On March 20, 2003, I was embedded with the lead attack elements of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division deployed along the Kuwait-Iraq border when a fierce artillery volley rang out. It was taking out Iraqi border posts and military units in the area. I remember the sustained barrage; the thuds echoing all around the desert.
Soldiers were anxious following an Iraqi Scud missile attack earlier. They were milling about in the desert and seemed tense when the American artillery barrage opened up. Then-Capt. Larry Burris, company commander of Charlie Rock attached to the 1-64th Armor Battalion, shouted to his soldiers: "That's the sound of freedom."
The Army units that would lead the 3rd Infantry Division's attack to Baghdad were about to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime on the orders of President George W. Bush. The U.S. claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
I climbed into the back of Capt. Burris' Bradley fighting vehicle alongside the armored brigade's M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradleys, armored personal carriers and Humvees that soon poured across the border into Iraq.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway.
The hard-fought 26-day U.S.-led attack successfully felled the dictator Saddam. The Army called it one the fastest and largest armored assaults in military history. In the public eye, however, it was soon eclipsed by a long and badly bungled U.S. occupation and decade-long military presence that spawned a tenacious insurgency. Over 4,500 Americans and nearly 200,000 Iraqis were killed in the war, according to Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
The invasion gave way to a vicious and bloody Shia-Sunni civil war and the growth of the jihadist terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq. Later, the Islamic State terrorist network grew out of Iraq's sectarian chaos and it temporarily seized control over large swaths of both Iraq and Syria.
Iraq's so-called weapons of mass destruction were never found.
Listen to the full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.
Producers Danny Hajek and Jack Mitchell contributed to this report
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today marks 20 years since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For our reporter who was on the Iraq-Kuwait border, the war started with a barrage of artillery fire. NPR's Eric Westervelt was embedded with the lead attack elements of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: I remember this, you know, sustained barrage, the thuds echoing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, giddy up.
WESTERVELT: And the U.S. officer I was with told his soldiers, you know, this is the start of liberation of Iraq.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The sound of freedom right there.
WESTERVELT: They were about to go into battle. Remember the context. The invasion started when the nation was still sort of traumatized by 9/11. And the nation was told, you know, look. This dictator, Saddam - he's hatching all these plots with chemical, biological, maybe even nuclear weapons. Of course, we now know that was, you know, a manufactured threat. Cheney, Rumsfeld and others manipulated, cherry-picked or completely manufactured intelligence to wildly exaggerate the threat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE W BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now. He has been embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division of the Army. Eric, can you tell us where you are, please?
WESTERVELT: I'm in southern Iraq, traveling with the U.S. Army's 2nd Combat Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. It's a mechanized...
KELLY: Eric was one of three NPR reporters in Iraq at the time. John Burnett was traveling with the Marines' 1st Division, and Anne Garrels was one of the few Americans reporting in Baghdad during the U.S.-led bombing campaign. Meanwhile, Eric is in an armored convoy heading north towards the capital. He's in the back of a Bradley fighting vehicle, a fast-moving transport that rides on treads and provides cover fire.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: On top of the buildings down there, they got fighting positions set up, fortified with sandbags. And there's a lot of towers down there.
KELLY: In the beginning days, as they push north, the convoy hits resistance from Iraqi army and Fedayeen paramilitary forces.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)
WESTERVELT: The organized Iraqi military is totally overwhelmed, and the Iraqis were sort of unable to respond in any traditional military way. And they became to rely on, you know, Iraqi Saddam Fedayeen sort of most loyalists. And they were using, you know, hit-and-run tactics, roadside bombs, stealth attacks, car bombs.
They've been sending some suicide bombers, cars packed with explosives, hurtling out of the side alleyways towards the convoy.
KELLY: A week after the start of the invasion, the armored battalion is fighting to secure the Iraqi city of Najaf, considered sacred by Shia muslims.
