The Lost Year in Iraq


In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, a group of Americans led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III set off to Baghdad to build a new nation and establish democracy in the Arab Middle East. One year later, with Bremer forced to secretly exit what some have called "the most dangerous place on earth," the group left behind lawlessness, insurgency, economic collapse, death, destruction -- and much of their idealism. Three years later, as the U.S. continues to look for an exit strategy, the government the Americans helped create and the infrastructure they designed are being tested. FRONTLINE Producer Michael Kirk follows the early efforts and ideals of this group as they tried to seize control and disband the Iraqi police, army and Baathist government -- and how they became hardened along the way to the realities of postwar Iraq. The Lost Year in Iraq is based on numerous first-person interviews and extensive documentation from the FRONTLINE team that produced "Rumsfeld's War," "The Torture Question" and "The Dark Side."


Site map


Timeline: Fighting on two fronts


Interview: L. Paul Bremer, III

Interview: Lt. Gen Jay Garner

Interview: Robert Blackwill

Interview: Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Interview: Anthony Cordesman

Interview: James Dobbins

Interview: Michael Gordon

Interview: Thomas Ricks


Key controversies and missteps

Inside the green zone

Welcome to the Green Zone

Welcome to the Green Zone

Life in the Green Zone

Analysis of L. Paul Bremer

Doomed from the start?

Readings and Links

In Iraq, military forgot the lessons of Vietnam (Thomas Ricks)

Ties to GOP trumped know-how among staff sent to rebuild Iraq

The Lost Year chronology

April 9, 2003
The End of Saddam

Iraqis topple an iconic statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad with help from U.S. soldiers. In hindsight, the event foreshadows what is to come: One of the Americans covers the statue's face with a U.S. flag, which is quickly replaced by an Iraqi one.

It had taken just three weeks after the U.S. invasion for Baghdad to fall.

April 11
"Freedom is Untidy"

As soon as Baghdad falls, Iraqis begin looting on a grand scale and attacking government ministries. During this first postwar week, the looting verges on chaos. But less than two U.S. brigades are in isolated positions in the city of over 5 million. U.S. troops don't stop the looters.

As the world watches the scenes of looting across Iraq, Rumsfeld tries to downplay concerns, saying: "Freedom is untidy."

April 16
A Surprise Announcement by General Franks

Gen. Tommy Franks makes his first triumphant visit to Baghdad and tells his troops -- more than 110,000 -- to prepare for takeover by a new Iraqi government within 60 days and a U.S. troop withdrawal by September.

Per Franks: one division -- about 30,000 troops -- would be left to occupy Iraq.

April 21
The First Postwar Civil Administrator: Jay Garner

Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner arrives in Baghdad to head the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). One of his first meetings is with Kurdish leaders to begin discussions about a transition to an inclusive interim Iraqi government.

Washington officials, worried that Garner is "off the reservation" decide to make a change. Within hours of his arrival in Baghdad, Garner is informed that presidential envoy L. Paul Bremer III will soon replace him.

May 1
"Mission Accomplished"

President Bush announces an end to major military combat. Onboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, the president stands in front of a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

Looting escalates across Iraq

May 6
Bremer replaces Garner

President Bush announces L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer III, a diplomat and protégé of Henry Kissinger, will head a new temporary administrative entity for Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority. Bremer was not viewed as an "Arabist," nor did he have much prior experience in nation-building -- two factors that seemed to be pluses for the administration.

May 12
Bremer Arrives, Suggests Shooting Looters

In a private meeting during his first day in Baghdad, Bremer suggests the possibility of shooting looters to quell lawlessness. This leaks to reporters, outraging Iraqis and the U.S. military.

May 16
CPA Replaces ORHA; "De-Baathification" Announced

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) absorbs duties previously held by ORHA and issues CPA Order No. 1, which calls for the "de-Baathification" of Iraq -- dismantling Saddam's Baath Party and removing all Baath Party members from positions of authority.

Bremer brushes off a strong warning from the CIA station chief in Baghdad that the action will drive up to 50,000 people underground.

May 23
The CPA Disbands the Iraqi Army

The CPA issues CPA Order No. 2, disbanding the Iraqi army in favor of building a completely new force. The action takes many coalition troops by surprise. They have to scratch plans they had for reconstruction that involved getting help from an Iraqi military.

