Story Highlights• 2006 in Iraq remembered for high body count, called "civil war" by many
• Year began with optimism as Iraqi leaders tried to form government
• Iraq Study Group: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating"
• Bush to announce changes to Iraq war strategy in January
By Jim Kavanagh
Adjust font size:
(CNN) -- This was the year the war in Iraq went from bad to "grave and deteriorating."
As 2006 began, optimism dominated as Iraqi politicians attempted to form a government and choose a prime minister following remarkably smooth elections.
But the year will be remembered more for the rise in sectarian violence that followed. (Watch a look back at a year of struggle and despair in Iraq )
Urged on by al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in February, Sunni insurgents bombed Samarra's golden-domed mosque, a Shiite holy shrine.
Sectarian death squads sprung up, and by April the near-daily discovery of tortured, bullet-peppered bodies throughout Baghdad had begun.
The militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was blamed for much of the carnage. (Full story)
Al-Sadr exercised political as well as military power.
In May, the Iraqi Parliament finally chose moderate Shiite Nuri al-Maliki to be prime minister, but not until he had won al-Sadr's support.
In June, the United States and its coalition partners enjoyed a moment of victory when two 500-pound bombs killed al-Zarqawi.
"Removing Zarqawi is a major blow to al Qaeda," President Bush said.
"It's not going to end the war. It's certainly not going to end the violence, but it's going to help a lot."
Bush had it partly right.
The violence continued, and continued to escalate.
Attacks on U.S. troops multiplied in Anbar province as well as in Baghdad.
The death toll clawed ever higher, with 818 U.S. service members killed in 2006, bringing the total since the war began to 2,998.
Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths vary from 50,000 to 600,000.
In December, eight Marines were indicted in the deaths of at least 24 civilians in Haditha in November 2005. (Full story)
Meanwhile, a sailor pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the killing of an unarmed, disabled civilian in Hamdaniya and a soldier pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl and killing her parents and sister in Mahmoudiya. (Full story)
Others also face charges.
Although Americans generally voice support for the troops, public backing for the war has fallen sharply.
Polls paint bleak picture
The latest CNN poll, released December 18, found that support for the president's handling of Iraq has sunk to an all-time low, from 34 percent in mid-October to 28 percent. (Full story)
A record 70 percent said they disapproved of his war management.
Those polling figures translated into votes on November 7, when Bush's Republican Party lost its majorities in both the House and the Senate. The newly empowered Democrats are vowing to review U.S. policy in Iraq and possibly force changes.
The administration beat the Democrats to the punch on the day after the election, when embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation.
Along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld had directed the war strategy, and it was Rumsfeld who bore much of the blame for its lack of success.
Bush named former CIA Director Robert Gates to take over the Defense Department and the war effort, and the Senate gave him quick approval. (Full story)
Back in Iraq, al-Maliki was engaged in a political effort of his own.
In October, the Iraqi prime minister demanded that U.S. military checkpoints in the Sadr City area of Baghdad be removed, leaving the Shiite slum under the control of al-Sadr's militia.
Al-Maliki kept Bush waiting for a day before meeting with him in Jordan in late November after an administration memo questioned al-Maliki's leadership.
Al-Maliki vowed to assert control over sectarian militias, but it appears there's little he can do.
This grisly year of killings and reprisal reached yet another low point on November 23, with an assault in Sadr City that left at least 200 dead. Shiites torched two Sunni mosques in retaliation. (Full story)
Two days later, 21 Shiites were gunned down in front of their families in Diyala province. And on it went.
The carnage led many observers, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to start describing the conflict as a civil war.
A planned reconciliation conference in December in Baghdad came to nothing.
Al-Maliki announced a plan for Iraqi forces to take over security duties from U.S. and coalition forces.
Iraq Study Group findings grim
His plan closely resembled a suggestion from the Iraq Study Group, a blue-ribbon presidential advisory panel headed by Democrat Lee Hamilton, one-time chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Republican James Baker, who was secretary of state under President Bush's father.
Growing public displeasure over the war had forced the president to entertain options for "a new way forward" in Iraq.
The report's executive summary stated, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."
It contained 79 suggestions, chief among them a steady reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq.
Bush is not obliged to follow any of the suggestions and has said he will announce his new strategy in January.
As a year of destruction and death drew to a close, one more death in Iraq became its biggest headline.
Saddam Hussein, convicted November 5 of crimes against humanity in the massacre of 148 Shiites in Dujail, was hanged before dawn on December 30. (Full story)
"Saddam's body is in front me," said a spokesman for al-Maliki's office. "It's over."
CNN's Nic Robertson contributed to this report.
A triple car bombing in Baghdad on Saturday closes out another year of hardship in war-ravaged Iraq.