Donald Margulies has said that Time Stands Still is not an Iraq play, or even an overtly political one. With that caveat, a brief history of the United States’ most recent conflict in the Gulf:
The Iraq War (not to be confused with the Gulf War) began on March 29th, 2003 when the US attacked Baghdad, Iraq’s capital with missiles and bombs. A joint UK and US ground force moved into the country from Kuwait, heading towards the capitol. Fought both on the ground and in the air, the war was marked by guerrilla and urban warfare as well as the bitter war of attrition between Iraqi militants and invasion forces.
A Prelude to War
The main motivation for the invasion was connected to fears of Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction, particularly their seeking out yellowcake uranium, a component used in nuclear bombs. In his third State of the Union address, President George W. Bush claimed that the Iraqis were stockpiling yellowcake, citing British intelligence sources, despite former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson’s report to the contrary. (When Wilson went public with his misgivings, his wife Valarie Plame was outed as a CIA analyst by a columnist. The investigation into the leak came down on Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to investigators. His sentence included jail time but President Bush commuted his sentence to probation and a fine.
The so called Downing Street Memo was a written record of the minutes from a meeting of British security and defense operatives and Labour party officials discussing the head of MI6’s meeting with the Bush administration. War in Iraq was now viewed as inevitable, and the party leaders were discussing the best way to sell the conflict to the British and American people.
If you’re getting incredibly depressed, here’s the genius satirist Armando Iannucci’s read on the situation:
Besieging Palaces and Pulling Down Statues
Though the advance units of Marines took losses during their land assault, the invasion of Iraq was over very quickly. Units trundled into Baghdad and engaged with an unprepared and very outgunned Iraqi military force. The Americans and British proceeded to dismantle the images of Saddam Hussein’s regime, including pulling down statues and searching, cataloging, and camping in many of the Hussein family’s palaces.
Many of Iraq’s museums and stores had been looted in the chaos of the assault on Baghdad, and though many people were welcoming to the troops, language and cultural barriers made communication difficult.
The invasion forces were tasked with both maintaining law and order and sweeping the country for weapons and resistance. As they moved through the country, a fuller picture of Hussein’s cruelty towards his people took shape.
Sandstorms and Shrapnel
Though the fall of Baghdad was considered the end of the “major combat operations” by President Bush (who famously stood in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln after landing on the tarmac in a fighter jet while saying so), the occupation of Iraq continued for seven years with the majority of the deaths and injuries occurring after Bush’s speech.
Civilian casualties increased as well as Iraqi resistance grew. Captured combatants were tortured by U.S. interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison. Invasion forces had difficulty reading the signals in their interactions with the locals. Any civilian might be a suicide bomber, and the army was short on body armor and translators, if they did have the luxury of speaking to the people before they got close enough to blow them up. Two years into the war, a military convoy fired on the car of the head of the major crimes unit of the Iraqi police when his car idled in front of Major Crimes headquarters. Official U.S. military policy states that soldiers must shoot the drivers of suspicious vehicles before they reach them, a direct result of the forces’ experiences with suicide bombers. To quote the L.A. Times‘ Richard C. Paddock:
Military checkpoints — elaborate affairs with mazes of concrete barriers, razor wire and snipers’ nests — have been set up at intersections all over Baghdad. Signs are posted in English and Arabic saying “Deadly Force Authorized.” Cars that approach too quickly risk being fired upon by troops who shoot to kill.
Foreigners could be captured, ransomed, or killed, their bodies displayed in public. Iraqi insurgents hid IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on roadsides and waited for foreign forces to drive by. Bomb squads were some of the busiest units in Iraq. (The Hurt Locker dramatizes the tense reality of these men and women but check out this interview with a leader of one of these units to get a full picture of the daily danger for both soldiers and civilians.)
Over 2.2 million Iraqis fled the country to avoid the conflict, many to Syria and Jordan. The United Nations estimates that over 40% of the Iraqi middle class have fled. Refugees are often prevented from working in their host countries and fall into human trafficking scenarios. In Syria, Iraqi refugees are not allowed to purchase land or vehicles, and over 50,000 Iraqi girls and women work as prostitutes to feed their families.
In 2008, newly elected president Barack Obama promised to officially end U.S. presence in Iraq. After slow troop reductions and extensive training of civilians, the last U.S. armed division left Iraq on December 18th, 2011 (video here), 4,486 American and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths later.
For the more visual among us, check out this photographic survey of the war over at the Denver Post’s photo blog.