Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 2003

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Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 2003

For more than a year, the United States tried to persuade the United Nations (UN) to authorize the use of military force to disarm Iraq and remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) from power. By early 2003 it became clear that these diplomatic efforts had failed. But U.S. President George W. Bush (1946–) was determined to go to war against Iraq, even without UN support. He claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a significant threat to world security. He insisted that military action was necessary to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and to defend the world from grave danger.

On March 17, 2003, Bush gave Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, forty-eight hours to leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led military invasion. The Iraqi leader ignored the warning, and the 2003 Iraq War (also known as Gulf War II) began two days later. From the beginning, the main focus of the war was removing Hussein from power. American military leaders felt that toppling Hussein would create chaos in the Iraqi army and decrease its ability to fight. The planners of the war also believed that the Iraqi people would welcome the U.S. troops once they realized that Hussein's reign of terror was over.

The world moves toward war

During the forty-eight-hour period following Bush's final warning, Hussein remained defiant. The Iraqi leader claimed that the United States was plotting to steal Iraq's oil reserves and force its will on the Middle East. He encouraged the Iraqi people to resist the coming invasion in any way possible. He also sent his sons to a bank in downtown Baghdad to withdraw one billion dollars in cash, or about onequarter of Iraq's total currency reserves.

Under the Bush administration's original plan, the Iraq War was supposed to start with a rapid push of ground troops into Iraq from the tiny country of Kuwait to the south. These troops would move northwest toward Baghdad as quickly as possible to trap Hussein's government in the capital city. One column of troops—the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, led by Lieutenant General William Wallace—would move swiftly through the desert on the west side of the Euphrates River. In the meantime, fifty thousand U.S. troops from the First Marine Expeditionary Force, under the command of Lieutenant General James T. Conway, would move in a parallel path to the east, up the valley between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The second phase of the war would involve a massive air assault designed to create "shock and awe" among the enemy forces and persuade them to surrender. As it turned out, however, the war began in an entirely different way.

Sometime in the two days following Bush's ultimatum, the U.S. government received information on the location of Hussein and other senior Iraqi officials. They were believed to be hiding in underground bunkers (fortified structures) at the home of Hussein's daughter, near Baghdad University. The intelligence (information gained from spying) came from several different sources and appeared to be accurate. After talking with his top advisors, Bush decided to act on the information. He realized that ordering an air strike would be dangerous because American pilots would have to fly through the middle of Iraqi air defenses, but he saw it as a possible opportunity to end the war before it even began by killing Hussein and his top officials.

A "decapitation attack"

On March 20, about ninety minutes after Bush's ultimatum ran out, the U.S. military launched a massive bombing strike with the intention of killing Hussein. Military officials called it a "decapitation attack," because its aim was to destroy the head of the Iraqi government. "We want to turn the Iraqi military into a chicken with its head cut off," one senior U.S. Navy official explained to Time magazine.

In the early morning hours over Baghdad, U.S. Navy ships stationed in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea (a long, narrow sea that stretches along Saudi Arabia's western border) fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles, each equipped with a 1,000-pound (450-kilogram) warhead, at three targets in Baghdad. Warplanes immediately followed up with 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) "bunker-buster" bombs designed to destroy underground facilities. The attacks completely destroyed their intended targets. Intelligence reports indicated that some top Iraqi officials were killed in the assault, but it was unclear whether Hussein was among them.

Two hours later, Bush appeared on national television to announce the start of the military campaign, code named Operation Iraqi Freedom. "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," he stated, as quoted by Online NewsHour. "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are [the] opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted [intense] campaign."

A short time later Hussein appeared on Iraqi television to read a statement. He called the attack "a shameful crime" and pledged that "we will confront the invaders." American officials were quick to point out that Hussein's appearance did not necessarily mean that he had survived the "decapitation attack." They said that the statement could have been taped earlier or could have been read by one of the several "body doubles," men who closely resembled the Iraqi leader,—that Hussein sometimes used to stand in for him at public appearances.

