2003: Postwar Occupation of Iraq Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush boarded the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln that bore a banner, allegedly provided by the White House, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” The war against Iraq, begun on March 19, 2003, officially ended forty-three days later. Up to that moment, no comprehensive exit plan had been formulated.

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush boarded the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln that bore a banner, allegedly provided by the White House, proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” The war against Iraq, begun on March 19, 2003, officially ended forty-three days later. Up to that moment, no comprehensive exit plan had been formulated.

President Bush believed that the Iraqis, liberated from Saddam Hussein’s despotism, would welcome American and allied soldiers as liberators, as the French had welcomed American troops toward the end of World War II. This assumption underestimated the military sophistication, weaponry, nationalism, and xenophobia of an estimated twelve thousand militant Iraqi insurgents who attacked military occupiers and relief workers. In October, 2004, these insurgents abducted Margaret Hassan, a CARE executive, the wife of an Iraqi and holder of dual citizenship, and thirty-year resident of Iraq who had devoted her life to helping Iraqis. The following month, they executed her.

U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue in a Baghdad square on April 9, 2003. Pictures of this symbolic act that were flashed around the world clearly–but falsely–implied that the downfall of the tyrant who had held Iraqis at bay since 1979 was accomplished and that peace was imminent. On December 13, Hussein himself was captured while cowering in a spider-hole near Tikrit, his birthplace.

Meanwhile, in December, 2004, more mass graves were uncovered containing the bodies of Iraqis presmuably slaughtered by Hussein’s followers, several of whom were put on trial in mid-December for their involvement in such atrocities. By the beginning of 2005, Hussein was in custody awaiting trial by his fellow Iraqis, and the cost of the conflict with Iraq had exceeded $100 million–twice the figure originally estimated. Moreover, the conflict still appeared to be far from fully resolved.

The Occupation

In 2002, when a war with Iraq seemed to be coming, the U.S. Army’s Central Command directed by General Tommy Franks prepared an exit plan titled Operation Desert Crossing. The Bush administration disregarded this plan. The Pentagon’s Central Command requested 380,000 troops for the Iraq War. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld considered 40,000 troops sufficient. Congress finally approved 250,000 troops, but only 150,000 were actually deployed.

U.S. Army soldiers move cautiously through a dangerous part of Fallujah during a mission in early November, 2004. (U.S. Department of Defense)

Rumsfeld anticipated the withdrawal of 50,000 troops in June, 2003, another 50,000 in July, and another 50,000 in August. He foresaw transferring day-to-day operation to Iraqis by September, 2003. By January, 2005, however, the 138,000 troops still in Iraq after the formal conclusion of the war had seen their numbers increased to 148,000.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops continued to fight insurgents and discourage dissidents from torching Iraq’s oil fields, whose revenues were earmarked for the nation’s recovery. By late 2004, Iraq was $122 billion in debt. Thirty billion dollars were to be forgiven by several nations including the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. The American conservators overseeing the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues were accused of mismanagement.

Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraq National Conference provided the administration with intelligence about Iraq. Much of this intelligence proved unreliable. Chalabi’s schemes connected with Iraq’s rehabilitation often were detrimental to American interests. The Bush administration eventually considered Chalabi persona non grata.

On June 1, 2004, the Iraq Interim Governing Council, formed following Hussein’s fall, named Iyad Allawi prime minister of Iraq’s interim government and the council was, thereupon, dissolved. Although this Iraqi council chose Allawi, his selection was clearly instigated by the Bush administration, with which he had cooperated. At the same time, Ghazi al-Yawar became interim president.

Iraqi Resistance

U.S. forces approaching Baghdad when the war ended met sustained resistance and ambushes from Iraq’s second largest city, Basra, to Baghdad, 276 miles to the north. On September 8, 2004, the Iraq War claimed the life of its one thousandth American service person. Of those 1,000 casualties, 818 had died after the “mission-accomplished” ceremony aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003. Another 134 American military fatalities occurred during the month of November, 2004, alone.

