2003: Iraq War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Iraq War of 2003 was the second time that a U.S.-led coalition confronted the armed forces of Saddam Hussein. After Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council of the United Nations (U.N.) authorized member nations to force Iraq out of Kuwait. In the resulting Gulf War of 1991, the coalition of some two dozen countries easily accomplished that mission. At the time Kuwait was liberated, some observers argued that coalition forces should march into Baghdad in order to force a change in the Iraqi regime. President George Bush, however, refused to pursue such a policy, which had never been endorsed by the United Nations.

The Iraq War of 2003 was the second time that a U.S.-led coalition confronted the armed forces of Saddam Hussein. After Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council of the United Nations (U.N.) authorized member nations to force Iraq out of Kuwait. In the resulting Gulf War of 1991, the coalition of some two dozen countries easily accomplished that mission. At the time Kuwait was liberated, some observers argued that coalition forces should march into Baghdad in order to force a change in the Iraqi regime. President George Bush, however, refused to pursue such a policy, which had never been endorsed by the United Nations.

In the ensuing cease-fire agreement, Hussein agreed to destroy all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which included biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Because of his non-compliance, however, the United Nations applied economic sanctions that resulted in painful shortages of food and medical supplies. In December, 1998, after Hussein rejected requests for U.N. investigations of numerous sites for possible WMD, President Bill Clinton ordered that the sites be bombed. In December, 1999, following much diplomatic controversy, Hussein refused to allow U.N. inspectors to enter his country.

After George W. Bush became president in January, 2001, he and his advisers believed that Hussein posed a threat to American interests. Although Bush often referred to the tyrannical abuses of the Iraqi regime, he emphasized Hussein’s expansionist goals combined with his development of WMD. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush assumed that Hussein had been affiliated with the Islamic militants responsible for the attacks. In his state of the union address of January, 2002, Bush referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “an axis of evil.” Addressing the United Nations in September, Bush warned that the United Nations would become irrelevant if it failed to enforce its resolutions. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Congress authorized Bush to use force against Hussein’s regime. In November, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1441, demanding that U.N. inspectors be given unrestricted access to visit any sites at their discretion.

Diplomatic Disarmament Crisis

Faced with the prospect of another war, Hussein finally allowed Hans Blix and his team of weapons inspectors to enter Iraq. Hussein’s government provided the inspectors documentation asserting that the country had destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction. Blix, however, complained about continued limitations on the work of the inspectors. U.S. officials charged that Iraq was in “material breach” and demanded full and immediate compliance. In March, Hussein tried to gain support by recognizing the sovereignty of Kuwait. The Arab leaders at a summit meeting expressed firm opposition to military action against Iraq and called for an end to sanctions.

In his state of the union address in January, 2003, Bush claimed that the Iraqi government was attempting to purchase uranium in Africa in order to develop nuclear weapons (an allegation later found to be mistaken). Bush asked the Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing war on the grounds that Iraq continued to develop illegal WMD. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a long speech at the Security Council, presenting a combination of evidence and allegations collected by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Hans Blix and his team, however, were skeptical about the U.S. allegations and asked for additional time for the investigations to continue.

At the Security Council, Bush’s proposed resolution met strong opposition. While the British government firmly supported the resolution, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and China voiced strong disagreement. Opponents to the U.S. plan argued that there was insufficient evidence of “an imminent threat” to justify going to war. President Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair, in contrast, insisted on the need to take preemptive action to eliminate a developing threat. Although Bush and Blair were unable to get the resolution passed, they put together a so-called “coalition of the willing,” which included the limited participation of Spain, Poland, Australia, Japan, and more than twenty other countries.

Officials of the Bush administration spoke optimistically about the prospects for a rapid military victory and for a postwar reconstruction of Iraq. They confidently asserted that Iraq’s Shia Muslims would rebel against Hussein’s regime as soon as an invasion began. Secretary Rumsfeld even suggested that American forces would be greeted by Iraqis dancing in the streets. His deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz assured a Senate committee that the Iraqis, given their huge oil reserves, would be able to pay for the reconstruction of the country with little or no help from American taxpayers. Moreover, President Bush argued that the establishment of a democratic Iraq would become a model for the Middle East.

Meanwhile, despite the prospects of an imminent U.S.-led invasion, Saddam Hussein maintained a defiant posture. In an interview with CBSTV anchorman Dan Rather on February 24, he insisted that his country did not possess any illegal weapons. He declared that he would continue to “maintain the honor of nationalism and pan-Arabism.” He further said that he would not seek asylum in another country and that he was prepared to die in Iraq for his principles.

Outbreak of Hostilities

During the weekend of March 15–16, Bush and Blair met in the Azores Islands for an “emergency summit.” The two leaders agreed that Hussein had no intention of complying with U.N. resolution 1441. The next day, Bush demanded in a nationally televised speech that Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, must leave Iraq within forty-eight hours or face the consequences. Bush explained that his purpose was “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and defend the world from grave danger.”