WESTERVELT: They were trying to get a group of Iraqis to surrender. So some PSYOPs - you know, the intel team had come out with a translator and a bullhorn and said, you know, we want you to surrender. You're going to be treated well.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).
WESTERVELT: The U.S. forces get the Iraqi answer to the surrender plea in the form of rocket-propelled grenades and a heavy barrage of mortar fire. This is the sound of an RPG whizzing overhead before the tape goes blank as this reporter dives behind a Humvee.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Where's the rest of my guys?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We'll get against the building here.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)
KELLY: After another battle south of Baghdad, the U.S. battalion commander lets families collect the bodies of Iraqi fighters killed in an overnight firefight.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Please, my children, please, baby, please (crying).
WESTERVELT: Grieving family members, widows coming to retrieve their dead, putting them in the backs of trunks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Crying).
WESTERVELT: I remember the soldiers looking at that as well and realizing, we did that. And one soldier said to the other ones, hey, guys. Remember; a few hours ago, those same guys were trying to kill you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You just can't get emotionally involved. You just got to do your job and drive on.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Crying).
KELLY: By early April, U.S. forces close in on Iraq's capital, the 3rd Infantry Division 2nd Brigade charges towards what was then called Saddam Hussein International Airport.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Let's go, Cobra. Come on. Let's go. Every tank back there, start moving.
WESTERVELT: This first push into Baghdad to the airport was really an intense, fast, violent armored raid. They called it a thunder run up highway eight, and you had Iraqis firing from rooftops and garages with RPGs and with AK-47s.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Hey, Rogue Six. We just got hit with an RPG.
WESTERVELT: The other really difficult part in this attack, Iraqi civilians were coming down the southbound lane, and some civilians were caught in the crossfire.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: OK, guys, there's a lot of people that just fleed (ph) the area. You just stay focused on military targets.
WESTERVELT: You know, one of the most haunting memories I have is peering out the back of the Bradley recording every moment I could and seeing a car on fire that was filled with civilians. And a small child was standing outside the car, you know, just screaming in horror as he watched his parents die. And you had both sides firing a lot. And any civilians that were there were in just incredible and grave risk.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Everybody keeps saying it's for the oil. Not a mention of this has been about no oil. The only thing is trying to bring a bad [expletive] regime down and make people free.
KELLY: And the U.S. seizes the airport, and a now-famous scene unfolds in Baghdad. Iraqi civilians, with the help of U.S. Marines, topple a statue of Iraq's fallen dictator. Here's NPR's Anne Garrels.
ANNE GARRELS, BYLINE: Fifty-four Adhasaf Nuri, a taxi driver, tossed his shoes at a statue of Saddam, a deeply insulting gesture in the Arab world. Thank you, America, he said, for removing this dictator. But tearing down statues, as the Soviets once saw, is easy. Filling the vacuum will be much more difficult.
WESTERVELT: There was this momentary period of euphoria among Iraqis that, you know, the dictator is gone. At the same time, you know, the Iraqi welcome was so short lived.
KELLY: NPR's John Burnett spoke with Iraqi civilians who initially supported the U.S.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Saba Saleem Hussein is a 45-year-old jowly bookseller in Sadr City.
SABA SALEEM HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) I brought one of my relatives a picture of President Bush to post on the wall of his house. He claimed that Bush helped get rid of Saddam. Now, I swear it, every day, he stomps on the picture of Bush with his shoes because he has lost two sons. And during Saddam's time, he lost nothing.
WESTERVELT: While the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam was briefly considered a success, I mean, the occupation was horrifically mismanaged. It unleashed years of bloody sectarian civil war and trauma. And later, it helped give rise to more terrorists with the rise of ISIS, who, for a brief period, controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria. But we at that point didn't fully realize that this was just the start of Iraq's long nightmare.
KELLY: NPR's Eric Westervelt reflecting on the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. This story was produced by our colleagues on NPR One. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.