Insurgents were especially active along the corridor connecting Baghdad’s airport to Baghdad proper, a ten-mile thoroughfare that people flying into the city usually traverse. Mortar and small-arms fire became daily occurrences along this vital artery, which was in constant use by both military personnel and civilians. Although the road seemed too dangerous to travel, it was also too important to close. American and British military personnel, however, were ordered to enter the airport via helicopter, also vulnerable to enemy fire.

Life in Baghdad itself also became extremely dangerous. Protective barriers were erected to surround the “green zone,” the international section of Baghdad, where most embassies and government offices are located. These barriers, however, could not offer total protection against weapons that lobbed explosives into buildings. Throughout Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, no one was safe from mortar attacks, roadside bombs, small-arms fire, and suicide bombers.

Domestic Problems

The war and subsequent occupation of Iraq were devastating for many Iraqis. In some cities, unemployment approached 90 percent. This was not because workers were not needed but because those working for, or cooperating with, coalition forces faced possible execution by insurgents, who slaughtered Iraqis in training to become law enforcement officers and soldiers. The insurgents also blew up their training facilities and held family members as hostages. Job-placement centers in Iraq’s cities were bombed, killing job applicants and office personnel. Nevertheless, on November 24, 2004, a group of 2,500 Iraqis managed to complete military training.

Before and after the war, Sadr City, a Baghdad slum covering about thirteen square miles, was a Shiite stronghold that became a particularly dangerous area. Once named Saddam City, this enclave was renamed to honor Imam Mohammed Sadr, a Shiite religious leader whom Saddam Hussein had had murdered, along with two of his sons. Sadr’s surviving son, thirty-year-old Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric, became Sadr City’s charismatic leader; he was adored by followers who stood ready to support him unconditionally. When American troops arrived, they found that the area’s lavish municipal building that had been erected years earlier at Saddam Hussein’s command, had been stripped of almost everything in it, down to the electrical wiring and water pipes.

In August, 2004, Muqtada solidified his base and increased his influence when Ayatollah Sistani of Najaf, who had brokered a truce that ended two months of fierce fighting in his city, fell ill and sought treatment in England. Muqtada moved in to undo the truce Sistani had achieved in Najaf. Muqtada Sadr’s adherents followed him unquestioningly. Sometimes he cooperated with the American forces but more often openly defied them, creating an inflammatory situation in Sadr City and throughout the so-called Sunni triangle region. He expressed his willingness to become a martyr to drive American occupiers from Iraq.

Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal

In the spring of 2004, it was revealed that Iraqi prisoners confined in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison had been subjected to torture and humiliation in clear violation of the Geneva Convention and any reasonable standards of human rights. Night guards at Abu Ghraib, including Jeremy Sivits, Charles Graner, and Lynndie England, who were later prosecuted, subjected their prisoners to disgraceful humiliations. Numerous photographs and videotapes showed naked male prisoners chained for long periods to walls and furniture in excruciatingly painful positions. They were smeared with feces and, in some cases, forced to engage in homosexual acts with other naked prisoners. Scores of unclothed prisoners were piled upon each other in human pyramids and forced to remain that way for extended periods.

One videotape showed a naked prisoner with a dog collar around his neck held on a leash by a taunting and laughing Lynndie England. Another naked prisoner was chained to the bars of a cell, while a snarling German shepherd guard dog, with its teeth bared, was brought to within an inch or two of him, making him recoil in terror.

It has been speculated that such treatment was first suggested to guards by senior officers as means of extracting information from prisoners. U.S. brigadier general Janice Karpinsky, the prison’s warden, was relieved of her duties when the Abu Ghraib situation came to light. Commanding general Ricardo Sanchez also came under scrutiny. General William Boykin was reproached for publicly describing the war on terrorism as a battle with Satan, who targeted America because it was a Christian nation. Boykin demonized Iraqis, calling his Christian God superior to Islam’s Allah.