When the deadline expired on March 19, 2003, President Bush issued an order to begin firing tomahawk cruise missiles and guided bombs at military targets in Baghdad and other targets within Iraq. He also ordered U.S. forces in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to launch an attack on Iraq the next day. Under the code name Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invading forces included 250,000 U.S. combat troops, joined by 50,000 British, 2,000 Australian, and 200 Polish troops. Other coalition nations contributed only token numbers of soldiers.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who supervised the military strategy of the war, emphasized the intensive use of missiles and bombs, with as few troops on the ground as possible. The massive attacks from the air, called a “shock and awe” campaign, did great damage to Iraqi cities, with limited damage to populated areas. From both the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. launched guided missile cruisers that struck specific targets throughout Iraq. The Air Force dropped “bunker busters,” enormous bombs that weighted 4,700 pounds each. Officials said that they were conducting a “decapitation attack” directed at Saddam Hussein.

Despite angry protests in most U.S. cities, the majority of Americans initially supported the military operations against Iraq. In addition to fears of WMD, Americans tended to assume that the Iraqi government had been an ally of radical Islamic terrorists and appeared to think that Hussein’s domestic violations of human rights provided added justification for the use of force. In many parts of the world, however, the U.S. attack on Iraq brought forth waves of anti-Americanism, particularly in Arab countries and in Western Europe, Canada, and the Soviet Union. The large number of protests reflected a widespread distrust of American power. Numerous protesters alleged that the Bush administration was attempting to take control of oil in the Middle East.

The Push to Baghdad

On March 20, the land invasion began from Iraq’s border in Kuwait. Plans for an invasion from the north were canceled when Turkey refused the use of its territory. American and British forces quickly took control of the airfields in southwestern Iraq, and they also seized the port city of Umm Qasar on the Persian Gulf. The fighting was brutal in many places. Near the city of An Nasariyah, enemy forces ambushed a supply convoy, which caused many U.S. soldiers to go missing in action. Nevertheless, on March 24, the commander of the invasion, General Tommy Franks, announced that coalition soldiers were only sixty miles from Baghdad, although he acknowledged that casualties were increasing. As U.S. marines fought in the streets of An Nasariyah, British forces shelled Al Basrah, the second largest city of the country.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after his capture in Tikrit by coalition troops in December, 2003. The pictures show him with the beard he had when he was captured and his appearance after being shaved. (AP/Wide World Photos)

On March 25, large numbers of U.S. soldiers crossed the Euphrates River by way of the An Nasariyah bridges. They then began to drive northward to Baghdad, located on the Tigris River. By then, the allied supply line stretched from the Persian Gulf to the city of Karbala, only fifty miles southwest of Baghdad. However, the push northward was slower than U.S. military planners had hoped it would be. Aided by blinding sandstorms, Iraqi troops ambushed and harassed the heavily armed column. The resistance was especially fierce in the region between An Najaf and Karbala, where U.S. troops confronted both regular Iraq soldiers and the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary group that answered directly to Uday Hussein, the oldest son of the dictator. As U.S. forces began to battle the Republican Guard near Baghdad, British troops fought more than a thousand loyalists in the streets of Al Basarah.

Second Front

On March 27, the U.S. military opened a second front in northern Iraq, where the coalition could count on the support of more than 50,000 Kurdish guerrilla fighters. About a thousand parachuters of the 173rd Airborne Brigade landed northeast of Arbil and joined forces with Kurdish fighters. After four days of heavy air strikes in the region, the Iraqi army abandoned the town of Chamchamal, which was northwest of Kirkuk, a city with many loyal supporters of Hussein’s Baath Party. Kurdish guerrillas quickly moved into Chamchamal, providing coalition troops with a forward position for attacking Kirkuk.

Resistance to the allied advance northward toward Baghdad was beginning to crumble. On April 2, U.S. Marines defeated Republican Guard forces at Al Kut, a strategic city on the Tigris River one hundred miles southeast of Baghdad. About the same time, the U.S. Army took control of a bridge over the Euphrates at Al Musayyib, thirty miles south of the capital. The next day, the Army’s Third Infantry Division seized the Saddam International Airport, located only twelve miles from the capital. Meanwhile, U.S. aircraft conducted about one thousand bombing missions in the regions, most of them aimed at Republican Guard stations.

By April 4, allied forces were advancing rapidly toward Baghdad in three columns–from the south, the southwest, and the southeast. As the conquest of the city appeared inevitable, thousands of its residents attempted to flee in bumper-to-bumper traffic. About 2,500 Republican Guard soldiers surrendered to coalition forces south of Baghdad. Also on April 4, the British Seventh Armored Brigade, called the Desert Rats, entered the center of Al Basrah with thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks. The Shia Muslims of the city enthusiastically greeted the British as liberators.

In the Shia holy city of Karbala, U.S. forces defeated Fedayeen Saddam fighters after a five-day battle that ended on April 6. As the Americans occupied the city, a crowd of 10,000 residents, mostly Shia Muslims who hated Hussein, celebrated in the city’s public square. Shouting “Saddam is no more,” they pulled down a statue of the dictator. To the American public, the progress of the war appeared to be following the optimistic predictions of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and other officials.

