One year ago Saturday, President Bush stood on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared major combat operations in Iraq over. What he and other administration officials may not have foreseen was that political combat for the soul of a shattered nation was just beginning.
Since then the US effort to rebuild Iraq has been caught in a cruel vise of time. To their surprise, provisional authority officials discovered that 30 years of oppression by Saddam Hussein had destroyed much of Iraq's civil society. Restoring a form of representative government would be harder than they had thought.
But the US hasn't had the luxury of time. The June 30 date to give Iraqis back limited sovereignty is looming nearer, while a determined insurgency wages a vicious battle to push Americans out and convince ordinary Iraqis that their gunmen own the future. Meanwhile, it's become obvious that for good or ill the US invasion of Iraq has loosed enormous change on the world. The security of the American people, the freedom of Iraqis, the very shape of the Middle East - all may hinge on the current struggle for Iraq's hearts and minds. "The days and weeks immediately ahead are fateful and they are perilous," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut in a speech at the Brookings Institution.
The May 1, 2003, appearance of Mr. Bush, wearing a flight suit and standing on the deck of a carrier in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, now seems premature to even the White House itself.
Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has since said that he regrets the use of the banner and its implication that the hard part in Iraq was over. He has insisted, however, that he believes the banner was meant to refer to the mission of the Abraham Lincoln itself.
Administration officials also insist that much of the country remains peaceful, and that the physical reconstruction of Iraq has continued apace, with oil production back to prewar levels, electricity coming back, schools reopening, and so forth.
Health care spending in Iraq is now 30 times what it was under the regime of Saddam Hussein, noted Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a recent congressional appearance.
Furthermore, the US has reversed itself on some initial occupation decisions that have turned out to be counterproductive. Baath Party officials from the old regime will no longer be automatically disqualified from government-related jobs. The use of former Iraqi Army generals to negotiate a possible end to the standoff with insurgents in Fallujah marks something of a turning point. "What that essentially reveals is how big a mistake it was to get rid of the old Army," says Pat Lang, the former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
But that being said, the reconstruction period in Iraq has been much more difficult than the White House predicted in the wake of last year's initial push into the country. The ease of the initial military thrust may have been deceptive. To trap the US with a draining insurgency might have been the old regime's strategy all along. In any case, the US underestimated the devastation, both physical and mental, that Mr. Hussein would leave in his wake.
"More could have been done in the pre-war planning for postwar operations," said retired Army Gen. John Keane, who was vice chief of staff of the Army until last fall, in a recent congressional appearance.
General Keane said that he had not predicted how passive Iraq's people would be after 35 years of political repression, and how that would make them skeptical of all authority and wary of the Americans' insistence that they were liberators.
That sentiment is echoed by Mario Mancuso, a former Special Operations commander who spent close to a year in Iraq, including five months around Najaf. "I found a brutalized, traumatized, and paranoid people by and large," he says.
The US knew Iraqis as a whole were educated and industrious - the Germans of the Middle East, in an old Western stereotype. What they hadn't counted on was how much they had been beaten down, and how they would have to try and coax locals out of a battened-down survival mode. "We likely overstated how much they could help us," says Mancuso.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure of Iraq was decrepit. The US had thought it would have to protect electricity plants, oil pipelines, and other key installations against sabotage. It hadn't counted on having to protect them against rust.
"We received the country in terrible shape but not as a result of the conflict - only as the result of the lack of maintenance for the last decade or two," says John Reppert, an expert at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany.
Thus the US is now in a very difficult position, notes Dr. Reppert. The US still must provide physical security for months to come in Iraq, with the steady drain of casualties that entails. Since last May, over 600 US soldiers have died.
Yet at the same time, its political control will inevitably begin to dwindle as the UN becomes more involved and Iraqis themselves agitate for more control. Ultimately, the Iraqi government will almost certainly be better than that of Hussein - but it may be far from the Jeffersonian democracy the US says it wants.
"We are going to have to abide by our decision to empower the Iraqis and to live with the decisions they make," Judith Yaphe, an Iraqi expert at the National Defense University, recently told Congress.