It was four years ago that the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq, easily toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. But that quick victory was soon overshadowed by insurgent and terrorist attacks aimed not only at coalition troops but the civilian population as well. Today, Iraq is torn by sectarian violence and the Bush administration has decided to increase the number of combat troops in the country - a controversial move that divides many Americans. VOA's Bill Rodgers takes a look at the situation in Iraq on the fourth anniversary of the war.
The invasion was quick, casualties were relatively low, and Saddam Hussein's regime was easily toppled. The easy victory led President Bush to make this declaration in May 2003 aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln:
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," he said. "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and her allies have prevailed."
But mounting attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists against coalition forces and suicide bombings directed at Iraqi civilians, especially the majority Shi'ites, undermined efforts to bring stability to Iraq. Critics say there were not enough U.S. troops to maintain control and cite what they say was a lack of post-invasion planning.
"There really was no plan for what to do with our forces after Saddam fell," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There was confusion in the policy, it was badly handled, and it allowed a sense of chaos to result and our momentum from being perceived as liberators was quickly squandered."
However, some progress was made. Free elections were held in 2005 to approve a constitution and later to elect a government. Millions of Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast ballots -- a clear message of the desire for democracy among ordinary Iraqis. But after the voting was over, suicide bombings and other attacks resumed. The February 2006 bombing of the Shi'ite Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra escalated what had become a multi-factional civil war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently described the situation this way at a Senate hearing.
"We face, in essence, four different wars -- the war of Shia on Shia, principally in the south; sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad and the environs of Baghdad; third a Baathist insurgency; and fourth, al-Qaida," he said.
A newly released Pentagon report uses the words "civil war" to describe some aspects of the Iraq situation. The report says there were record levels of violence in the last quarter of 2006, with weekly attacks rising to more than 1,000 during the period. It said nearly 100 Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded a day.
To reduce this violence, President Bush announced in January the deployment of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. He said their mission is to help Iraqi security forces stop the violence, primarily in Baghdad, and disarm the militias.
For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to take a number of political steps to achieve reconciliation and curb the Shi'ite militias, including the one led by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
In early March, President Bush expressed confidence the new strategy is working.
"This strategy is going to take time. And we can expect al-Qaida and other extremists to try to derail the strategy by launching spectacular attacks," said Mr. Bush. "Yet even at this early hour, there are some encouraging signs."
Among those encouraging signs, he said, are the deployment of additional Iraqi army brigades to the capital and a sizable increase in security checkpoints in the city.
Middle East expert James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says the so-called "troop surge" may help buy time for the Iraqi government.
"Even a temporary improvement in security and diminishment of sectarian violence is important because it buys time for the Iraqi government to get its act together, to reach out to Sunnis, to try to undermine the insurgency and try to build its own authority within the various power vacuums inside Iraq," Phillips said.
But bombings and other attacks continue. More than 150 people were killed in early March in attacks against Shi'ite pilgrims traveling to Karbala, south of Baghdad for religious observances. The violence leads observers, such as Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, to worry the surge may not work and that another strategy may have to be devised.
"Four years into this war, and one year into the civil war, I think it is fairly hard to be real optimistic. I tend to think it [the surge] is the right thing to try for a few months because it does follow most of the logic of what we've been believing should be the right approach for a long time but we have to expect it might not work. Therefore the proper strategy is to do this temporarily while preparing Plan B," O'Hanlon said.
"Plan B in my mind would be some kind of soft partition of Iraq," he explained, "where you help people re-locate if necessary so they'll be in regions where they will be safer. You agree to share the oil, have a small federal government but the regions primarily govern themselves. So you have Sunnis primarily governing and policing Sunni Arabs, similarly for Kurds and Shia."
Some reports indicate life is returning to normal in parts of Baghdad following the initial increase of U.S. and Iraqi security forces. But with more than 3,100 U.S. troops killed in Iraq so far, opinion polls show most Americans believe the war was a mistake and want U.S. troops brought home in the next 12 months. The Democratically controlled Congress is trying to find ways to force President Bush to begin an early withdrawal - a move Mr. Bush is resisting, warning it would lead to disaster.