Iraq war overview
U.S. service members have been tested in several key battles — and by an untold number of attacks by homemade explosives — during six years of fighting in Iraq.
The Marines and Army poured across the Kuwait-Iraq border on March 19 and 20, 2003, headed for Baghdad. The faster the allies captured or killed Saddam Hussein, the thinking went, the quicker the Iraqi military would lose heart, stop fighting and surrender.
There was only sporadic and ineffectual opposition the first two days, and none was expected on March 23 as the Marines of Task Force Tarawa began to move into the city of Nasiriyah, the third-largest in Iraq.
Pentagon intelligence told the Marines that the city was friendly, but they had overlooked Fedayeen resistance forces and a large number of foreign fighters.
Task Force Tarawa’s mission was to seize control of the two bridges to the north and south of the main highway running through the city so another Marine unit could pass through on its way to Baghdad.
The Battle of Nasiriyah, March 23-April 1, 2003
Iraqi artillery fire greeted the Marines as they approached the city, and having to rescue the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, which had become lost and been attacked, complicated their mission. Nasiriyah was far from friendly, the Marines quickly learned, as they were attacked by taxi loads of Iraqi soldiers and civilians in addition to the ones firing on them from the rooftops.
With Marine artillery and Marine Air Cobras shelling the city with deadly accuracy, one battalion of Marine infantrymen quickly seized the southern bridge and proceeded into the city. One company made a surprise dash up “Ambush Alley” and seized the northern bridge while under heavy fire. Two Air Force A-10s added to the carnage by mistakenly firing on U.S. forces in multiple strafing runs, but the route through the city was now open.
With another Marine unit moving through the city the next day, Task Force Tarawa spent the next three days securing the city. On April 1, Special Forces, assisted by Task Force Tarawa’s artillery and tanks, rescued wounded Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Nasiriyah and brought back the bodies of Marines and soldiers who had been buried by the Iraqis.
With Army and Marine troops capturing Baghdad on April 9, President George Bush declared “mission accomplished” on May 1. However, American casualties from homemade bombs, or “improvised explosive devices,” were increasing, and Iraq increasingly spun out of control as Shia and Sunni factions fought for control of Iraq while trying to rid their country of the “foreign invaders.”
The first Battle of Fallujah, April 2004
Iraqi authorities were unable to establish law and order in the primarily Sunni city of about 425,000 located 43 miles west of Baghdad. After a Blackwater convoy was attacked on March 31, 2004, and the four Americans killed and hung from a bridge, President Bush ordered the Marines to attack the city.
In a controlled, methodical and extremely lethal fashion, Marine Air, tanks and infantry began to clear the city of insurgents. But despite the Marines being only a day or so away from sweeping through the city, Bush ordered the Marines to halt their advance and withdraw.
With the insurgents thinking they had beaten the Marines, the fighting in Anbar province and the rest of Iraq increased in lethality. IED attacks and ambushes jumped to about 300 a day against U.S. and coalition troops as casualties continued to mount. The insurgency was spinning out of control and had to be contained.
The second Battle of Fallujah, November 2004
The Marines had this assault pre-planned, even down to the embedded media accompanying them. Attacking from multiple sides of the city, with their combat engineers turning off the electricity, Marine infantry was accompanied by tanks, air support and artillery as they began to rid the city of insurgents. The civilians already had departed, warned of the impending attack by a leaflet and microphone campaign. Block by block and house by house the young Marines kicked in doors while under fire, threw hand grenades at an enemy in the next room and often engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with insurgents hopped up on religious fervor and pharmaceuticals.
The Marines secured Fallujah, but the insurgents realized they could kill more Americans with IEDs and suicide bombers than in combat. The war deteriorated to one of sneak attacks that culminated with April 2005′s huge blast in Haditha that killed 14 Marines, all from a unit based in Brook Park, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
The remainder of Anbar province and Iraq was equally dangerous for American troops, with the fighting usually consisting of an IED blast and then a firefight between the surviving Marines and soldiers and their ambushers.
But the Anbar insurgents, a combination of religious fanatics and gangsters, overreached themselves in a terror campaign, and in August 2006, a group of local sheiks led by the charismatic Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha aligned his “Anbar Awakening” movement with the Marines.
“When the Americans came, we thought they were our enemies,” said Abu Risha, who was assassinated on Sept. 13, 2007. “The awakening came when we realized the Marines were our friends.”
Gen. David Petraeus, observing how Marine-Sunni cooperation had quieted Ramadi and Anbar province in a matter of months, patterned his 2007 “surge” strategy of stationing soldiers with the Iraqi forces. The strategy was again successful, and in 2008 the newly confident government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki negotiated a withdrawal treaty with President Bush that called for American combat forces to begin leaving Iraq.
President Barack Obama has announced that he will pull combat soldiers out of Iraq by August 2010, leaving a residual force of between 35,000 and 50,000 troops.
Andrew Lubin is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who has embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.”