The Fall of Baghdad, April 2003

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The Fall of Baghdad, April 2003

During the first two weeks of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S.-led coalition's "wave of steel" ground assault advanced quickly toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The coalition also launched an intensive bombing campaign designed to create "shock and awe" among enemy forces and persuade them to surrender. From the beginning of the war, coalition troops faced less organized resistance from the Iraqi army than they had expected. But they also received an unexpectedly hostile reception from the Iraqi people. In fact, they faced a surprising number of sneak attacks from irregular forces (fighters who are not part of a formal army) using the tactics of guerrilla warfare (an unconventional fighting style that uses methods like ambushes, booby traps, and sniper attacks). As the situation in Iraq grew more complex, the Bush administration faced increasing criticism of its war plan.

In early April the coalition forces prepared to fight for control of Baghdad. U.S. military officials worried that the troops might face stiff resistance from Iraqi Republican Guard forces, as well as the possibility of chemical weapons attacks, as they neared the capital. (The Republican Guard was an elite, one-hundred-thousand-man force that was the best-trained and best-equipped part of Iraq's army.) But the military campaign known as Operation Iraqi Freedom proceeded rapidly, as the coalition captured Saddam International Airport and surrounded Baghdad. The Iraqi capital fell to coalition forces on April 9, after only three weeks of combat. The capture of Baghdad was symbolized by the toppling of a large statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–) in the capital's Firdos Square. Over the next week, coalition forces went on to capture Mosul and Tikrit in northern Iraq and secure the southern city of Basra. On May 1, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush (1946–) made a historic speech in which he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. But some analysts warned that the most difficult task, "winning the peace," still lay ahead.

Coalition forces advance on Baghdad

At the end of March the Bush administration had faced growing criticism about its handling of the Iraq War. But the national mood changed on April 1, when U.S. Special Forces staged a dramatic rescue of U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch (1983–), who was being held as a prisoner of war (POW) in Iraq. Lynch had been captured on March 23, following the ambush of her supply company by Iraqi Fedayeen forces. (The Fedayeen was a group of Iraqi paramilitary fighters that was intensely loyal to Saddam Hussein.) She suffered serious injuries in the ambush, and the Iraqis transported her to Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah. An Iraqi lawyer whose wife worked at the hospital informed U.S. troops where Lynch was being held. She was rescued in a daring nighttime helicopter raid that involved Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Marines, and Air Force pilots. The U.S. troops entered the hospital, found Lynch, and carried her out on a stretcher to a waiting helicopter. The rescue was captured on video and generated a great deal of positive media coverage.

In the meantime, the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division continued to face little organized resistance as it rolled toward Baghdad. But U.S. military leaders still worried that Iraqi Republican Guard forces would make a last, desperate attempt to protect the capital. The American planners drew a large, imaginary circle around Baghdad and called it the Red Zone. This was where they expected the coalition forces to face the toughest resistance from Iraqi troops.

The most likely place for a showdown was the Karbala Gap, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Coalition forces had to pass through this narrow, sandy plain between Lake Buhayrat and the Euphrates River during their final approach to the capital. U.S. Military Intelligence believed that the Republican Guard would use chemical weapons against the Third Infantry here. As the U.S. troops advanced, they were placed at a high level of chemical alert. All of the soldiers were required to wear hot, heavy protective suits and keep their gas masks and respirators close by.

The Third Infantry entered the Karbala Gap in the early morning hours of April 3. To their surprise, they continued to face only scattered resistance. They advanced quickly and reached the Euphrates River a half-day ahead of schedule, without suffering any casualties (killed or wounded soldiers). It appeared that the coalition's "shock and awe" bombing campaign had destroyed many Republican Guard units and forced others to retreat. Once the coalition forces passed safely through the Karbala Gap, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters, "The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime."

Troops reach Baghdad

On the evening of April 3 coalition forces began fighting for control of Saddam International Airport, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) outside Baghdad. Republican Guard troops defended the facility using tanks and artillery. The coalition forces hit the Republican Guard with air strikes and then smashed through the walls surrounding the airport with tanks and armored vehicles. By morning they had captured the final link between Hussein's government and the outside world. They renamed the facility Baghdad International Airport and began preparing to receive coalition military aircraft there.