Victory in Iraq

U.S. forces pushed into the capital city and occupied a major presidential palace along with other important buildings on April 7. As the Third Infantry Division, supported by air strikes, entered central Baghdad with some seventy tanks and sixty Bradley fighting vehicles, it faced only scattered pockets of resistance. That same day, U.S. intelligence agents reported that Hussein and his two sons were probably located in a private house in an affluent neighborhood of the city. B-1 bombers destroyed the house with four bombs of 2,000 pounds each. However, the dictator and his sons were not present.

The next day, about five hundred of Hussein’s loyal soldiers crossed the Tigris and moved into Baghdad to launch a counteroffensive. The U.S. infantry responded with artillery fire, while A-10 attack planes strafed the Iraqi soldiers. The counteroffensive was a complete failure. By April 9, coalition forces had control of the eastern sector of the city. U.S. soldiers were generally greeted with cheering crowds. The Shia Muslims of southeastern neighborhoods were particularly enthusiastic about the fall of the regime. In Firdos Square, U.S. troops helped Iraqi civilians topple an enormous statue of Hussein. The Iraqis then dragged the head of the statue through the streets of the city, while onlookers spat at it and yelled insults at Hussein’s memory.

By April 11, Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces had conquered the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Two days later, U.S. Marines entered Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the last remaining city not controlled by the allies. By that date, only 115 U.S. military troops had died in combat. The rapid conclusion of the war and the low rate of casualties delighted the American public. Bush’s approval rating soared to 73 percent, which had risen almost 20 percent higher than it had been in polls taken before the war. While visiting the USS Abraham Lincoln near San Diego on May 1, President Bush announced that the military phase of the war was essentially over. He described the victory as a battle in “a war on terrorism,” necessary to keep WMD out of the hands of such terrorists.

Growing Violence Under the Occupation

Attempts to pacify and reconstruct Iraq turned out to be much more difficult than overthrowing the Hussein regime. The collapse of Iraq’s government and army left most of the country without any civil authority. In Baghdad and elsewhere, looters stripped almost everything of value from public buildings, including hospitals and electrical power plants. They even ransacked the National Museum of Iraq, stealing some twelve thousand objects. At the same time, sabotage of oil wells, pipelines, and refineries almost produced a temporary standstill of the country’s oil industry. Even though Iraq possessed the second largest oil reserves in the world, it was forced to import gasoline in May.

Critics charged that Bush’s postwar reconstruction polices contained three major mistakes: an underestimation of the potential for postwar violence, the sending of too few U.S. soldiers to the war, and the premature disbanding of the Iraqi army. Much of the criticism was directed at Secretary Rumsfeld, who had insisted on keeping the number of soldiers as small as possible. By May 1, the number of troops in Iraq had been reduced to about 160,000–a number that proved inadequate for the multifaceted tasks of hunting for members of Hussein’s regime and guerrilla fighters, while also restraining ethnic conflict and trying to maintain public order. Criticism was also directed toward the civilian head of the occupation, Paul Bremer III, who had insisted on disbanding the Iraqi army, with the result of casting loose many thousands of armed men who had no way of legally supporting themselves and their families.

As the majority of Iraq’s population failed to see tangible improvements in their daily lives, large numbers of Iraqis blamed the United States for their deplorable conditions. Over the next two years, guerrilla attacks on coalition soldiers grew more frequent and more deadly. Militant insurgents also targeted Iraqis who cooperated with the U.S.-led occupation. Car bombings became increasingly common. By August of 2003, some officials of the Department of Defense were classifying the insurgency as a classic guerrilla war. Between May 1 and October 28, 116 U.S. soldiers died in hostile action. Within a year, the number of American deaths would grow to almost one thousand.

Continuing Controversy About the War

As a rationale for waging the preemptive war, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair had relied almost entirely on the potential threat from Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. After the war, the failure to find any such weapons in Iraq was embarrassing to both leaders–especially to Blair, because of the extreme antipathy for the conflict in Great Britain. Eventually the lack of evidence for WMD forced the Bush administration to admit that it had relied on inadequate information. When Bush continued to try to link Saddam Hussein with international terrorism, critics forced him to concede that the evidence was speculative and uncertain. The Bush administration increasingly defended the war by calling attention to the dictatorial nature of Hussein’s regime.

American disillusionment with the war increased as the public learned about its mounting costs. In September, 2003, Bush had to ask Congress for an additional $87 billion. Some respected economists predicted that the combination of war and reconstruction programs would eventually cost U.S. taxpayers more than $200 billion. Even with this expense, the establishment of a democratic and stable Iraq appeared elusive.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration insisted that there were many positive developments. On October 16, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution endorsing the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Later that month, seventy-seven countries meeting in Madrid pledged about $33 billion for the pacification and economic rebuilding of the country. In Iraq, most top leaders of Hussein’s government, including his two hated sons, Uday and Qusay, were either captured or killed. Hussein himself was finally captured on December 13, 2003. A provisional government was organized in early 2004, and multiparty elections were held in January, 2005.

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