U.S. Army policeman watches over detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison compound in May, 2004. The soldier was part of a new group of military policemen trained to replace the soldiers being investigated for prisoner abuse. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Punishment was meted out to some members of the night guard detail at Abu Ghraib shown in the videotape. However, questions remained about how high in the chain of command responsibility reached. It was charged that high officials ignored the scandal as it unfolded.

Battle of Fallujah

In the summer of 2004, it became clear that Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold thirty-five miles west of Baghdad, was a stronghold for fanatical insurgents. Home to 300,000 Iraqis, Fallujah is an ancient city honeycombed with narrow streets. Its buildings are jammed together, creating the most dangerous environment possible for armed conflict, in which its confines force person-to-person combat.

In October, 2004, the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he would work with the mujahideen in Fallujah. Several prominent insurgents were hiding there. Chief among them was Jamil Sidqi al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi fugitive wanted for his role in beheading hostages, including several Americans, abducted and marked for death if their countries refused to withdraw from Iraq by stipulated deadlines.

During the week of November 8, 2004, the attack began on Fallujah, where an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 armed insurgents were thought to be hiding in its more than 50,000 buildings. Although many of the most influential insurgents, including al-Zarqawi, had already fled, most remained in the city, whose mosques were used to store weapons and provide sanctuary for insurgents. Americans enraged Iraqis by invading their mosques. They had little choice, however, because at least half the city’s 130 mosques were being used to store armaments and hide snipers.

To deal with the situation, some 10,000 American soldiers and marines, accompanied by about 2,000 Iraqis, trained by the Americans in law enforcement, were deployed to attack the city. However, many Iraqi security officers quickly abandoned the Americans and joined the insurgents, who threatened death for them and their families if they supported American or coalition forces. Twenty-two newly commissioned Iraqi security officers in Haditha were ambushed at a checkpoint by insurgents disguised as police and were murdered in a mass execution. Similar actions occurred elsewhere in Iraq. Many police stations were bombed or torched. Under these dangerous conditions, it became difficult to recruit Iraqis into local security forces.

Fighting in Fallujah was almost continuous. Some troops fought for forty-eight hours without sleep and ate only the dry rations they carried with them. About 50 Americans were killed in the first days of the offensive, which claimed an estimated 1,000 insurgents.


In late 2004, analysts contended that having successful general elections in January, as Iraq’s first tentative step toward establishing democracy, would depend upon containing insurgency. The Sunnis and some Kurds, each constituting about 20 percent of Iraq’s Muslim population, urged postponement for at least six months. However, The Shi’ites, with their 60-percent majority, pressed for holding the elections on the scheduled date, which the Bush administration supported.

Taking Fallujah did not end insurgent activity, much of which later erupted in Mosul, Ramadi, and Samara. Insurgents threatened to kill political candidates and any Iraqis who registered to vote and carried out their threats with assassinations and devastating bombings in public places. Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis–both at home and abroad–registered to vote.

On January 30, 2005, approximately 8.5 million of the 14 million Iraqis eligible to vote turned out at more than five thousand polling centers throughout Iraq to cast ballots in a nationwide election for an interim national assembly. Under the protection of 100,000 police officers and 60,000 U.S. and Iraqi national guard troops, they elected 275 delegates from a field of 7,700 candidates. Official election results were announced on February 13: Shi’ite candidates of the United Iraqi Alliance won 48 percent of the total vote, and the Kurdish alliance won 25.6 percent. Interim prime minister Aya Allawi’s “Iraqi List” candidates won 13.8 percent. Women voted for the first time in Iraqi history, and women candidates won about 30 percent of the contested seats. The immediate mission of the new assembly was to draft a new constitution on which the nation was to vote in December, 2005.

Although the January, 2005, election was generally acclaimed as a success, the level of violence in Iraq did not abate, and political assassinations and public bombings continued. On February 28, more than 100 people were killed by a car bomb in the southern Baghdad suburb of Hilla in the worst such incident since the formal conclusion of the war nearly two years earlier. Attacks on coalition troops also continued. In March, the death toll of U.S. troops topped 1,500, and the total for all coalition troops reached 1,700.

Categories: History