Around the same time, U.S. Special Forces conducted a raid on Hussein's "Green Palace," the largest and most elaborate of the Iraqi president's seventy-eight homes. This compound covered more than 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) along the shore of Lake Tharthar, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad. It was built in 1993, while economic sanctions were creating severe hardships for the Iraqi people, to demonstrate that Hussein was still in command following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (Economic sanctions are trade restrictions intended to punish a country for breaking international law.) U.S. Central Command showed reporters a video of heavily armed Special Forces soldiers walking around the ornate palace and grounds. The video was intended to convince the Iraqi people that Hussein was powerless to stop the coalition forces.

By April 5, U.S. troops had surrounded the capital and started flying additional troops and supplies into Baghdad International Airport. In a show of force, a convoy of more than sixty tanks and armored vehicles rolled through the city's southern suburbs on a reconnaissance (information-gathering) mission. The idea behind the mission, which received the code name Operation Thunder Run, was to test

Hussein's Palaces

As president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein enjoyed the use of about seventy-eight ornate palaces. Many of these estates rivaled the world's most famous homes—such as England's Buckingham Palace and France's Château de Versailles—in size and grandeur. Hussein constructed these palaces to provide lasting monuments to himself and visible demonstrations of his power. Several of the palaces were built or rebuilt in the decade following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, while millions of ordinary Iraqis were suffering hardships under UN economic sanctions.

The world got its first glimpse inside Hussein's palaces after he was removed from power during the 2003 Iraq War. Coalition soldiers described gold-plated bathroom fixtures, European marble floors, crystal chandeliers, soaring cathedral ceilings, stained-glass windows, sweeping staircases, and ballrooms containing acres of parquet flooring. The presidential compounds were surrounded by elaborately landscaped grounds full of pools, waterfalls, man-made lakes, and aquariums connected by garden paths and stone bridges.

Hussein's regime used the palaces for many different purposes. Various palaces served as military compounds, government offices, housing for foreign visitors, and vacation homes for Iraqi leaders. The Radwaniyah palace, located west of Baghdad near Saddam International Airport, had a prison large enough to hold five thousand people. For many years, the U.S. government suspected that some of the palaces might also serve as hiding places for weapons of mass destruction, but Iraqi officials consistently refused to allow inspectors to search the compounds.

The largest of all of Hussein's palaces, covering 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of land, was his official residence in his hometown of Tikrit. The second-largest was Maqar al Tharthar, commonly known as the "Green Palace," located between Baghdad and Tikrit. Built in 1993, it was known for its huge man-made lake and beautifully landscaped grounds. Another ornate palace was Qasr Shatt-al-Arab near Basra, also known as the "Pink Palace" because it was made of pale rose-colored stone. Hussein also maintained several palaces in Baghdad, including the Republican Palace, which covered 500 acres (2 square kilometers) along the Tigris River. This compound was destroyed in 2003 during the coalition's "shock and awe" bombing campaign.

During the 2003 Iraq War, coalition troops invaded many of Hussein's palaces and turned them into military command centers. Once the combat ended, bitter Iraqis attacked several of these symbols of Hussein's rule. They looted the palaces, stealing everything of value they could find, and damaged or destroyed the buildings and grounds.

Sources: Butcher, Tim. "Palace Exposes Dictator's Gilded Tyranny." Daily Telegraph, April 8, 2003. Reprinted in Rooney, Ben. The Daily Telegraph War on Saddam: The Complete Story of the Iraq Campaign. London: Robinson, 2003; Thompson, Justin. "Saddam's Palaces." CBC News Online, April 7, 2003. Available online at (accessed on January 8, 2004).

the Iraqi defenses. Many of the American vehicles were hit by enemy mortars and small-arms fire. The Iraqis attacked in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. They also used cars, taxis, and even motorcycles with rifles tied to them. An estimated two thousand Iraqi resistance fighters were killed along the way, and twenty-five hundred Republican Guard troops surrendered. American casualties were light.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Iraqi officials insisted that they were successfully resisting the American invasion. The main spokesman for Hussein's government was its information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf (1940–). Even as battles raged on the streets of Baghdad just a few hundred yards away, Sahhaf was telling reporters that there were no American troops within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the city. "I reassure you Baghdad is safe," he insisted, as quoted in War on Saddam by Ben Rooney. "There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad. None at all." He apparently hoped to convince the Iraqi people that Hussein remained in control of the country. The international media began referring to Sahhaf as "Baghdad Bob" and "Comical Ali" because they found his claims so ridiculous.