Coalition ground forces enter Iraq

By the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the number of American military troops in the Persian Gulf region had reached 242,000. This was less than half as many as were deployed there during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Some U.S. troops had remained in the region during the dozen years between the wars. American forces manned air bases in Saudi Arabia, for example, and U.S. Navy warships were stationed in the Persian Gulf. But most of the American ground troops were sent to the Middle East specifically to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Around 130,000 were stationed in Kuwait, along Iraq's southern border.

Although Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq was not supported by the United Nations, the United States still managed to gain some assistance from thirty-five countries. Great Britain was the strongest supporter of Bush's invasion of Iraq. British leaders sent 45,000 troops to aid the coalition, about the same number they had sent during the 1991 war. Other contributors of troops included Australia, with 18,000, and Poland, with 2,000. The other members of the coalition provided various forms of assistance, ranging from financial support to military equipment and intelligence. The coalition faced an estimated 375,000 Iraqi military, significantly less than the 1 million soldiers Iraq had to draw upon in the 1991 conflict.

Shortly after the first bombs hit Baghdad as part of the "decapitation attack," Iraqi army units began firing missiles toward the U.S. and British troops that were gathered along the Kuwaiti border. Although the missiles missed their targets, they still caused considerable problems for the coalition forces. Each time a warning siren sounded, the troops raced to put on hot, heavy protective suits in case the missiles carried chemical weapons. They had to wear these suits until an all-clear signal sounded.

News Coverage of the 2003 Iraq War

The live television news coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War amazed viewers around the world with dramatic scenes of bombing campaigns and ground combat. It marked the first time that ordinary people had experienced a military conflict so immediately. But news coverage of the 2003 Iraq War went beyond the high expectations that the previous conflict had created.

In 1991 most journalists had to report on the action from a distance. The correspondents in Baghdad watched the start of the air war from their hotel balconies as Iraqi "minders" hovered close by. These Iraqi security personnel controlled the reporters' access to people and places as well as the content of their stories. Most other reporters filed their stories from neighboring Saudi Arabia. The U.S. military did not allow journalists to accompany troops into battle because they worried that it would create a security risk. As a result, the press was forced to wait on the sidelines for U.S. military officials to update them on developments.

Journalists covering the 2003 Iraq War had a much broader set of options to choose from. Prior to the start of the 2003 conflict, coalition leaders invited major news organizations to "embed" correspondents within American and British military units, with the understanding that their reports would be made available to other news organizations. The nine hundred journalists and photographers who chose this option joined their units for training several weeks before the war began. When the fighting started, the correspondents traveled into Iraq along with their units and reported on the action as it occurred.

The new policy of allowing embedded reporters in military units offered a number of advantages for news organizations. Embedded reporters were able to travel into the war zone under the protection of coalition troops and provide the public with eyewitness accounts of the planning and execution of major military campaigns. Some people worried that the military would censor the reports of embedded journalists. As it happened, however, coalition leaders rarely found it necessary. Most journalists carefully avoided giving away any information that might put their units in danger.

Many news organizations chose to embed some correspondents and send others to cover the war independently as "unilaterals." For example, Reuters sent seventy correspondents to Iraq, thirty of them as embedded reporters and forty as unilaterals. The main advantage of operating independently was that these reporters were free to go wherever they wanted and report on whatever they saw. The main disadvantage was that they were unprotected by American forces and often faced great personal risks.

Some news organizations also stationed correspondents in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's government granted visas to most reporters who requested permission to cover the war from the Iraqi capital. The Iraqi government welcomed news coverage because it believed that pictures of bombing damage and civilian casualties would arouse worldwide sympathy. But the reporters in Baghdad faced a number of problems. Their movements were strictly limited by Iraqi minders. Coalition leaders also were concerned that the Iraqi regime might use the reporters as "human shields" to protect potential bombing targets, as had happened during the 1991 war.

Finally, some news organizations stationed correspondents in the small country of Qatar, east of Saudi Arabia, where coalition leaders set up a media center to relay official information about the conflict. These reporters received regular updates on combat operations and casualties. They were also the first to gain access to photos and video footage shot by coalition soldiers. For example, they saw the dramatic rescue of U.S. prisoner of war Private Jessica Lynch (1983–) and watched U.S. Marines conduct a raid on Hussein's "Green Palace."

