Iraqi good enough.” 

Is “Iraqi good enough,” good enough? 

Time will tell, or maybe it won’t.

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