“It’s harder to end a war than begin one,” President Barack Obama observed in December 2011 at a ceremony marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success.”
However, as the events of the past week show, that success now looks hollow. Islamist militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over many of the Sunni areas of the country, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government unable to restore control. In the north, Kurdish forces have taken over the city of Kirkuk, further undermining the Baghdad government.
It was Dec. 14, 2011, when the last contingent of U.S. troops exited the country, and much of the Western world stopped paying attention to what was happening in Baghdad. So what went wrong? Here are 10 dates to recall.
Dec. 18, 2011: It took just days for the first sign of trouble, with politicians of the mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc storming out of parliament after reports emerged that Maliki, a Shiite, planned to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi. Maliki loyalists said that Hashemi had been linked to terrorism.
Jan. 5, 2012: At least 78 people are killed in bombings in Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah. The bombings appeared to target Shiite Muslims, and weeks later, ISIS claims responsibility for the attacks.
Sept. 9, 2012: Hashemi, currently a fugitive, is sentenced to death in absentia after being found guilty of masterminding the killings of a lawyer and a government security official. The day coincides with the bloodiest day since the U.S. withdrawal so far, with more than 100 killed in terror attacks. Hashemi later calls the sentencing “false and unjust” and asks for his followers to remain calm.
Nov. 16, 2012: A shootout between the Iraqi army and Kurdish armed forces (known as the pesh merga) led to increasing tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish north. According to The Washington Post’s Liz Sly, the fight began over an unpaid gasoline bill and left 10 guards and police officers wounded and one passing truck driver dead. Less than a year later, Kurdish soldiers from the Iraqi army’s 16th Brigade stopped taking orders from the Iraqi government.
Dec. 18, 2012: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a leading Kurdish politician elected in 2005, is hospitalized after a stroke. Talabani is later flown to Germany for medical treatment, where he remains.
Jan. 25, 2013: After a month of Arab spring-style protests in Fallujah, Iraqi troops fire on Sunni demonstrators who had been throwing stones. At least five are left dead. Anger continues to grow, and even established Sunni politicians such as Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak are chased away by the crowds.
March 4, 2013: Fighting from Syria’s civil war begins to spill across the border, leading to fears that Iraq might be drawn in. Notably, an attack near Rabiyah, which killed 48 Syrian soldiers who had sought refuge and nine Iraqi guards, showed just how porous the border between the two nations was. “If Syria develops into a civil war, which would lead to partition on a sectarian basis, that would lay the groundwork for al-Qaida and other groups that don’t recognize borders,” Falah al-Fayyadh, Maliki’s national security adviser, told The Washington Post at the time.
Jan. 3, 2014: After attempts by Iraqi troops to clear out a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi led to at least 14 deaths, the Iraqi army agreed to pull out of the city. In early 2014, the city falls to ISIS. “At the moment, there is no presence of the Iraqi state in Fallujah,” a local journalist told The Washington Post at the time. “The police and the army have abandoned the city, al-Qaida has taken down all the Iraqi flags and burned them, and it has raised its own flag on all the buildings.”
April 30, 2014: About 12 million Iraqis went to the polls to vote in the first elections since U.S. troops withdrew, though turnout in troubled areas such as Anbar province was said to be weak. The results, released in mid-May, showed a healthy majority for Maliki’s State of Law coalition.
June 10, 2014: This month, ISIS seized control of Mosul, a major city in Iraq’s north. Iraqi troops and police were reported to have fled the city as the insurgents advanced, and tens of thousands of innocent civilians followed them. The takeover was a dramatic turning point: Mosul is an enormous city at a strategic location on routes that link Iraq to Turkey and Syria. After the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s sectarian problems have become amplified, with Kurdish fighters seizing the northern city of Kirkuk and Shiite militias preparing to join the battle against ISIS.