The variety of options available for news organizations covering the war meant that audiences around the world received remarkably close looks at many aspects of the conflict. Television viewers saw vivid pictures of explosions and fires lighting up the sky over Baghdad, images of British forces fighting for control of Basra, and dramatic footage of American tanks rolling through the streets of the Iraqi capital. But such images came at a cost: A total of twenty journalists and photographers died during the war, three in Baghdad and seventeen elsewhere in Iraq. Not all of the deaths resulted from combat, but the majority of those that did were "friendly fire" incidents at the hands of American forces.

Although the news coverage of the Iraq War received a great deal of praise, it also generated some criticism. Some people complained that the embedded reporters, with their breathless accounts of combat, gave viewers the impression that the Iraqi resistance was stronger than it actually was, while others worried that the practice of "embedding" would bias the reporters' coverage in favor of the soldiers they had trained and traveled with. Other critics claimed that the emphasis on live action left little time for analyzing and interpreting the stories, leaving viewers without context for what they were seeing. Reporters sometimes followed events closely even when they had little bearing on the overall conflict. In the meantime some parts of the war, like the contributions made by Special Operations forces, went unreported. Finally, some news organizations that had adopted editorial positions either opposing or supporting the war were accused of providing biased coverage.

Sources: Fletcher, Kim. "The Media War." In Rooney, Ben. The Daily Telegraph War on Saddam: The Complete Story of the Iraq Campaign. London: Robinson, 2003.

This situation helped persuade U.S. military leaders to launch the ground invasion of Iraq on March 20, a full day ahead of schedule. Led by the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division and British Marines, more than two thousand tanks, armored vehicles, trucks, and artillery crossed over the Kuwaiti border north into Iraq. To their surprise, they encountered very little organized resistance as they moved north toward Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq. Instead of the entrenched Iraqi army forces they had faced in the 1991 war, they encountered only small pockets of hostile fire.

By the end of the first day of fighting, coalition forces had captured the port city of Umm Qasr on the Persian Gulf. They immediately began clearing the harbor of mines (underwater explosive devices) so it could receive shipments of medicine, food, and other humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq. They also secured many of the one thousand oil wells in southern Iraq so Iraqi forces could not sabotage them. Iraqi troops only managed to set fire to nine wells, as opposed to the six hundred Kuwaiti wells they had set ablaze during the 1991 conflict.

"Shock and awe" bombing campaign begins

On March 21 the U.S.-led coalition launched its "shock and awe" bombing campaign. Over the course of the war, a total of thirty thousand coalition bombs and missiles would rain down on strategic targets in Iraq. In the first attack on Baghdad, bombs exploded every ten seconds for three hours. The main targets included government buildings, command and control centers for the Iraqi military, and suspected weapons facilities. One bombing raid destroyed Hussein's Republican Palace, located on the bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad. Coalition warplanes also attacked cities in northern Iraq, including Tikrit, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

The idea behind the coalition's overwhelming air assault was to weaken Hussein's hold on power and persuade the Iraqi people to surrender. "We are seeing an awfully impressive display of our ability to bring very large numbers of important strategic targets under attack at the same time," said retired Air Force Colonel John Warden, as quoted by Online NewsHour. "I would find it very difficult to conceive of how those utterly critical internal security organizations, the things on which Saddam Hussein depends, ... could really be functioning and could maintain the degree of repression [control through the use of intimidation and force] that they need to."

An estimated eight thousand Iraqi army soldiers surrendered to coalition forces during the first few days of the war. But others simply took off their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. Some experts worried that these former soldiers might later organize small bands of resistance fighters and attack coalition forces using the tactics of guerrilla warfare (an unconventional fighting style that uses methods like ambushes, booby traps, and sniper attacks).

"Wave of steel" advances toward Baghdad

As the "shock and awe" bombing campaign got underway, U.S. ground troops continued to push deeper into Iraqi territory. In his book War on Saddam, Ben Rooney called it "the fastest armored advance in the history of modern warfare." The ground forces encountered their first significant enemy fire outside cities in southern Iraq, including Samawah and Nasiriyah. Some of the fire came from Iraqi army units, but a surprising amount came from paramilitary fighters and irregular forces (fighters who are not part of a formal army).

