Iraq Invasion (2003)

views updated

Iraq Invasion (2003)

On March 20, 2003, the United States launched an attack on the nation of Iraq. U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) and members of his administration claimed that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) had been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction —massive nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons that can kill or

incapacitate large numbers of people—in violation of the terms of the international agreements formed after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The administration also claimed a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda , the organization responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks .

Shock and awe

The United States was unable to win approval for an invasion of Iraq from the United Nations. Nonetheless, the Bush administration claimed that an invasion was justified by United Nations Resolution 1441, adopted in 2002, which requires complete disclosure of a country's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Without the support of the United Nations, the United States put together a coalition of forces dominated by U.S. and British troops, with limited support from Australia, Denmark, Poland, and other nations, and drew up plans to invade. Some of the United States's traditional allies, including Canada, France, and Germany, refused to participate, arguing that the United Nations had determined that there was no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Worldwide opposition to the invasion was demonstrated in many popular protests between January and April 2003, the largest of which took place on February 15, 2003, when protests in more than eight hundred cities around the world drew between six and ten million people. In spite of these demonstrations of disapproval, the U.S. military assembled 125,000 troops in Kuwait; Britain assembled another 45,000.

On March 17, 2003, the coalition gave Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay forty-eight hours to leave Iraq. On March 20, 2003, coalition forces proceeded to attack, bombing hundreds of targets in Iraq's capital, Baghdad, in Mosul, the second-largest city, and in the southern city of Kirkuk. Their plan was for a “shock and awe” attack—an intense bombing raid accompanied by a ground invasion, intended to overwhelm the Iraqi resistance and bring about the collapse of Hussein's government with a minimum number of casualties. Within three weeks, Iraq's military had collapsed and Hussein and his Ba'ath Party leaders had fled, and U.S. troops took over Baghdad.

Once ground troops entered Iraq, repeated efforts failed to uncover any signs of weapons of mass destruction. Intelligence reports demonstrated there was never a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.


After overthrowing Hussein, the U.S.-led coalition began an occupation of Iraq (control of the country by military forces) in an attempt to stabilize the country while it put together a democratic government. Two months after the invasion, President Bush gave a dramatic “mission accomplished” speech to cheering troops on an aircraft carrier that had just returned from duty in Iraq. The speech declared a U.S. victory in the war, but fighting in Iraq had escalated after the overthrow of Hussein, and there were not enough coalition troops in the nation to stop the violence.


Muslims in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, are divided into two major branches, Sunnis and Shi'a, which differ in their beliefs about the legitimacy of particular religious leaders. Over the years, they also have developed some different religious practices; hostilities between the two branches have at times been intense. Only 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world is Shi'a, but Iraq has a majority (60 percent) Shi'a population. Hussein and his Ba'ath Party officials were members of the Sunni minority, and they led a secular (nonreligious) government in which the Sunni minority ruled over the Shi'a majority.

When Hussein was overthrown, conflict between the Sunnis and Shi'a broke out, and some members of both groups wanted a religious government rather than the secular democracy the United States had envisioned for them. Iraq is further divided by a third group, the Kurds, an ethnic group with origins in Kurdistan, the mountainous area around the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. They inhabit a large territory in northern Iraq and make up about one-fifth of Iraq's population. Most Kurds are Sunni, but some are Shi'a, and there are also Christian and Jewish Kurds. Kurds in Iraq have remained isolated from other Iraqis and were brutally repressed by successive Iraqi governments; they hope to form their own independent nation.

Although there was little indication of an al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the invasion, by 2004 terrorist groups from outside Iraq had moved into the country. A Sunni militant group led by Jordanian Abu Musa al-Zarqawi (1966–2006) pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda in October 2004. This group, which came to be known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for bombings, suicide attacks, kidnappings, and televised beheadings of Iraqis and foreigners. One of their missions was to encourage the fighting between the Sunnis and Shi'a. They believed the chaos resulting from the civil war would prevent the formation of a western-style secular democracy and allow Sunni Muslims to take power.

