Warfare in Iraq Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although conflict between Iraq and the United States and its allies did not begin until 1990, in order to understand the political situation that led to the conflict, it is necessary to start with a review of U.S.-Iraqi relations from 1980 to 1990.

Political Considerations

Although conflict between Iraq and the United States and its allies did not begin until 1990, in order to understand the political situation that led to the conflict, it is necessary to start with a review of U.S.-Iraqi relations from 1980 to 1990. In 1979, a group of Islamist Iranian revolutionaries occupied the American embassy, taking fifty-three Americans Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1980)Hostages;Iranhostage as a protest against U.S. support of the regime of Iranian Revolution (1979-1980)Mohammad Reza Shah PahlaviMohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In this pivotal episode in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, the hostages were held for more than a year, through a failed U.S. rescue attempt, and released only after the intervention of Algeria just as President Reagan, RonaldReagan, RonaldRonald Reagan took office. As the Iranian hostage crisis wore on into 1980, American and Saudi leaders looked for a bulwark against the spread of Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. The most likely candidate seemed to be Iraq, led by President Hussein, SaddamHussein, SaddamSaddam Hussein. Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War]More than willing to invade Iran, Hussein quickly became an ally of the West, keeping both Iran and his own nation mired in an eight-year-long war of attrition.IraqIraq

By the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, however, Hussein was embittered toward the Arab and American leaders, who he felt had led him into a self-defeating conflict. Additionally, he was particularly angry at Kuwait invasion (1990)Kuwait, his neighbor to the south, which he accused of slant drilling across the border into Iraqi oil fields and, at the same time, refusing to extend credit to Hussein’s regime. U.S. ambassador Glaspie, AprilGlaspie, AprilApril Glaspie’s ambiguous response to Hussein’s explanation of his frustration with Kuwait gave Hussein the impression that the United States would not oppose his planned invasion. He could not have been more wrong.

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces crossed the border into Kuwait, easily seizing control of the small nation. Within less than a week, the United States, led by President Bush, George H. W.Bush, George H. W.George H. W. Bush (the first Bush presidency), began Operation Desert Shield (1990)Gulf War (1990-1991)Operation Desert Shield, massing troops in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to prevent a further Iraqi invasion. The United Nations Security Council condemned Iraq’s invasion, giving the American buildup international backing. By November, the U.N. Security Council had voted to place a deadline of January 15, 1991, on Iraq to remove all troops from Kuwait. After waiting one extra day, American forces, along with those of other allied countries, began the softening of Iraqi forces through a massive bombing campaign, and on February 24, 1991, Operation Desert Storm (1991)Operation Desert Storm began when coalition ground forces engaged the Iraqis, beginning an extended period of conflict.

Military Achievement

By the time Operation Desert Storm began, the United States was engaged in a Terrorism;1980’sWar on Terror“War on Terror,” even though it was not yet called that. Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1980)The holding of the fifty-three American hostages for 444 days in the U.S. embassy in Iran had turned the Middle East from a troubled but far-off region to a clear and present danger in the American mind. The 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut bombings (1983)Beirut, Lebanon, and, later that same year in the same city, the deaths of 241 Marines in another bombing only intensified fears. Terrorist attacks, such as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, continued throughout the decade. These attacks were directed against the West and nationals from Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who were friendly with the West. When Hussein’s attitudes toward the West changed during the late 1980’s, he quickly went from being a friend of the United States to becoming an enemy, and he was consequently painted with the same brush as terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the recently established Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda]al-Qaeda.

