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Before the U.S. rolled into Baghdad 20 years ago, Iraqis warned us what would happen

U.S. Marines take up positions in the area around the Palestine hotel in the center of Baghdad, April 9, 2003.
Sean Smith
Getty Images
U.S. Marines take up positions in the area around the Palestine hotel in the center of Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

When the so-called "shock and awe" U.S. missile strikes started in Baghdad 20 years ago this week, I was among a small group of Western reporters watching from hotel balconies along the Tigris River. Explosions, smoke and debris erupted from government buildings in what would soon become the Green Zone. Reports came in of U.S. troops entering the country from the south. We ventured out with government minders, then increasingly on our own, to bomb sites and hospitals treating the wounded.

We worried for our own safety, doing our work with anxious, rumor-fueled uncertainty about whether we'd be made "human shields" or detained. Four of our colleagues were jailed by Iraqi authorities a few days after the invasion began and held for a week while we appealed to officials for their release. And we counted on U.S. forces knowing our two hotels, though we saw soon enough that, tragically, not all of them did.

The toll of the invasion — and violent events that followed for decades — is still being calculated, but it's clear it was high. TheCosts of War Project at Brown University counts as many as 210,038 Iraqi civilians who've died in violence since 2003, along with tens of thousands of Iraqi combatants — security forces and insurgents. There were 4,599 U.S. troops killed along with thousands more contractors working for the U.S.

The lessons of the invasion are still debated, but near-consensus has formed about poor U.S. planning, tragically wrong assumptions and misleading claims about alleged chemical weapons stockpiles. Scenes I encountered from early 2003 still stand out for what they told us about what would happen.

The prelude showed people afraid of their country's dictator — and of his sudden downfall

I was based in Baghdad as a journalist with Cox Newspapers and then Newsweek from 2003 to 2009. I'd already been to Iraq several times in the years before the war, starting in 1998, as a reporter with Cox. Saddam Hussein was in power and his brutality was clear — it was easy for anyone to make a case for toppling him.

Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, April 9, 2003.
Jerome Delay / AP
Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

Kurds quietly memorialized the thousands of people he gassed to death in an afternoon in the city of Halabja in 1988. On a trip to the Shia city of Karbala, one of Saddam's local officials prevented me from entering the famous shrine there, presumably so I couldn't talk to people and see bullet marks remaining from when the regime killed thousands in a revolt in 1991.

And Iraqis were clearly scared to talk. You could eat at a restaurant looking over one of Saddam's palaces, but the waiter would say he feared for his entire family if he commented on its opulence.

Unlike some Iraqi exiles who promised U.S. officials a grateful public and smooth transition and had the ear of the U.S. leadership, Iraqis in Baghdad expected chaos and danger from any regime change. One middle class woman told me that looters and gangs would rampage through the city — as they did.

The late Wamidh Nadhme, a political scientist able to speak relatively freely, perhaps because he knew Saddam long before he came to power, could speculate about a regime change. "There is a fear in my mind of several wars of proxy being led, financed and equipped by foreign powers," he told me just days before the invasion, "and Iraq will be the battlefield for it."

Iraqis had a sense of their own history — Mongol, Persian, Ottoman, Arab and British rulers had governed them with violence or neglect, leading to cycles of mayhem and distrust of any central authority.

Finding the truth tellers about the present and the past are dilemmas for the American public and policy makers now looking at Iran, Russia or other places where some policy makers or advocates call for something like regime change or remaking the country.

By the time the government fell, there was already anxiety and a high death toll

It's easy to forget now that it took nearly three weeks for U.S. troops to fight their way to Baghdad, arriving on April 9. That's when the government fell and Iraqis — sometimes aided by U.S. troops — took down Saddam's statues and portraits.

But the day before had been an especially bloody demonstration of how even a military claiming to be precise leaves many noncombatants dead.

From our hotels we could see a battle on the other bank of the Tigris River, with U.S. tanks maneuvering and a plane called in to fire its machine guns at Iraqi ground forces. That's when the U.S. struck the office of Al Jazeera.

Some of us made the short trip to a hospital where we found our colleague, correspondent Tareq Ayoub, lying dead in an over-filled morgue.

That same day, I was across from the clearly marked Palestine Hotel, where most of us were staying, when I heard and felt a big blast. A U.S. tank had fired at the hotel, killing visual journalistsTaras Protsyuk and José Couso.

When a Marine convoy rolled slowly into the center of town the next day, Iraqis lined the streets peacefully, expressing fear and even embarrassment about the state of their country. I moved through the crowd with Anthony Shadid (who died covering the Syrian civil war years later), then with The Washington Post.

An English-speaking ophthalmologist seemed to think we could give the troops a message: "Can you tell them to put down their flags?"

He had spotted small American flags on a couple of Humvee antennae. "We don't want to replace one dictator with another," he said.

Looting had already started around town and would go on uncontrolled for a couple months until tall buildings were picked clean, down to their doors and light fixtures. Civilian casualties grew, with deaths in mix-ups at U.S. checkpoints and when troops fired at a crowd of protesters and onlookers in Fallujah in the end of April – saying they had been fired on. By late spring in 2003, an armed insurgency had started in what would be a series of overlapping conflicts for nearly 15 years — against U.S. troops and their contractors, between Shia and Sunni Muslims, with al-Qaida and ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

There would be a series of elections starting in early 2004 that Iraqis greeted with hope and courage — lining up by the millions to vote and have their fingers dipped in ink, even as insurgents threatened violence.

And where U.S. troops had started with heavy-handed tactics — I visited a town one U.S. unit had encircled in barbed wire to control residents — many grew in empathy toward Iraqis and as they served repeated tours. One told me he'd built phone relationships with both an insurgent leader who was attacking his troops and the residents informing on the insurgent activities.

But that didn't prevent the country's descent into civil war between Sunni and Shia factions.

Baghdad's a huge, complex city, and even as I watched U.S. forces fan out on their arrival, their presence in such numbers seemed hard to imagine. Now it seems unimaginable that any number of foreign troops could really keep the peace — or nation-build — in a country that doesn't want to be occupied.

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Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.