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Analysis: US hopes for Iraq collided with reality

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[August 31, 2010]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Shortly after U.S. troops captured Baghdad in April 2003, the U.S. military's top officer made a prediction about the future of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

"They're history," Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Associated Press reporter traveling with him from Washington to visit the war front.

Myers was talking about U.S. plans to disband Saddam's security apparatus, but his broader implication -- that Saddam loyalists were out of the picture, unable to prolong the war -- proved wrong.

In Iraq, reality kept intruding on American hope. And the gap between the two helps explain why it took so long to reach the end of U.S. combat operations -- and why the Iraq effort may yet falter.

Some today question whether President Barack Obama's hope that Iraq will not unravel as U.S. troops head for the exits matches the reality of a country still in political turmoil.

Historians will sort out the details of what went wrong in Iraq, but already it's possible to point to a key reason: American troops and diplomats entered the country with little understanding of its ethnic and sectarian divisions and of the deep societal scars left by decades of repressive rule by Saddam.

That disconnect played a powerful role in altering what initially looked like a U.S. rout into a long, maddening fight. The shadowy and resilient Iraqi insurgency refused to bend to a tidy American vision for Iraq's future.

Thirteen days after Myers made his comment about the Republican Guard and the smaller Special Republican Guard that served as Saddam's personal shield, the senior U.S. civilian administrator then in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, issued a decree formally disbanding Saddam's military.

Rather than go away, as Myers had predicted, Saddam's loyalists found new work. They helped organize and finance insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which was active against U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq until it switched sides in 2007 to join the fight against al-Qaida.

In the first months of the war, the Pentagon brass dismissed the insurgents as "dead enders."

In a July 2003 interview in Baghdad, Bremer said that while security was a problem in central Iraq, the shadowy fighters who were carrying out attacks on U.S. troops would be stopped.

"These attacks do not pose a strategic threat to the coalition," Bremer said. "These are small-scale, bitter-end attacks. We will pacify this region."

In the early days of the war, confidence among U.S. officials ran high, fed by a belief that Iraqis were eager to embrace the end of the Saddam era and take affairs into their own hands.

It was considered a foregone conclusion that with Baghdad under the control of the U.S.-led coalition by April 9 -- and Saddam on the run -- the war was headed for a quick end. The Marines who helped spearhead the ground assault on Baghdad and afterward spent a quiet summer in predominantly Shiite areas south of the capital left Iraq in September.

One small measure of American confidence was a desk ornament that Bremer carried with him aboard Myers' plane on his arrival in Baghdad on May 12. Its raised letters read "Success Has a Thousand Fathers." Bremer, a veteran diplomat, was sent to put Iraq on track to democracy.

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Upon landing in Baghdad, Bremer said: "We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny."

But there already were signs of hope clashing with reality.

On March 29, 2003, an orange-and-white Iraqi taxi stopped near a checkpoint manned by U.S. soldiers north of the holy city of Najaf. The driver gestured for help, then blew up his vehicle, killing himself and four soldiers from the Army's 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

It was the first successful suicide car bombing of a war in which such tactics would become a hallmark of the insurgency.

Richard Henson, who was the dead soldiers' platoon sergeant, recalls the attack vividly. He also remembers that four months later he told Paul Wolfowitz, the visiting deputy secretary of defense, about its emotional impact. Wolfowitz, who was in Baghdad on a fact-finding tour, invited Henson's thoughts on the war but instead got a dose of ground-level realism.

Henson praised American air power, then suddenly switched gears, describing the March 29 car bombing.


"It was pretty emotional," Henson told Wolfowitz with an AP reporter present. Choking back tears, he added, "But my guys pulled together." He finished by saying there was nothing anyone in his platoon could have done to prevent the tragedy. Still, he added, "I feel guilty."

Henson, 47, now a sergeant major at U.S. Army North headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, said in a telephone interview last week that he recalls thinking that Wolfowitz needed to hear what was really happening, and how ordinary soldiers were persevering.

The suicide attack had been a surprise -- not the kind of tactic the Americans had anticipated. With U.S. forces now winnowing down, Iraq's hard reality remains.

"I thought it was important that I share that with him," Henson said, recalling his effort to get Wolfowitz to see the full picture. "That way he knows the truth, the reality of what went on, that everything wasn't easy."

[Associated Press; By ROBERT BURNS]

Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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