How Iraq Might Have Been Saved

Shortly after the fall of Saddam, the American military had an opportunity to set Iraq on the right course. One team of U.S. Special Forces seized it, bringing electricity, safe streets, and bustling markets to the Iraqi town of Ar Rutbah in a matter of weeks. Today, this Sunni city is overrun with foreign insurgents. Now, in an exclusive photo essay, the team’s commander reveals images of nation-building’s early promise—and what slipped away.

Photographs by Maj. James A. Gavrilis

Photographs by Maj. James A. Gavrilis

Moving Day: Traffic circles, such as this one we encountered as we first rode into town on April 9, 2003, were ideal locations to set up our loudspeakers and communicate with Iraqis. Murals of Saddam were everywhere, but it would have been too easy to simply destroy them. We didnt want to create more rubble. Instead, Iraqis eventually wrote over them, Welcome to the new, free Ar Rutbah, where all citizens are equal under the law.

Hurry up and Wait: A team of special ops troops prepares to press forward after clearing enemy positions near the Rutbah hospital during the first hour of our stay in Ar Rutbah.

Welcome to Ar Rutbah: My troops received a mixed welcome as we drove down Ar Rutbah Street. Some Iraqis were apprehensive, some were curious. But most seemed glad we were there.

Crowd Control: As a large group of Iraqis gathers around the police station, one Special Forces team puts their language skills to work, in an effort to build rapport with local residents.

The New Normal: At the main gate to the police station, U.S. troops stand guard as Iraqis begin to return to their daily lives.

Read All About It: Local Iraqis read a public notice posted outside the police station, one of the many ways we disseminated information to residents. Loudspeakers in the minarets, word of mouth, and the freshly painted-over Saddam murals also proved effective for communicating with locals.

Working Relationship: In the courtyard of our interim headquarters, I discuss the details of returning electricity to the city with several Iraqis. We made it a goal to collaborate with local leaders at every step of postwar reconstruction.

The Good Old Days: In front of the Baath Partys former headquarters, once a source of intimidation and terror, local Iraqis stroll among U.S. troops in the early days of the American occupation.

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