The stated primary goal of American actions in the Persian Gulf War (1991), the interwar period, and the Iraq War (beg. 2003)Iraq War (beginning in 2003), was to limit Iraqi participation in the terrorists’ Jihad (holy war)jihad, or holy struggle, against the West, particularly the United States, Israel, and America’s Arab allies. The immediate goal of the Persian Gulf War, as most of the American public understood it, was the removal of Hussein as a threat. However, the United Nations’ mandate was only for the reestablishment of the status quo, that is, the removal of Iraq from Kuwait. By that limited definition of the Persian Gulf War’s aim, the war was a success. However, if the Persian Gulf War is viewed as one incident in a larger War on Terror, with the longer-term goal of removing Hussein as a threat, the Persian Gulf War was a dismal failure, a failure that would haunt the rest of the first Bush presidency and impact the way his son, Bush, George W.Bush, George W. George W. Bush, would view the region during the second Bush presidency (2001-2009). As a part of the agreement that ended the Persian Gulf War, Hussein agreed to the presence of U.N. weapons inspectors and an American patrolled No-fly zones (Iraq)[No fly zones] “no-fly zone” over much of Iraq. These measures placed the United States and the United Nations in Iraq for the long term, which only exacerbated anti-Western feeling both in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Gulf War, 1991

For much of the interwar period, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq conducted no-notice inspections on sites throughout Iraq, uncovering clandestine programs to create Weapons of mass destruction;Iraqweapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Though sporadic incidents of airborne conflict continued throughout the 1990’s, it was not until after the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, and the second Bush presidency that Iraq once again came to be seen as a primary threat in the War on Terror. Although the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) repeatedly asserted that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the terrorist group headed by Osama Bin Laden that carried out the 9/11 attacks, the American people wanted someone to pay for the thousands of Americans who had died, and Iraq was a convenient and immediate target. Those who opposed the war speculated that the second conflict, known as the Iraq War (beg. 2003)Iraq War, or Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003)Operation Iraqi Freedom, was more about finishing the job begun by the first President Bush and protecting American oil interests than actually fighting against world terrorism. The final assessment of the achievement of goals will have to wait until years after the Iraq War concludes, but members of the second Bush administration, notably Vice President Cheney, DickCheney, DickDick Cheney, have repeatedly asserted that the Iraq War, and the larger War on Terror, have been successes, as evidenced by the fact that there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil after 9/11.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

As warfare in Iraq has extended for twenty years, the number of different weapons used by Iraqi and coalition forces is vast and has evolved over the course of the conflict. However, two generalizations are possible. First, the Iraqi military, though the fourth largest standing army in the world in 1991, was using relatively outdated Soviet military hardware. Second, and this flows from the first, the United States and its allies enjoyed overwhelming superiority in terms of both the number and quality of its weapons.

Listing the staples of Iraqi weaponry is relatively simple. The main infantry rifle was the Soviet-made AK-47 rifle[AK forty seven rifle]AK-47. The primary Tanks;T-72T-72 tank[T seventy two tank]tank fielded was the Soviet T-72, which was introduced in 1974. Though vastly outnumbered by American air forces, the Air forces;IraqiIraqi Air ForceIraqi Air Force utilized a number of Soviet aircraft, including the MiG fighter planesMiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, and MiG-29. However, the best-known Iraqi weapon of the Persian Gulf War has to be the SS-1 Missiles;ScudsScud missilesScud missile. Though few in number and relatively inaccurate, these Scuds were used by the Iraqis to strike terror into Israeli and Saudi civilians, by firing a few missiles during the conflict, resulting in about thirty deaths. At the end of the first conflict, the weaponry allowed to what remained of the Iraqi military was severely curtailed. Almost all of the Scuds were destroyed, and the Iraqi Air Force basically ceased to exist. Therefore, by the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, the Iraqi military was at an even greater disadvantage, while the American forces were even better equipped.