British forces capture Basra

As U.S. troops closed in on Baghdad, British forces secured Iraq's second-largest city, the city of Basra in southern Iraq. On April 7, following two weeks of combined political and military operations, British leaders announced that they were in control of the city. Military experts praised the British troops for taking over the city gradually and winning the confidence of Basra's residents along the way. As the British soldiers convinced the people of Basra that Hussein's government could no longer threaten them, the people began showing their support for the coalition, even helping British troops root out Hussein's remaining loyalists. However, there also were outbreaks of looting, with residents breaking into shops, schools, and hotels and carrying off whatever they could find.

A key event in the capture of Basra was the reported death of one of the most hated members of Hussein's government, General Ali Hassan al-Majid (1941–). Majid earned the nickname "Chemical Ali" in 1988, when he allegedly ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds (a non-Arab people of northern Iraq), killing an estimated five thousand people. He also oversaw Iraq's brutal occupation of Kuwait before the 1991 Persian Gulf War and led the Iraqi army forces that brutally crushed a Shiite Muslim uprising in southern Iraq after that war. (Sunni and Shiite are the two main branches of Islam. About 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis.) He later became governor of Basra Province, where he continued to use terror and violence to protect Hussein's interests. The people of Basra celebrated when British military leaders announced that "Chemical Ali" had likely been killed in a coalition air strike against his home. As it turned out, Majid survived the attack and went into hiding for several months. He was finally captured by coalition forces in August 2003.

When it became clear that Basra was in British hands, many of the city's residents expressed their appreciation for the coalition's efforts. "There were a couple of kids who came up to me and did high fives," said British Private Shahid Khan in War on Saddam. "It was a lovely gesture. I thought there was going to be a lot of resistance but now, it seems, it's going to be all right. The people have been brilliant. It's a very good day."

The fall of Baghdad

On April 8 coalition forces continued making reconnaissance missions through the streets of Baghdad. They took over several of Hussein's palaces and searched them for members of the Iraqi regime or documents relating to weapons programs. They also seized and held several strategic positions in the heart of the city. U.S. warplanes flew over the city constantly to provide support for the troops on the ground. Once again, coalition leaders were surprised that the troops faced only limited pockets of resistance. They encountered occasional small-arms fire from disorganized groups of fighters, but no battalions of Iraqi tanks or Republican Guard forces.

That evening, coalition forces launched another "decapitation attack" aimed at killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. (Decapitation means to cut off someone's head,—in this case, the head of the Iraqi government.) U.S. leaders had received intelligence (information from spying) indicating that Hussein, one of his sons, and several other senior government officials were meeting at a restaurant in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad. Coalition planes dropped "bunker-buster" bombs on the target, creating a 50-foot (15-meter) crater. Unfortunately, the air strikes also destroyed several nearby homes and killed several civilians (people not involved in a war, including women and children). American officials were at first hopeful the attack had killed Hussein, but British intelligence soon began receiving reports that the Iraqi leader was still alive.

Iraqis celebrate the fall of Hussein

Baghdad fell to coalition forces on April 9. American tanks moved through the city at will, and the Iraqi people finally began to believe that Hussein's rule had ended. John Daniszewski, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, described the change that overcame the people of Baghdad to Online NewsHour:

At first they were afraid to see the marines in their city and some of them even ran away. But they started to put out their white handkerchiefs and their white scarves and slowly approached them and pretty soon they were shaking hands and hugging them. And I think it also was remarkable to see the changes on their face when they realized that indeed President Saddam Hussein was no more. They could speak their mind and the kind of fear that has lingered over their lives all these years was melting away.

