The invasion of Iraq officially began on March 20, 2003, under the name “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The stated justification for the invasion was that Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and supported terrorism, and that the Iraqi people were suffering under his tyranny and needed to be freed. The United States contended that Iraq was in violation of both United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1441 and the terms of the 1991 cease-fire agreement, which ended hostilities after Desert Storm. Both of these documents prohibited Iraq from possessing or researching WMDs. Saddam’s links to terror were indirect and centered mostly on monetary rewards provided to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and to the families of the “victims of Israeli aggression.” Allegations that Saddam was linked in some way to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were never supported by evidence.
A “Coalition of the Willing” was created by the United States in the time after September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 though 98 percent of the Coalition troops were British and American. The Coalition forces assembled for the attack on Iraq numbered just under 300,000. The Iraqi army numbered 390,000 soldiers, plus 44,000 Fedayeen and potentially 650,000 reserves. The 2003 invasion was not preceded by an extended bombing campaign, as was the 1991 attack. The strategy for the 2003 invasion depended on speed and precision strikes to destroy Iraqi command rapidly enough to ensure that the defenses would quickly collapse.
A primary strategic goal of the Coalition was to limit damage to Iraq’s oil production capability; key sites related to the oil industry were to be secured as quickly as possible. The course of the invasion was designed to prevent both the destruction of oil sites and to limit the Iraqi army’s ability to concentrate their defenses. The U.S. Army moved west through the Iraqi desert and then headed north toward Baghdad while the marines moved directly toward Baghdad along the main Iraqi Highway One. British forces concentrated on securing southeastern Iraq, particularly the Basra area. Major actions took place at Nasiriyah and Karbala where the Iraqis defended important crossroads and bridges over the Euphrates River. In the third week of the invasion, U.S. forces entered Baghdad. Raids called “Thunder Runs” were launched on April 5 and 7 to test Iraqi defenses in the capital and to capture the key objectives of the Baghdad Airport and Saddam’s palace complex. The city of Baghdad was formally occupied on April 9. Saddam was declared deposed and went into hiding, and many Iraqis rejoiced by defacing his monuments. The initial invasion had lasted a mere 21 days. Looting followed the fall of the regime, with store goods, museum items, and military arms and equipment being targeted, as did outbreaks of violence between tribes and cities based on old grudges.
Coalition troops began searching for Saddam, Iraqi politicians and leaders of the Ba’ath Party, military leaders, and Saddam’s family members. On July 22, 2003, Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay, along with a grandson, were killed during a standoff at their fortified safe house in Mosul. Saddam was captured on December 13, 2003, near his hometown of Tikrit. In all, 300 top leaders from Saddam’s regime were killed or captured along with a large number of lower-level troops and government officials.
After the fall of Baghdad and Saddam’s regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was formed
Two U.S. Marines speak with a local Iraqi woman during a security patrol in Saqlawiyah, Iraq. The marines were assigned to Weapons
Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. to run Iraq until power could be turned over to the Iraqis. The CPA was led by Paul Bremer. The CPA officially controlled Iraq from April 21, 2003, until June 28, 2004. The CPA opposed holding elections in Iraq shortly after the fall of Saddam and wanted to hand power over to an appointed interim Iraqi government, which would be chosen by the Coalition. A second group formed in early 2003 was the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). The ISG was charged with finding the WMDs that Iraq was alleged to possess. They could not find any WMDs or programs to build them even though Iraq was known to have had nuclear, biological, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons programs prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
The media explored a new format to cover the war by “embedding” journalists inside military units. The war also saw for the first time soldiers instantly reporting their activities by means of digital cameras, cell phones, and the Internet. Uncensored soldiers’ stories, photos, Web blogs, and movies became available shortly after events took place. Arabic news networks such as al Jazeera provided the Islamic viewpoint and was available worldwide though satellite TV and on the Internet.