Although the coalition forces fielded a much wider variety of weapons, their workhorses are also easily listed. The infantry rifle used was the M16A2 semiautomatic rifle. The main battle tanks of the conflicts were the M1 and M1A1 Tanks;AbramsAbrams tanksAbrams tanks, though the venerable M60 Patton also saw action. In the air, the F-14, F-15, F-15E, F-16, and F/A-18S Fighter planes;Iraq Warfighters saw heavy action in the first conflict, being joined by the F-117 fighter plane[F 117 fighter plane]F-117 Stealth fighter planeStealth fighter during the second. The Missiles;PatriotsMissiles;TomahawksPatriot missilesPatriot and Tomahawk missilesTomahawk missiles were the weapons that struck fear into Iraqi civilians, as the Scuds did for the Saudis and Israelis. Among the vast numbers of weapons wielded by the West that the Iraqis did not have were the strategic bombers, including the B-52 bomber[B 52 bomber]B-52, B-1B, and B-2 bomber[B 02 bomber]B-2 Stealth bombers. The might of the U.S. Navy stood unchallenged by the few small Iraqi patrol boats.

Military Organization

During the Persian Gulf War, the command of the coalition forces was divided between the Western armies, under the leadership of U.S. general Schwarzkopf, H. NormanSchwarzkopf, H. NormanNorman Schwarzkopf, and allied Arab nations’ forces, under the leadership of Saudi general Bin Sultan, KhaledBin Sultan, KhaledKhaled Bin Sultan. This division was seen as necessary to avoid the perception that the offensive into Iraq was a case of a Western nation invading and occupying an Arab nation. The two separate commands coordinated very closely–thanks to the efforts of the Coalition Coordination, Communications, and Integration Center–and no problems arose because of the division. It was clear to all that Schwarzkopf had the final word. The Iraqis operated under a unified command structure with approval from Baghdad necessary for nearly every military action. The practical ramifications of this were that when the United States began its bombing missions in anticipation of the invasion, the centers of authority for the Iraqi military were primary targets, which were hit with regularity. The ensuing confusion played directly into the coalition’s hands. Although the Iraqi military was said to have been the fourth largest standing army in the world, it was an army that had recently finished a grueling eight-year war with its neighbor, Iran. Although it fielded sixty divisions, many units were undermanned and many commanders were inexperienced, due to Hussein’s purges of military leaders. What did concern coalition leaders were the elite Republican Guard (Iraq)Republican Guard and other special forces units, who were battle-hardened.

M-1A1 Abrams tank in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

(Army Times Publishing Co.)

The end of the Persian Gulf War, however, was not the end of conflict. The cease-fire agreement that ended the war called for Iraq to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to enforce a ban on offensive weapons systems and allowed the coalition air forces (those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) to enforce so-called No-fly zones (Iraq)[No fly zones]no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. Although defeated in the Persian Gulf War, Iraq bristled under the restrictions and actively engaged coalition air forces with antiaircraft weapons. This situation continued, and began to intensify, in the months following the 9/11 attacks, eventually seeing Hussein expel U.N. weapons inspectors from the country.

The coalition put together for the Iraq War was much smaller than the broad, multination, U.N.-based coalition during the Persian Gulf War. Essentially consisting of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, American primacy in the prosecution of the war was even more complete. General Franks, Tommy R.Franks, Tommy R.Tommy Franks, as head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the unified American command in charge of American interests in the countries of the Middle East, was the supreme commander as the United States invaded Iraq once again. If the command structure of the Iraqi military had been centralized during the Persian Gulf War, it was even more concentrated during the Iraq War. All Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units reported directly to Hussein and his son Hussein, QusayHussein, QusayQusay. All key military posts were given to hand-picked, dedicated supporters of Hussein, so it is not a stretch to say that he exercised complete and nearly direct control over all military units in Iraq. Hussein’s loyalists manned all four Air Command Sector Operations Centers, which were set up to coordinate defense on a regional level.

