BAGHDAD, Iraq — A year ago Friday joyful Iraqis swarmed to Central Baghdad’s Firdos Square to help U.S. Marines topple the giant bronze statue of Saddam Hussein — the symbolic end of his 35-year stranglehold on the country.
But this week those smiles are a distant memory as the U.S.-led coalition now faces the potential nightmare it had only imagined for postwar Iraq: a simmering war on two fronts.
There is the fight against die-hard Sunni insurgents in places like Fallujah and Ramadi, the heart of the Sunni Triangle; and now a new battle in the south with Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtadaal-Sadr.
It is a mean turn of events at the worst time, and the irony is lost on no one. With the U.S.–led coalition scheduled to turn over power to the Iraqis on June 30, there is a political and military triage under way in an effort to keep the country together until then.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, played down the uprising at a recent news conference, saying the military had planned for this scenario.
“We knew before we started this campaign that this was a possibility,” he said, “and the entire military, both coalition and U.S. forces, were prepared to engage in this kind of operation if it came to that.”
‘Nothing has changed'
But how did things turn so bad so quickly that a scattered insurgency gained broad support and the coalition Shiite alliance began to crack?
Some critics say it’s a combination of a year of mismanagement by the Coalition Provisional Authority, during which the lives of most Iraqis have not improved much since the reign of Saddam Hussein, and the hardball tactics of occupation military forces, which are alienating the people they are supposed to be helping.
One member of a Ramadi-based Sunni insurgent cell who calls himself “Continuous Jihad” said the coalition hasn’t delivered on anything.
“They break into houses in the middle of the night and arrest innocent people,” he said, “and they’ve given us less then we had under Saddam. People are jobless, they distort our religion and they’re taking our oil and living in Saddam’s palaces. Nothing has changed. They’ve become like him, yet they pretend they’re here to help us.”
Much of this week’s trouble started after last week’s killing and mutilations of four American security contractors in Fallujah. U.S. Marines retaliated by surrounding the city on Monday in an effort to capture or kill those responsible.
But on Tuesday insurgents staged their own attack on a U.S. Marine compound in Ramadi, killing 12 Marines. It was the highest, single-day American death toll in combat action since the end of the war.
The Marines hit back hard, using mortars, tanks and even air strikes against fighters gathered in a Fallujah mosque.
“We don’t want a fair fight with this guy,” said Marine Lt. Col. Greg Olsen. “We want to win.”
Cost of victory might prove too high
But the cost of winning this battle may have gone too high. The local Fallujah hospital director said that nearly 300 Iraqis have been killed and 400 wounded since the fighting began in the city, and many of the casualties are civilians.
The media images from Fallujah seem to build both anger at the coalition and sympathy for the insurgents from a broader base of Iraqis, some of whom are giving food, medicine and even blood for insurgents inside the barricaded city.
A spate of foreign hostage taking has also made headlines. In one case, three young Japanese were videotaped by their captors, who threatened to burn them alive if Japan does not withdraw it’s 500 troops from Iraq within three days.
Earlier in the week, Shiite militiamen fought gunbattles with Polish troops in Karbala and drove Ukrainian and Spanish troops out of Najaf and Kut. American forces retook Kut Friday morning, but the militia still controls police stations and government buildings in Najaf.
The face-off with supporters of al-Sadr began when U.S. forces shut down his newspaper, which they say was inciting violence against coalition troops. Then the United States announced it intended to arrest al-Sadr in connection with the murder of another Shiite cleric last year.
Critics again say American timing was off — that going after al-Sadr just one week before the start of the Shiite celebration of Arbain, in which thousands of pilgrims gather in Karbala to end 40 days of mourning over the death of the Iman Hussein, would only inflame an already superheated environment.
They also say that it served to promote and legitimize al-Sadr, who at best was considered a fringe leader with a small following.
On Friday, U.S. soldiers were back in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, this time removing the image of al-Sadr, whose pictures were plastered where the statue of Saddam Hussein was stood.
And now some fear that Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia, longtime enemies, could put aside their differences to fight a common enemy. A nightmare scenario that was not what most had envisioned when the statue of Saddam was toppled a year ago.
NBC's Kevin Sites is on assignment in Iraq.