On May 1, 2003, major combat operations were declared over by U.S. president George W. Bush. Peace was short-lived, as a disjointed insurgency took hold in Iraq with many factions fighting for control. They included religious radicals, Fedayeen, Ba’athists, foreign Arabs, and other Muslim jihadis—and Iraqis opposed to the occupation. The insurgency was a chaotic decentralized movement with as many as 40 separate groups fighting for control. The picture was further clouded as each group was splintered into large numbers of semiautonomous cells. Insurgent attacks increased around Iraq, but especially in the “Sunni Triangle,” home to most of the Sunni population. Insurgents used guerrilla-style tactics, employing suicide bombs, mortars, rockets, ambushes, snipers, car bombs, sabotage of the infrastructure, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
In late 2004 the focus of insurgent attacks switched from Coalition forces to the newly elected Iraqi government and its collaborators, including the Shi’i population. Many of the attacks were carried out by foreign fighters. At the end of March 2004 insurgents in the town of Fallujah ambushed and killed four private military contractors from the Blackwater USA Corporation. Pictures of their burned bodies hanging from a bridge were distributed around the world, causing outrage among Americans. Blackwater was one of many private companies that provided specialized services and expertise needed by the U.S. military. The employ- ees or contractors of these companies are typically men with special-forces or police backgrounds. They are paid much more money than they would make in the official armed forces. This has led many to label them “mercenaries.” It is believed that there were more than 100,000 private contractors in Iraq around 2007.
Two fierce battles were fought after attacks were launched by the U.S. Marines to gain control of Fallujah after the Blackwater incident. The first battle in April 2004 was not successful and ended with the Marines withdrawing. The second battle, fought in November and December 2004, resulted in the death of more than 5,000 insurgents and the complete takeover of Fallujah. The battles for Fallujah are considered to be the heaviest urban fighting the U.S. Marines have done since the battle for Hue fought in Vietnam during 1968.
On June 28, 2004, the CPA transferred sovereignty of Iraq to the Iraqi Interim Government, which was charged with holding national elections. The elected Iraqi government would then draft a new constitution. The Interim Government was also to try Saddam Hussein for his many crimes. At the end of his first trial, Saddam was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity and was executed by hanging on December 26, 2006.
The Iraqi constitution was ratified on October 15, 2005, and a general election was held on December 15 to choose the new national assembly. In a first for Iraq, the constitution stipulated that 25 percent of the assembly seats must be held by women. An escalation in sectarian violence followed, as the Sunni minority feared their power slipping into the hands of the Shi’i majority. Sunni bombers destroyed a very important Shi’i mosque and ignited a cycle of revenge violence in which both sides used bombs, ambushes, and death squads against both politicians and civilians. Violence between the Shi’i and Sunni escalated to the point that the United Nations (UN) has labeled it an “almost civil war situation.” Many feared that this sectarian violence could spread to other countries in the Middle East, especially if Iraq was splintered into independent Sunni, Shi’i, and Kurdish states.
Many of the opposition insurgents and suicide bombers were in fact foreign Sunni Arabs who came to Iraq to fight against the United States and against the Shi’i. One of the most notable foreign insurgent leaders was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Born in Jordan, he moved around the Middle East and Central Asia working as a terrorist and jihadi before taking leadership of alQaeda in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. He was killed on June 7, 2006, when his safe house located north of
Baqubah was hit by smart bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft. Al-Qaeda has continued its violent campaign in Iraq.
The war continued as 2007 saw a rising death toll. The number of Iraqis killed in the war is not known. Some estimates are as high as 900,000 Iraqi dead from all causes related to the war. In addition, an estimated 2 million Iraqis are said to have fled to Syria or Jordan. The number of Coalition forces killed is much clearer: more than 4,052 Americans and 309 other forces by
April 2008. Private contractors killed and wounded are not included in this figure and have not been published.
Further Reading: Kegan, John. The Iraq War: The Military
Offensive, from Victory in 21 Days to the Insurgent Aftermath. New York: Knopf, 2004; Shawcross, William. The
Allies: The United States, Britain and Europe in the Aftermath of the Iraqi War. London: Atlantic, 2003.