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When Iraq went wrong

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating," the Iraq Study Group said in releasing its report a few days ago. Perhaps the most vexing issue is to pinpoint the exact moment when everything in Iraq started to go wrong.

How did scenes of joyful Iraqis pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue so quickly turn into images of car bombings, grieving mothers and burning helicopters?

Some of those who appeared before the panel argued that it had been a mistake to disband the Iraqi army after the military victory. Others said there had not been enough troops on the ground to secure and stabilize Iraq. The problem with such analyses is their tendency to treat the invasion and the postinvasion period as separate entities.

That is, the invasion is generally portrayed as well planned and executed, while the postinvasion strategy is characterized as poorly thought out and undermanned. The idea is that hidden somewhere in the weeks and months after the arrival of American forces in Baghdad lies a magic moment when Iraq somehow began to descend into chaos.

In fact, the short fight to get to Baghdad and the long one in which coalition forces have been engaged ever since have much in common. All the information about the nature of the trouble to come was apparent from the very first days of the war. If lessons learned then had been incorporated into military and political thinking, it would have injected a much needed dose of realism at an early stage.

Those lessons were best synthesized in a little-known but bloody battle, fought in an obscure part of Iraq on Day 4 of the war. It was a battle that America nearly lost.

It was dawn on March 23, 2003, when Marines from Task Force Tarawa approached the town of Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. They had been given a routine task: taking two key bridges to open up a route to Baghdad. Nasiriyah was a predominantly Shiite town that had rebelled against Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. It was assumed that as soon as the Americans rolled into town, the city's defenders would lay down their weapons and, as one Marine commander told me, "put flowers in our gun barrels, hold up their babies for us to kiss and give us the keys to the city."

But when Task Force Tarawa's lead units reached the outskirts they came across the burnt-out remnants of several vehicles of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company. A captain in the 507th told wide-eyed Marine commanders how his convoy had taken a wrong turn at night, driven into Nasiriyah and been attacked by Iraqi fighters. Several soldiers were still missing in the city, including a young private, Jessica Lynch.

It was the fate of Jessica Lynch that attracted America's attention in the days following. But it's what happened to the Marines of Task Force Tarawa that is most instructive about the true nature of the Iraq war.

As Marine units moved into the city, they were attacked by large numbers of Iraqi fighters. To their surprise, few of the Iraqi combatants seemed to be wearing military uniforms. Many were dressed in the loose-fitting black clothing worn by Shiite Muslims, and much of the gunfire came from dwellings flying black flags denoting them as Shiite homes. And yet the Shiites were supposed to be on the Americans' side.

What's more, as the Marines were drawn into a raging battle in the city center, more and more people came out of ordinary homes to take up arms. One group of young American troops, who became separated from the rest of their unit and were forced to commandeer a house in the middle of the city, found themselves under attack for several hours from what appeared to be armed civilians. They had been expecting to fight Iraqi soldiers. Instead they found themselves shooting at old men, women, even children.

Of course, there were fanatical Sunni Saddam Fedayeen troops, as well as some desperate foreign jihadis, who fought that day. But untold hundreds of those who picked up weapons were simply civilians intent on defending homes against foreign invaders. The potent and complex mix of insurgency - Sunni and Shiite militants, foreign fighters and civilians - that causes such chaos in Iraq today was already apparent during the battle of Nasiriyah.

Intelligence about the terrain was also sorely lacking. Marine tanks spearheading the maneuver took a route that led to a marsh where they sank, mired uselessly in thick mud, while the battle raged. It's more than just a metaphor for coalition forces getting bogged down, postinvasion, in towns like Fallujah and Samarra. It was the product of a rush to arms without adequate planning.

At one stage, in a "friendly fire" incident, Air Force planes fired at Marines on the ground, killing up to 10. Radio communications repeatedly failed. Units lost contact with each other. Faced with an increasingly determined enemy, Marine commanders thought they might just lose the battle. There is a limit to what armor and technology can do against a people with faith and who fight because they feel their country has been violated.

Standing by, watching

There were other incidents in Nasiriyah, minor at the time, that foreshadowed events that would become an international embarrassment. At one point, a Marine commander came across a gruesome scene: young Marines, standing over a pile of Iraqi corpses, taking photos of each other, thumbs up and grinning inanely to the camera.

But what was most striking at Nasiriyah in those very early days of the war was the refusal of freedom-deprived Iraqis to come forward and support coalition forces. At best, the civilians stood by and watched the American war machine thunder into town. At worst, they ran to arms stashes, grabbed AK-47s and took to the streets. Four days into the invasion, and already, instead of coming together, Iraqis were falling back into their faiths and tribes and killing coalition forces and each other.

Eighteen Marines died in Nasiriyah that March day, in what turned out to be the bloodiest phase of the invasion. Four days later the city was finally declared secure. Two weeks after that, American forces triumphantly entered Baghdad and helped topple Saddam Hussein's statue. Everyone lauded the efficiency with which United States forces had fought to Baghdad. The trauma of Nasiriyah was forgotten.

And that was a shame. If the details of what happened at Nasiriyah had been gathered, recognized and analyzed more soberly early on, instead of trampled on in a rush of triumphalism, coalition forces might have learned useful lessons for the reconstruction of Iraq: the limits of military power, the importance of a proper understanding of the complexity of a place and its people, the perils of underestimating an enemy. Instead, of course, President Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and made his hubristic speech announcing the end of combat operations under a banner announcing "Mission Accomplished."

The battle of Nasiriyah taught that there was no simple route to Baghdad. It should serve to remind those in Washington that there will be no simple route out of it.

Tim Pritchard is the author of Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.