Just as in the Persian Gulf War, the aerial bombardment of Iraq was effective, this time even more so as the technology behind the smart bombs had evolved dramatically during the twelve years between the conflicts. Though Iraq fielded a larger army and more tanks than did the coalition, Iraqi tanks were even more outdated and their army much more poorly trained and led. In addition, the superiority of American air forces was complete.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

A Tactics;IraqStrategies;Iraqsimple way of looking at the guiding Foreign policy;U.S.doctrines of the three phases of the conflict is to look at the presidents who were commanders in chief at those times. President Bush, George H. W.Bush, George H. W.George H. W. Bush oversaw the Persian Gulf War, and his working with a large coalition to enforce a U.N. mandate fit with his overall way of pursuing foreign policy. President Clinton, William J.Clinton, William J.William J. Clinton governed during most of the interwar period, and his use of the No-fly zones (Iraq)[No fly zones]no-fly zone rules and food-for-oil programs fits with his ideas of using less direct means of increasing diplomatic pressure on Saddam Hussein. Bush, George W.Bush, George W.George W. Bush became president about eight months before 9/11, and his Bush DoctrineBush Doctrine of Preemptive warfare;U.S.preemptive war guided the American buildup to and prosecution of the Iraq War.

The Western powers believed that the doctrine guiding Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait invasion (1990)Kuwait was a desire to dominate the Oil;conflicts overoil supply in the Persian Gulf. This, then, raised fears of a further invasion of Saudi Arabia, one of the nations Hussein blamed for goading him into the Iran-Iraq War. Further, by opposing the United States, Israel’s most important ally, he hoped to take a leadership position in the Arab world. The U.S. doctrine going into the Persian Gulf War was simple. President Bush hoped to liberate Kuwait in fulfillment of the United Nations’ mandate, defend the world’s oil supply, and emasculate the Iraqi military’s capabilities and pursuit of WMDs.

Whereas Iraq followed the strategy of an entrenched, defensive war, the coalition followed the strategy set out in the Army AirLand Battle DoctrineAirLand Battle Doctrine. This set out the idea that gaining and maintaining total air superiority and overwhelming, but carefully targeted, bombing were the keys to success. Hussein, for his part, did not believe that the bombing campaign would weaken his defenses significantly, and he did believe that the U.S. strategy would mean a long, costly land war, which he could either win or force into a stalemate. However, what he was not prepared for was a new generation of weapons that allowed the coalition forces to target military installations precisely and hit them with massive force. As former Air Force chief of staff Dugan, MichaelDugan, MichaelMichael Dugan said: “Technology has caught up with doctrine.”

Sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego on May 2, 2003, announcing “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The war would actually continue for several more years.

(U.S. Navy)

During the interwar period, the U.S. strategy on the militarily diminished but not destroyed Iraq rested on two ideas: economic sanctions and the No-fly zones (Iraq)[No fly zones]no-fly zones. President Clinton’s goal was to diminish Hussein’s influence in the region through diplomatic means and the threat of military force. Iraq was allowed to Food-for-oil program (Iraq)[Food for oil program]sell oil only to buy food, which was used as a means of keeping Iraq from recovering economically. As effective as that might have been, it was not the military in Iraq that suffered but the people. Hussein was able to rebuild his military capability, though not to the level he had in 1990. The army was approximately 40 percent smaller. The same tanks he had in 1990 were fewer in number and twelve years older. His air force was practically nonexistent.

As War on Terror;and Iraq[Iraq]George W. Bush took office in 2001, Iraq already occupied a prominent place on his agenda. Though Iraq was diminished, the Bush administration feared that Hussein was succeeding in acquiring weapons of mass destruction that could be launched against Saudi Arabia or, worse yet, Israel. When the 9/11 attacks happened, Bush administration officials immediately attached their agenda on Iraq to the newly declared War on Terror. Though there was no evidence that Iraq played any role in fomenting or supporting the attacks, Vice President Cheney, DickCheney, DickCheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, DonaldRumsfeld, DonaldDonald Rumsfeld led a massive public opinion campaign to transform the resurgence in patriotism spurred by 9/11 into support for a war in Iraq. Ignoring world opinion and leading a small coalition consisting of only America’s closest allies, U.S. forces under the command of General Tommy Franks quickly defeated the Iraqi army, leading Bush to declare, infamously, “Mission accomplished.”