June 1
Garner Leaves

After spending just over a month struggling to get a handle on Iraq's situation and to define his position in relation to Bremer, Garner heads back to Washington. Later that month, he reports to Rumsfeld that the mission's success is seriously in jeopardy.

June 14
Sanchez Appointed Head of Ground Forces

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is appointed to lead Coalition Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7), a newly created agency to oversee ground forces in Iraq.

July 7
Gen. Tommy Franks Retires

In a further sign of turmoil and dissent within the U.S. military, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the force that invaded Iraq, retires. Frustrated by ongoing clashes with Rumsfeld over the secretary's vision of creating a "faster" and "lighter" army, Franks turns down an offer to become Army chief of staff in June and announces his retirement. Gen. John Abizaid replaces Franks.

July 13
The Iraqi Governing Council

This 25-seat organization, created temporarily by the CPA to fill Iraq's power vacuum, meets for the first time. Its membership, handpicked by CPA, reflects all Iraqi ethnic groups and includes several women. White House favorite Ahmad Chalabi gets a seat and is given control over de-Baathification efforts. The council's limited powers and U.S. control over its membership foster distrust among many Iraqis.

July 22
Uday and Qusay Hussein Killed

Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay are killed in a U.S.-led raid after an Iraqi informant leads soldiers to the brothers' hideout in Mosul. The news is welcomed as a sign of progress toward stabilizing Iraq.

Aug. 1
Memo to Saddam's Secret Police Sheds Light on Iraqi Resistance

The chief of the CIA's Baghdad station shows Bremer a document recovered from a trashed office of Saddam's secret police. The memo instructs them to organize sabotage, looting, sniper attacks and ambushes across Iraq to thwart coalition efforts. It helps make sense of the growing insurgency.

Aug. 7
Jordanian Embassy Attacked

A large car bomb explodes outside the embassy in Baghdad, killing 17 people and injuring dozens. It's the first terrorist-style car bombing in Iraq.

Aug. 18
Bremer Refused Authorization to Arrest Moqtada al-Sadr

In July, the influential Shiite cleric begins preaching against the U.S. occupation. On Aug. 18, Bremer receives word that Rumsfeld has given orders not to arrest al-Sadr until further notice, for fear it would incite greater violence. The next day, concerned that al-Sadr's supporters, known as the Mehdi army, will further derail reconstruction efforts, Bremer requests Washington's support to bring al-Sadr under control. Rumsfeld refuses. The Mehdi army continues gaining strength as a key force in the insurgency.

Aug. 19
Truck Bomb Destroys U.N. Headquarters

A truck bomb explodes outside the hotel housing U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and at least 21 others. The increasing scale of the insurgents' attacks puts Iraqis on edge.

A major turning point

Aug. 20

Washington's worries grow over the summer about how long U.S. troops would remain in Iraq; Rumsfeld tells Bremer the Pentagon is growing impatient. But Bremer has no idea to whom he should hand over sovereignty. On Aug. 20, he urges the Governing Council to act more quickly so as to give Iraqis evidence of progress in rebuilding the country. But he has no confidence in them.

Aug. 29
Attack on Mosque in Najaf

A car bomb explodes outside a mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf as crowds leave midday prayers. The blast kills more than 100 people, including Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim.

By the end of this summer, any debate about whether there is an insurgency is settled.

Rumsfeld Visits Iraq

He's there to assess possible approaches for reducing U.S. troop numbers and makes clear that the Pentagon is anxious for more intelligence to help quell the violence. He also continues to press for a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis.

Coalition Forces Round Up Suspected Insurgents

Massive sweeps start to arrest suspected insurgents. Available prisons, including Abu Ghraib, are quickly filled.

Sept. 8
Bremer Publishes Seven-Step Plan

Without the White House or Pentagon's knowledge, Bremer publishes an op-ed in The Washington Post -- "Iraq's Path to Sovereignty" -- in which he describes a multi-step, multi-year process toward the ultimate goal of creating a constitution and holding elections.