Some areas of Baghdad erupted in celebrations to mark the end of Hussein's rule. Many people waved and cheered at passing coalition troops and tore down posters of Hussein. One of the largest celebrations took place in Firdos Square in the center of Baghdad, where a large statue of Hussein stood. A group of Iraqi men climbed up the statue, attached ropes to its head, and tried to pull it down. When U.S. Marines came upon this scene, they used an armored vehicle to help the men topple the statue. The large crowd broke the statue into pieces and dragged its head through the streets. They also pounded the fallen statue with their shoes, which is considered a serious insult in the Arab world.

Footage of this scene appeared on television and in newspapers around the world. The toppling of the statue came to symbolize the fall of Hussein's regime. "It is a great feeling," said one of the participants, twenty-year-old Iraqi student Ayass Mohammed, in War on Saddam. "I have never felt this way before. It was only two hours ago when suddenly I feel freedom, when I saw the American tanks and heard that the regime had run. All my life all I know is Saddam. Now we are free."

As the coalition forces took control of the Iraqi capital, members of Hussein's government fled the city. Sahaf, the information minister, simply did not show up for work on April 9. Neither did the official government "minders" who usually accompanied foreign journalists in Baghdad, setting strict limits on where they could go and whom they could talk to. As a result, many reporters suddenly found themselves with uncensored access to the city.

Looting, resistance fighters cause problems

While celebrations took place in some parts of Baghdad, the reaction was mixed in other parts of the city. Although most Iraqis were glad to be rid of Hussein, many were suspicious of U.S. motives for invading Iraq. Some believed that the U.S. government wanted to control Iraq to take its oil. They also worried that Hussein or someone like him would return to power as soon as the American troops left Iraq. Finally, some expressed frustration about continued shortages of food, water, and medicine. They had hoped that humanitarian aid would become available more quickly.

Although the fall of Baghdad provided the coalition troops with a morale boost, they soon learned how much work still had to be done to secure the city. On the campus of Baghdad University, 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away from the toppled statue in Firdos Square, U.S. Marines came under heavy fire from resistance fighters. Coalition troops also began to see looting and unrest all over the city. Iraqis who had suffered many years of hardship under Hussein's government began breaking into government buildings and private homes and carrying off everything of value they could find, including furniture, lights, computers, and air conditioners. They stole drugs and medical equipment from hospitals and looted the Iraqi National Museum for antiquities (valuable artifacts from ancient civilizations). The Bush administration drew heavy criticism for failing to anticipate this possibility. The coalition troops worked hard to restore order and clean up the damage. They also tried to identify centers of resistance and either defeat them or persuade them to surrender.

Fighting continues in northern Iraq

The fall of Baghdad did not mark the end of the Iraq War. Fighting continued for several more days in the northern part of Iraq. On April 10 coalition forces, including Kurdish peshmerga (meaning "those who face death") opposition fighters, moved into the city of Kirkuk. The coalition troops received their most enthusiastic welcome when they took over this northern city, which was home to many people of Kurdish descent. A short time later the Iraqi army surrendered in Mosul, leaving Hussein's hometown of Tikrit as the last major city not under coalition control. Many military experts expected coalition forces to face intense resistance in Tikrit. After all, the city had done well under Hussein's regime and was home to many of his relatives and most loyal supporters.

As the coalition troops moved toward Tikrit, they received a pleasant surprise. An Iraqi policeman tipped them off to the location of the seven remaining U.S. prisoners of war. The POWs included the five surviving members of Lynch's maintenance company and two crew members from an Apache helicopter that was shot down on March 24. They were being held in a prison in Samarra, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Baghdad. The prison guards left their posts as the coalition troops approached, and one of them told U.S. military leaders about the prisoners. The POWs were reclaimed in a hastily arranged rescue mission.

During the battle for Tikrit on April 13, the coalition once again faced less resistance than expected. They soon took control of the city and captured several important members of Hussein's government, including his half brother Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti. Tikriti had served Hussein in several roles, including that of personal banker. After Tikrit fell to coalition forces, U.S. Army General Tommy Franks (1945–) declared an end to Hussein's rule in Iraq. "The Iraqi army has been destroyed," he said, as quoted in War on Saddam. "There's no regime command and control in existence right now. This is an ex-regime."