On March 22 the U.S. Army's Third Infantry and V Corps came under attack by Iraqi forces that were dug in to defend Nasiriyah. This city marked a strategic point on the road to Baghdad, 200 miles (322 kilometers) northwest, because it contained two important bridges across the Euphrates River. The coalition forces wanted to push onward toward Baghdad as quickly as possible, so they did not plan to occupy Nasiriyah. But they did need to capture a critical bridge over the Euphrates so they could use it to transport troops and equipment to the Iraqi capital.

During the Battle of Nasiriyah, the coalition troops came under heavy enemy artillery fire. They responded by calling in air strikes against the Iraqi forces. The coalition air power overwhelmed the Iraqis and persuaded many of them to surrender. After capturing the bridge, the Third Infantry continued rolling across the desert toward Baghdad in what one reporter described as a 20-mile (32-kilometer) "wave of steel." They got within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the capital after only three days of fighting.

Iraqi forces use illegal tactics

When the "wave of steel" had moved on, however, the Iraqi resistance grew more intense. On March 23 a group of five thousand U.S. Marines that had been left to defend the bridge near Nasiriyah engaged in a major firefight with Iraqi forces. U.S. Army Lieutenant General John Abizaid (1951–), speaking from the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) facility in Qatar, described it as the "sharpest engagement" of the war so far. By the time the city was securely in coalition hands, more than thirty American soldiers had been killed and sixty more wounded.

Over several days of fighting, the Iraqi forces showed their willingness to use whatever tactics were necessary to oppose the Americans, even if those tactics violated the basic rules of war. For example, several groups of Iraqi soldiers approached U.S. troops under a flag of surrender and then attacked them. In addition, some of the Iraqi forces in Nasiriyah used a hospital as a base of operations for their attacks against the coalition (medical personnel and facilities are generally considered neutral in wartime). Other Iraqi fighters used women as shields or fired on American troops from mosques (Muslim places of worship).

The Iraqi strategy seemed to focus on confusing, disrupting, and harassing the coalition forces to delay their march toward Baghdad. Though banned under international law, these tactics allowed even small Iraqi forces to have an impact. They also proved very difficult for the coalition forces to defend against. After all, the coalition was following accepted rules of engagement that were designed to protect civilians (people not involved in a war, including women and children) and their property.

The U.S.-led coalition received another jolt of bad news on March 23 when a U.S. Army supply convoy was captured by Iraqi forces. The convoy apparently took a wrong turn and was ambushed by Fedayeen paramilitary fighters (a group of Iraqi fighters that was intensely loyal to Saddam Hussein) dressed in civilian clothes. Twelve American soldiers were lost in the raid. Five of them later were displayed on Iraqi television as prisoners of war, and most of the rest were killed. U.S. leaders criticized Iraq's decision to show footage of the prisoners, claiming that this violated the Geneva Conventions (a series of international treaties intended to guarantee the humane treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners and the protection of civilians during war). But some Muslim nations pointed out that the U.S. government had refused to grant the protections of the Geneva Conventions to Al Qaeda fighters who were captured in Afghanistan, labeling them terrorists rather than soldiers. (Al Qaeda is a radical Islamic terrorist group responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.)

The two leaders appeal to their forces

On March 25 Hussein issued another statement through Iraqi television, appealing to his people to band together to fight the invaders. "They came to dishonor your land and honor," he stated, as quoted by CNN.com. "Today is your turn to show your pure Arab heritage, your courage fighting on every road and every land." A short time later coalition forces hit the Iraqi television station with a Tomahawk missile. The strike knocked out the TV signal and disrupted Hussein's ability to command and control his forces.

Bush responded to Hussein's statement with a speech at the Pentagon (the headquarters of the U.S. military) in Arlington, Virginia. He criticized Iraq's fighting tactics, praised the coalition's performance, and assured the American people that victory was near. "Our coalition is on a steady advance. We're making good progress," he stated, as quoted by CNN.com.