Later that month, Bremer visits Washington and continues to lobby for his slow and steady approach to moving Iraq toward sovereignty. But with an eye on the 2004 election, the administration remains committed to handing Iraq over to Iraqis as soon as possible.

October - December
Abu Ghraib

During the fall of 2003, some U.S. troops guarding prisoners at Abu Ghraib begin photographing prisoner torture and abuse.

Rice Given Control Over the CPA

Bremer's multi-year plan for turning over sovereignty is a big political problem for the president. The White House decides to rein him in. National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice sends Robert Blackwill to advise Bremer and assert White House influence over the CPA.

Moqtada al-Sadr Gains Strength

His followers continue to grow as the cleric spreads his message of resistance and violence against U.S. occupation.

Nov. 15
Deadline for Sovereignty Transfer Announced

The CPA announces an agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government by June 30, 2004. The agreement is built around a seven-step process, beginning with the drafting of an interim constitution by March 1, 2004. The following day Bremer meets with staff and reshapes the CPA's mission to meet the shortened timeline.

Dec. 13
Saddam Hussein Captured

Saddam Hussein is found hiding outside his hometown of Tikrit, in a dirt hole. The capture is highly publicized, but does not deter the growing violence across Iraq.

Begin 2004

January, 2004
Intercepted Letter From Zarqawi

The letter is from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and details his plans for the insurgency. His goals include fomenting violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, targeting the emerging Iraqi police and military, and killing Kurds -- any measure to derail progress toward a democratic Iraq.

March 2
Karbala Mosque Attack

On a holy day for Shi'a Muslims, suicide attacks in Karbala kill over 85 people. It's a sign of the growing ethnic and religious strife.

March 8
Interim Constitution Passed

Overcoming Shiite objections that the new plan gives Kurds too much power, Iraq's Governing Council signs an interim constitution to govern Iraq after the transfer of sovereignty in June, and until the adoption of a permanent constitution.

March 31
Four U.S. Contractors Killed In Fallujah

Four American contractors are killed; their bodies are burned, dragged through the streets, and strung up on a bridge.

April 6
Coalition Launches Fallujah Offensive

While battling al-Sadr's forces in the south, the U.S.-led coalition resolves to regain control of the "Sunni Triangle" area. Roughly 2,000 Marines advance on Fallujah, while 12 Marines are killed in a firefight in Ramadi to the west. The Fallujah advance is almost immediately in trouble: Iraqi troops assigned to back up U.S. forces abandon their posts. Sunni Governing Council members become enraged at civilian casualties. With the stability of the Governing Council at stake, Bremer approaches Gen. Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Sanchez, and on April 9, they agree to call off the attack on Fallujah.

April 23
Bremer Reverses Position on De-Baathification

In a speech titled "Turning the Page," Bremer concedes that enforcement of the de-Baathification order has not been fair -- particularly with regard to the academic community -- and suggests a more flexible policy going forward. Bremer's decision upsets Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the de-Baathification efforts and a longtime critic of the Baath Party.

April 27
Abu Ghraib Scandal Erupts

60 Minutes II broadcasts photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Three days later, The New Yorker publishes photos documenting the abuse. The ensuing scandal presents another obstacle for the CPA and the U.S. military in Iraq.

May 18
Bremer Requests More Troops

In a hand-delivered private message, Bremer requests two additional divisions of troops (roughly 40,000 soldiers) from Rumsfeld to help counter the steady stream of violent attacks. He receives no response.

May 28
U.S. Reaches Truce With al-Sadr

Moqtada al-Sadr reaches an agreement with U.S. forces. Both sides pledge to withdraw their fighters from Najaf, ending two months of intense combat. However the cease-fire does not hold.

On the same day, the Governing Council unanimously approves U.S. pick Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister.

I'm not sure where best to use this material on Ayatollah Sistani
BBC News profile: Ayatollah Sistani

Iraq's Path Hinges on Words of Enigmatic Cleric Sistani [written in 2004]

June 28
CPA Transfers Sovereignty; Bremer Leaves Iraq

Two days before the publicized deadline -- a move suggested by President Bush to thwart possible violence -- the CPA transfers authority to Iraq's interim government. Bremer leaves Baghdad immediately on a secret plane in order to avoid possible attacks.