The Abu Ghraib Scandal

In April 2004, photographs depicting U.S. soldiers' humiliation and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were published in the international media. Prisoners alleged that they had been tortured and assaulted by their guards and by members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the scandal that followed, the U.S.commander of the prison was demoted, and seventeen soldiers were removed from duty; two of them were convicted and imprisoned for their roles in the assaults. Abu Ghraib prison was handed over to the Iraqi government in September 2006.

Building a government

Iraq's economy had been severely damaged by international sanctions imposed on Iraq after 1991's Persian Gulf War. Once the Hussein government was gone, the little economic production that still existed ceased. The conflicts between Shi'a and Sunnis and between religious fundamentalists and secularists grew worse as the economy of Iraq collapsed. With no jobs and few basic services such as electricity, some Iraqis turned to the insurgent (rebel) groups that fought against the temporary Iraqi government and the U.S. troops in Iraq. The insurgents carried out frequent bombings and suicide attacks, many of which targeted the U.S. military or Iraqis who were working with the Americans.

Putting together an Iraqi government that represented the Shi'a, the Sunnis, and the Kurds was extremely difficult. The interests of the three groups were at odds; resentments lingered from Hussein's reign. During a two-year period of squabbling among political leaders, the suicide bombings escalated. Finally, in 2005 the Iraqis held a democratic election, approved a constitution, and elected a government. The United Iraqi Alliance, a Shi'a-dominated coalition of groups backed by a highly influential religious and political leader, the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (1930–), won about half of the votes.

The new government was stationed in the Green Zone of Iraq, the heavily gated and guarded headquarters of the coalition troops in Baghdad. Movement outside the Green Zone became increasingly dangerous. Many Iraqi and American observers noted that the new Iraqi government had little influence in Iraq outside the boundaries of the Green Zone.

In February 2006, the Askariya shrine in Samarra, considered to be the holiest Shi'a temple in Iraq, was bombed. The Shi'a assumed that Sunnis had done the bombing and angrily took to the streets seeking revenge. Within weeks, the U.S. media began to call the war in Iraq a civil war, but the Bush administration resisted that terminology.

A controversial war

Opponents of the Iraq war argued that the Bush administration had long wanted to invade Iraq, and thus had forced intelligence agencies to support their war with false reports of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections. Because the United States had begun the war without a clear mandate from the United Nations, some opponents claimed from the start that the war was illegitimate and perhaps illegal under international law.

After it was clear that there was little or no threat from weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaeda links in pre-invasion Iraq, supporters of the war argued that Saddam Hussein's regime had to be overthrown in order to protect the people of Iraq from their own leader. In addition, the Bush administration argued that the war was a central part of the war on terrorism, and that it was better to fight the terrorists in Iraq than in the United States. Despite some strong antiwar sentiments, support for the war among U.S. citizens remained relatively high for the first two years of fighting—long enough to see Bush win reelection in 2004. However, by 2006, the majority of Americans felt the administration had made a mistake in going to war and had handled the war badly. This public opinion led to the election of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

By mid-October 2007, according to a Cable News Network (CNN) report, coalition deaths in the Iraqi war were as follows: 3,834 Americans, two Australians, 171 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, 1 Czech, 7 Danes, 2 Dutch, 2 Estonians, 1 Fijian, 1 Hungarian, 33 Italians, 1 Kazakh, 1 Korean, 3 Latvians, 21 Poles, 2 Romanians, 5 Salvadorans, 4 Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, 2 Thais, and 18 Ukrainians. About 28,276 U.S. soldiers have been wounded; many of them have lost limbs or received serious brain injuries. Cases of post-traumatic stress, a severe emotional disorder that results from having been in terrifying situations, are very high among the troops.

Figures on Iraqi deaths are less certain. According to the Iraq Body Count project team, there had been between 66,807 and 73,120 Iraqi civilian deaths by the end of June 2007. However, the Lancet medical journal estimated that by October 2006, 654,965 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the war, a figure disputed by the Iraq and U.S. governments and by the United Nations.

The surge

With most Americans hoping for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, in January 2007 President Bush announced a new military strategy—a troop surge sending another twenty thousand U.S. troops to Iraq to fight the sectarian violence and promote security, particularly in Baghdad, starting in February 2007. With more troops in some areas, there were some small areas of peace in the war-torn country. Although protest against the war remained high, at the end of 2007 there were no plans for a U.S. withdrawal.