We're fighting an enemy that knows no rules of law, that will wear civilian uniforms, that are willing to kill in order to continue the reign of fear of Saddam Hussein, but we're fighting them with bravery and courage. We cannot know the duration of this war; yet we know its outcome. We will prevail. The Iraqi regime will be disarmed. The Iraqi regime will be ended. The Iraqi people will be free. And our world will be more secure and peaceful.

Bush also outlined a request for the U.S. Congress to authorize $75 billion in emergency spending to help pay for the war.

In the meantime, the American "wave of steel" advanced to within 60 miles (97 kilometers) of Baghdad. The coalition ground forces engaged in a battle near Najaf in the Euphrates River valley. The fighting took place during a sandstorm (a desert windstorm that blows up huge clouds of sand), which prevented the coalition from calling in air strikes against enemy positions. At the same time, coalition forces began trying to secure areas in both southern and northern Iraq. British forces began fighting for control of the southern city of Basra, while paratroopers (soldiers who descend into a war zone by parachutes) from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Division were dropped into northern Iraq to secure an airfield for coalition use.

Critics question Bush's war plan

On March 28 the American officer in charge of the ground war, General Wallace, gave an interview to the Washington Post. In the article, he discussed the surprising intensity of resistance that coalition forces had encountered. He admitted that the coalition's war plan had not addressed some of the situations his troops had faced. "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd wargamed against, because of these paramilitary forces," he said, as quoted in A Time of Our Choosing by Todd Purdum. "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight." Wallace also expressed his concern that the war might last longer than planners assumed and require additional troops.

When the American media picked up on Wallace's comments, newspapers and television news programs were suddenly full of experts questioning the Bush administration's war plan. Reporters pointed to a number of accidents and problems that had occurred in the early days of the war as examples of the coalition's poor preparation. For example, seven coalition soldiers were killed when two British helicopters collided in midair. A U.S. Patriot missile mistakenly shot down a British Tornado attack plane returning from a mission, killing its pilot and navigator. Members of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division stationed in Kuwait were shocked when one of their own men, a Muslim sergeant with a history of disciplinary problems, threw hand grenades into two tents full of sleeping commanders. Two U.S. officers were killed and fourteen others were wounded in the attack.

Administration officials dismissed the claim that the Iraqi resistance was unexpected and tried to reassure the public that the war was proceeding on schedule. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a group of top military advisors to the president of the United States, consisting of a chairman and the chief of each branch of the armed services), argued that questioning the war plan had a negative effect on troops in the field. "It is not helpful to have those kind of comments come out when we've got troops in combat, because, first of all, they're false, they're absolutely wrong, they bear no resemblance to the truth, and it's just harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously," he stated, as quoted by Online NewsHour.

Overall, most analysts seemed pleased with the coalition's rapid push toward Baghdad. But some experts expressed concern about what the troops might encounter once they reached the Iraqi capital. They expected Baghdad to be guarded by highly trained soldiers from Iraq's Republican Guard (an elite, one-hundred-thousand-man force that was the best-trained and best-equipped part of Iraq's army). They worried that coalition ground troops might face a long and bloody fight to capture the city. Instead of the "cakewalk" that some Bush administration insiders had predicted, they worried that the war might turn into months of costly combat.

As the war entered its second week, a series of incidents raised concerns about its effect on civilians. Heavy air strikes continued to hit Baghdad, especially government targets and Republican Guard units protecting the capital. The coalition reportedly used eight thousand precision-guided missiles during the last twelve days of March. On March 27 Iraqi officials claimed that one of these bombs hit a busy Baghdad market, killing fifteen civilians. American leaders said the market was not a target and blamed Iraqi surface-toair missiles or fallout from antiaircraft guns.

On March 29 an Iraqi suicide bomber killed four U.S. soldiers at a military checkpoint near Najaf. Two days later U.S. soldiers fired into a van that failed to stop at the checkpoint. It turned out that the van was carrying thirteen women and children, seven of whom were killed. A U.S. military spokesman insisted that the American soldiers had followed proper military procedure in the incident. But the episode highlighted the growing conflict between the Iraqi people and the foreign soldiers who were supposedly there to liberate them.