Iraq’s War Stories

As the United States leaves Mesopotamia, these are the articles that defined the conflict.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 15: U.S. Military personnel holding the US flag, Iraq flag, and the US Forces Iraq colors march during a casing ceremony where the United States Forces- Iraq flag was retired, signifying the departure of United States troops from Iraq, at the former Sather Air Base on December 15, 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq. United States forces are scheduled to entirely depart Iraq by December 31, there are currently around 4,000 troops remaining in Iraq. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

From a concrete courtyard in Baghdad’s international airport, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared the official end of the U.S. war in Iraq today. And while the final troops won’t be out of country until later this month, the occasion doesn’t mean the end of war in Iraq: The struggle for control of the country will no doubt continue, largely beyond Washington’s ability to control. But it does mark a milestone in the U.S. relationship with Iraq, where over one million Americans served, tens of thousands were injured, and 4,487 died.

Tracking the war has also occupied American journalism for the past nine years, at extraordinary cost — both physical and financial. The war has claimed the lives of 145 journalists, including U.S. journalists such as The Atlantic’s Michael Kelly, NBC News’s David Bloom, and freelancer Steven Vincent. But it was also the sheer cost of protecting reporters and moving about the country that drove many media organizations out of the country: At the peak of the war, for example, the New York Times bureau in Baghdad cost an estimated $3 million a year to maintain and featured 45 armed guards, three armored cars, and a blast wall.

As the last U.S. soldiers depart, here are five articles that — against all odds — told the story of the Iraq war.

A Tale of Two Baghdads: One sunny day in June 2003, just two months after President George W. Bush had delivered what became known as his “Mission Accomplished” speech, The Washington Post‘s Anthony Shadid and Tom Ricks joined a U.S. patrol as it moved through a Baghdad neighborhood. Ricks marched with the soldiers, while Shadid followed behind — talking to the Iraqis who the patrol had passed by. What emerged was one of the first inklings that the U.S. forces would not be greeted as the liberators they evidently perceived themselves to be.

“”Everybody likes us,” a U.S. soldier told Ricks, assessing that the neighborhood was 95 percent friendly.

“We’re against the occupation, we refuse the occupation — not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent,” an Iraqi watching the patrol told Shadid. “They’re walking over my heart. I feel like they’re crushing my heart.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images 

Hells Bells: The Nov. 2004 battle of Fallujah drove home the brutality of the Iraq war, and nobody told the story better than New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins. The book that emerged from his reporting, The Forever War, opens with an account of the beginning of the invasion — a screeching cacophony where loudspeakers on Fallujah’s mosques directed residents to come out and fight the Americans, and the Marines’ attempted to drown out the sound by blasting the heavy metal band AC/DC.

“Four men stepped from the darkness,” Filkins wrote at the height of the battle, describing a small group of U.S. solders. “They wore flight suits that shimmered in the night and tennis shoes and hoods that made them look like executioners. The four men wore goggles that shrouded their eyes and gave off lime-green penumbras that lightened their faces…I couldn’t see their eyes through the green glowing but one of them was on the balls of his feet, bouncing, like a football player on the sidelines. Coach, he seemed to be saying, put me in the game.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Versailles on the Tigris: The Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran described better than anyone else the self-contained bubble that was Baghdad’s Green Zone in his Imperial Life in the Emerald City. In meticulous detail, he painted a portrait of a war effort guided by those who had previously enjoyed connections to GOP powerbrokers or the conservative Heritage Foundation — but who lacked a rudimentary understanding of what was occurring outside of the blast walls.

“It was the ideal place for the Americans to pitch their tents,” he wrote. “Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates.”

John Moore/Getty Images

Abu Ghraib: The torture scandal at the U.S.-run prison west of Baghdad was first revealed by 60 Minutes, but it was Seymour Hersh’s May 2004 New Yorker article that exposed the true horror of Abu Ghraib. Hersh obtained a secret 53-page report written by U.S. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that described the “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” committed at the prison complex, and quoted from the document liberally — in the process, shocking America’s conscience.

Hersh would return to the story in 2007, when he described how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld punished Taguba for revealing the truth about Abu Ghraib – and suggested that the ultimate responsibility for the abuse laid higher than the handful of military police who were punished.


Iraq’s worst picture: In 2005, photographer Chris Hondros was embedded with a U.S. military unit in the northern town of Tal Afar when American soldiers opened fire on a car carrying the family of 5-year-old Samar Hassan. Her mother and father were killed instantly. Hondros — who was killed this year reporting from the front lines of the Libyan city of Misrata — took this picture of Hassan, splattered with blood, shrouded in darkness, an American soldier looming out of focus in the background.

After Hondros’s death, the New York Times found Hassan outside the city of Mosul and showed her the famous image for the first time. “He was taking pictures of me, I remember,” she said. “Then he stopped, and they brought me a jacket and put me in the truck and treated the wound on my hand. And they gave me some toys.”

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Foreign Policy on Iraq

The Man Who Would Be King: Ben Van Heuvelen charts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s consolidation of power, and asks whether he can shake the old habits of secrecy and machination he learned during Saddam’s era.

Think Again: Mercenaries: Though not exclusively focused on the use of private security firms in Iraq, Deborah Avent’s article explained how everything you know about military contractors is wrong.

Left Behind In Iraq: Kirk Johnson described the horrible fate that may await the Iraqis who helped the U.S. military, and implored the White House to do more to ensure their safety.

Jet-Skiing in the Triangle of Death: After leaving her influential post as an advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno, Emma Sky returns to Iraq nine months later as a tourist.

Checkbook Diplomacy: Peter Van Buren, a State Department employee who led a Provincial Reconstruction Team, catalogued the ridiculous things that the United States wasted taxpayers’ money on in Iraq.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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