John Burns Reflects on Iraq Five Years Later

John Burns: "My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability."

Star correspondent John Burns took over this week's Sunday Week in Review cover with his reflections on the five-year anniversary of the Iraq War.

Burns, a journalistic veteran of the war, tried his best to outwit Saddam Hussein's minders in his 2003 pre-war reporting from Baghdad, drawing the attention of Hussein's thugs (2nd item on this page). Now London Bureau Chief for the paper after several years in Iraq, Burns's attitude toward Iraq's prospects has seemingly drifted from cautious optimism to cautious pessimism, but is not hopeless.

It was not long, of course, before events in Iraq began giving everybody cause to reconsider. On April 9, the day the Marines entered Baghdad and used one of their tanks to help the crowd haul down Saddam's statue in Firdos Square, American troops stood by while mobs began looting, ravaging palaces and torture centers, along with ministries, museums and hospitals. Late in the day, at the oil ministry, I discovered it was the only building marines had orders to protect. Turning to Jon Lee Anderson, a correspondent for The New Yorker who had been my companion that day, I saw shock mirrored in his face. "Say it ain't so," I said. But it was.

Looking back, it has been fashionable to say the Americans began losing the war right then. At the least, it was the first misstep in what quickly became a long chronicle: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the primary cause the Bush Administration had given for the war; the absence of a plan, at least any the Pentagon intended to implement, for the period after Baghdad fell; the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, and thus casting aside the help it might have given in fighting the insurgency that began flickering within 10 days of American troops entering Baghdad; the lack of an effective American counterinsurgency strategy, at least until the troop increase last year finally began bringing the war's toll down.


At the fifth anniversary, the conflict's staggering burden is a rebuke to any who hoped Mr. Hussein's removal might be accomplished at acceptable cost. Back in 2003, only the most prescient could have guessed that the current "surge" would raise the American troop commitment above 160,000, the highest level since the invasion, in the war's fifth year, or that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America's financial costs, by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008, on their way to perhaps $2 trillion if the commitment continues for another five years. Beyond that, there are a million or more Iraqis living as refugees in neighboring Arab countries, and the pitiful toll of fear and deprivation on Iraqi streets.


American hopes are that Iraqis, with enough American troops still present to stiffen the new Iraqi forces and prevent a slide backward toward all-out civil war, will ultimately tire of the violence in the way of other peoples who have been plunged into communal violence, as many Lebanese did during their 15-year civil war. Those hopes have been buoyed by a reduction in violence in the last year that can be traced to the American troop increase and to the cooperation or quiescence of some previously militant groups, both Sunni and Shiite.

They are hopes shared by many ordinary Iraqis. Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein's years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

That sentiment is not one that many critics of the war in the United States seem willing to accept, but neither does it offer the glimmer of cheer that it might seem to offer to many supporters of the war. For it would be passing strange, after the years of unrelenting bloodshed, if Iraqis demanded anything else. It is small credit to the invasion, after all it has cost, that Iraqis should arrive at a point when all they want from America is a return to something, stability, that they had under Saddam. For America, too, it is a deeply dispiriting prospect, promising no early end to the bleeding in Iraq.