Of course, the mission was not accomplished but was just beginning, as the Iraq War went from a conflict between the American and Iraqi military forces to a long, bloody insurgent war, much more reminiscent of Vietnam than any other conflict in which the United States had engaged since. As the war became increasingly unpopular with the American public, a new Surge strategy (Iraq)strategy known as the “surge” was implemented in January, 2007, serendipitously coinciding with what would become known as the Anbar AwakeningAnbar Awakening: a Sunni revival movement that sought to expose Shia insurgents. An additional 29,000 American troops were deployed, mostly in Baghdad, and violence declined, although American public opinion remained strongly opposed to the war, as the presidential election of 2008 demonstrated.

Antiwar feeling certainly contributed to Obama, BarackObama, BarackBarack Obama’s victory, as he promised to bring the troops home within eighteen months. However, even before he took office, the Bush administration began to draw back the number of troops in Iraq, in many cases redirecting them to the growing conflict in Afghanistan. Once in office, President Obama followed through on his campaign promise, implementing strategies designed to transfer responsibility for maintaining order in Iraq to the Iraqi military and police forces.

Contemporary Sources

Over the course of the interwar years, many of the policy makers and commanders during the Persian Gulf War wrote memoirs. A number of memoirs by the chief policy makers during the first Bush administration are among them, including Secretary of State Baker, James A., IIIBaker, James A., IIIJames A. Baker III’s The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989-92 (New York: Putnam, 1995) and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Powell, ColinPowell, Colin Colin Powell’s My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995). Both the Western and Arab commanders during the conflict have written as well: Schwarzkopf, H. NormanSchwarzkopf, H. Norman H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s It Doesn’t Take a Hero (New York: Bantam, 1992) and Bin Sultan, KhaledBin Sultan, Khaled Khaled Bin Sultan’s Desert Warrior (New York: HarperCollins, 1995). Numerous assessments of the Persian Gulf War have also been published, including the House Armed Services Committee’s Defense for a New Era: Lessons of the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992). A good memoir of the interwar period was written by Blix, HansBlix, Hans Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq: Disarming Iraq (New York: Pantheon, 2004). Over the course of both conflicts, numerous soldiers wrote accounts of their time in Iraq, and embedded journalists during the Iraq War also wrote extensively. There are not as many “insider” memoirs on the Iraq War, as the conflict is ongoing, though some hearings have proven fruitful for firsthand opinions about the conflict. A prime example is a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with the American commander Franks, Tommy R.Franks, Tommy R. Tommy R. Franks and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, entitled “Lessons Learned” During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Ongoing Operations in the United States Central Command Region (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004).Iraq

Books and Articles
  • Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
  • Collins, Joseph J. Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2008.
  • Cordesman, Anthony H. The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
  • Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Loges, Marsha J. “The Persian Gulf War: Military Doctrine and Strategy.” Research paper. Washington, D.C.: Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, 1996.
  • Mahnken, Thomas G., and Thomas A. Keaney, eds. War in Iraq: Planning and Execution. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Marston, Daniel, and Carter Malkasian. Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Mockaitis, Thomas R. The Iraq War: Learning from the Past, Adapting to the Present, and Planning for the Future. Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2007.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. Armies of the Gulf War. New York: Osprey, 1993.
  • Schlesinger, Robert. “Iraq, the Surge, and the Sunni Awakening: Not So Fast, Jack.” U.S. News and World Report, September 25, 2008.
  • Summers, Colonel Harry G. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War. New York: Dell, 1992.
  • Triumph Without Victory: The Unreported History of the Persian Gulf War. New York: Times Books, 1992.
Films and Other Media
  • Frontline: Bush’s War. Documentary. WGBH Boston, 2008.
  • Frontline: The Gulf War. Documentary. WGBH Boston, 1996.
  • Green Zone. Universal Studios, 2010.
  • Iraq in Fragments. Documentary. Daylight Factory, 2006.
  • Jarhead. Feature film. Universal, 2005.
  • Three Kings. Feature film. Warner Bros., 1999.

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