At a Pentagon briefing the following day, Major General Stanley McChrystal told reporters that major combat operations in Iraq were over. Although he admitted that some resistance remained, he declared that Saddam Hussein was no longer in power. He indicated that the war was entering a phase of smaller, sharper fights to dislodge pockets of resistance. The major combat operations claimed the lives of 126 American soldiers (less than half as many as were killed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War) and wounded 495 others. The Arab television network Abu Dhabi reported that 1,250 Iraqi civilians had been killed and another 5,100 wounded in the fighting, but other sources estimated the totals to be much higher.

Bush announces end of major combat operations

On April 15 the coalition held a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in the ancient town of Ur in southern Iraq. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Iraq's future government. The meeting included representatives of the Shiite Muslims of southern Iraq and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Both of these groups had suffered under Hussein's Sunni Muslim government. Since Hussein did not allow any political opposition, many people who attended the meeting had been living in exile outside Iraq for many years. They all hoped to have a say in the country's future.

Over the next two weeks, the U.S.-led coalition continued to target pockets of resistance. Many parts of Iraq remained dangerous, and small clashes took place throughout the country. But the coalition's main mission involved keeping order in Iraq's cities, securing its oil fields, protecting its antiquities, and searching for weapons of mass destruction. The troops also continued locating and capturing former members of Hussein's government. Every U.S. and British soldier received a special deck of playing cards to help them identify the fifty-five most wanted members of the regime. Each card featured a picture of an Iraqi official, along with his name and rank in Hussein's government. Hussein himself was the "ace of spades," or the highest card in the deck.

One well-known member of Hussein's government surrendered to U.S. authorities in Baghdad on April 24. Tariq Aziz (1936– ) had acted as the Iraqi information minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was widely considered the face of the regime by the outside world. His card was the eight of spades, making him number forty-three on the list of the fifty-five most wanted officials.

"Mission accomplished"

On April 30 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (1932–) visited Baghdad to view rebuilding efforts and meet with coalition leaders. The following day President Bush made a historic speech in which he declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over after forty-three days of fighting. The president chose to make the announcement in a dramatic fashion from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. The ship had been stationed in the Persian Gulf, but it was sailing off the coast of California at the time of the speech. Bush was flown to the ship in the copilot's seat of a U.S. Navy S-3B Viking jet. He wore a flight suit that indicated his military rank as commander in chief. The bridge of the ship was decorated with a large banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

In his speech, Bush praised the performance of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. "My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed [won]," he said, as quoted by "Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before."

Bush congratulated the coalition troops for bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. He acknowledged that they still had work to do: capture leaders of the former regime, locate hidden weapons, and reconstruct the country. But he claimed that the successful war effort was an important step in the war against terrorism. "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror," he stated. "We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda [a radical Islamic terrorist group responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States] and cut off a source of terrorist funding."

Following the speech, analysts noted that Bush did not formally declare the Iraq War to be over. Instead, he announced an end to "major combat operations." They believed the president did this intentionally to keep his options open. Under international law, declaring the war to be over could complicate the coalition's efforts to track down former members of Hussein's regime. Coalition forces were still questioning thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war, and declaring an end to the war would have required those prisoners to be released.

Although many Americans found Bush's speech stirring, others criticized what came to be known as the "aircraft carrier speech." Some critics suggested that Bush had staged the speech to increase his own popularity and political power. They pointed out that the Lincoln, which was on its way home after ten months in the Persian Gulf, had been turned around and sent back out to sea so that the U.S. coastline would not be visible to TV cameras. They also complained about Bush's decision to be flown to the ship on a fighter jet. Although it provided dramatic news footage, the flight created a security risk for Bush and cost American taxpayers a considerable amount of money. Pointing out that the Lincoln was well within helicopter range of the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego, California, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd (1917–) condemned Bush's "flamboyant showmanship" and called it "an affront [insult] to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq." Some critics also resented the fact that Bush presented himself as a military man when he had used his family connections to secure a post in the Texas Air National Guard and avoid active duty during the Vietnam War (1955–75).

Finally, some people felt it was too early to announce the end of combat operations in Iraq. They questioned whether the U.S. military had really accomplished its mission. After all, Hussein and his sons had escaped, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction had been found, and no concrete plans for Iraq's future existed. Some analysts believed that reconstructing Iraq and forming a democratic government would be the most difficult tasks of all.

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The Fall of Baghdad, April 2003

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