20 years since the US invaded Iraq, the gulf nation is still fighting a war

Dristi Sharma
Dristi SharmaMar 19, 2023 | 08:00

20 years since the US invaded Iraq, the gulf nation is still fighting a war

The US withdrawal from Iraq was followed by a period of instability and conflict, including the rise of ISIS, ongoing political challenges, and a significant humanitarian crisis. Photo: dailyO

Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict”, said the then US President George Bush in a press conference on March 17, 2003. It was Bush’s final warning to Saddam Hussien, the man who was in power for almost thirty years in Iraq. Saddam denied it to leave Iraq, and what came next was a full-blown invasion of the gulf nation.


Today, March 19, marks 20 years since the US and its allies invaded Iraq. It resulted in significant death, destruction, and disruption, which had a lasting impact on the country and the region.

The exact number of casualties which happened after the invasion and the war that followed is difficult to determine, but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to over one million people. The United States spent over $2 trillion on the war.

Now, before delving deep into the details of the invasion and how it shaped (rather destroyed) Iraq, let’s look into some numbers to understand the severity of the war:

Now, let’s start from the beginning. Why did the US invade Iraq in the first place? 

To understand this, we have to go back in time. First stop: The 1990s. 

During the 1990s, Iraq was facing strong international opposition to the Saddam Hussein regime since it began the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The invasion was stopped by the international community as in 1991 a military coalition led by the United States started the Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Photo: Gulf War/PA

Following the Gulf War, the United States and its allies attempted to restrict Saddam Hussein through a containment policy. 

What was the containment policy? The policy entailed numerous UN Security Council economic sanctions; the enforcement of Iraqi no-fly zones declared by the US and the UK to protect the minorities (like the Kurds) in Iraq. 


And soon, the UN, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, started inspections in Iraq to ensure that Iraq destroyed its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and facilities. The international community was majorly concerned with what it called the  ‘weapons of mass destruction’. 

'Weapons of Mass Destruction'

The US and its allies believed that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, which they assumed could be a huge threat to the world. In fact, the primary justification cited by the US government for the invasion was the 'belief'' that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 

Photo: Symbols of WMD/WIKI

The Bush administration claimed that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the US and its allies.

Later, it turned out that Iraq actually didn’t possess any WMD.

The fear of another 9/11

Another major reason was the attack of 9/11. It was also a factor that pushed the Bush administration to invade Iraq. But, you must be wondering what has Iraq to do with 9/11? It was related to Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Photo: 9/11 (Getty Images)

Well, you are certainly right. 

However, Bush and his administration strongly believed that Saddam Hussein was harbouring and supporting terrorists, including Al Qaeda, and suggested that he may have been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Despite there being no evidence of a direct link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, the US argued that the potential threat was too great to ignore.

Photo: Saddam Hussein/wiki

‘To protect democracy’

The Bush administration also saw the invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein from power and to promote democracy and stability in the region. They argued that Hussein was a brutal dictator who had committed human rights abuses against his own people, and that the world would be safer without him in charge.

Photo: Iraqis protesting, 2019 (crisis group)

During Saddam Hussein's reign in Iraq, severe human rights violations were committed through secret police, state terrorism, torture, mass murder, genocide, and chemical warfare. The government also committed crimes of aggression through the war against Iran and during the invasion of Kuwait. 

The Reign of Saddam

Estimates suggest at least 2,50,000 to 2,90,000 deaths and disappearances occurred due to repression during Saddam's regime, with widespread imprisonment and torture as reported by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. 

The prison was a terrible, miserable place. I saw my relatives being tortured. One time, they buried my uncle in the sand up to his neck and left him in the heat. It was awful to watch. But the worst day was when they came for my father. Even then, I knew I would never see him again. I could feel it.
- Khairiya Hatim, Iraqi town councilor who was imprisoned with her family because of their allegiance to a banned opposition party, Sunday Telegraph (London), September 28, 2003 [Whitehouse.archives]

Check out photos from Iraq's biggest tourist attraction, a museum,  Red Security,  dedicated to exposing torture and injustice under Saddam's reign. 

Another reason that lead to the invasion, but isn't talked about much, is the strategic interest that The US had for invading Iraq. Experts believed that it had long been interested in securing and projecting power in the Middle East and accessing Iraq’s oil reserves. The invasion of Iraq was seen as a way to consolidate US influence in the region and to prevent any potential challengers from emerging from the Middle East.

What came next?

So, on March 19, The US-led coalition (the US, the UK, Australia and Poland) sent 160,000 troops into Iraq during the initial invasion phase, which lasted from 19 March to May 1, 2003. 

Photo: US soldiers in Sāmarrāʾ, Iraq. Johan Charles Van Boers/US Department of Defense

After the Initial Phase: ‘Mission Accomplished?’

On May 1, 2003, George Bush gave his famous Mission Accomplished speech standing on a podium. This speech was given by Bush six weeks after the invasion, before a White House-produced banner that said "Mission Accomplished". 

Reading from a prepared text, he said: 

Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies prevailed because the regime [the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein] is no more.

Although Bush went on to say that "Our mission continues" and "We have difficult work to do in Iraq”, his words implied that the Iraq War was over and America had won.

See the full speech here: 

This speech marked the end of the first phase, but it continued, as the troops continued their search for weapons of mass destruction (which were never found) and well also, Saddam Hussein. 

‘Saddam Captured’

The invasion continued, and meanwhile, Saddam Hussein was captured during Operation Red Dawn in December 2003, and was executed three years later.

Photo: Saddam filmed after his capture. Reuters

However, if you think the invasion of the troops ended after Saddam was captured and the search for WMDs (January 24, 2004) was stopped, you are wrong. It continued till 2011. 

The US left Iraq in 2011 during Barack Obama’s tenure, but before that, here’s what they did:

  • Occupation and administration of Iraq: The US military occupied Iraq and established an interim government to oversee the country's transition to democracy. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by US civilian administrator L Paul Bremer, governed Iraq until the formation of a new government in 2005. They also banned Iraq’s military in 2003. 
  • Reconstruction and nation-building: The US government launched a massive reconstruction effort to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and institutions, including schools, hospitals, and government buildings. The US also worked to establish democratic institutions, such as the Iraqi Parliament and the Council of Representatives, and helped to train and equip the Iraqi security forces. 
Photo: Iraqi men work on a construction site in central Baghdad/Getty Images

In June 2004, the Iraqi interim government was established by the US, which later helped in developing a constitution in Iraq. However, due to extreme levels of corruption in the government, it was actually never a help for the common citizens, a problem that Iraqis still face.

  • Fighting insurgencies and terrorism: The US military and Iraqi security forces worked together to fight insurgent groups and terrorist organisations, such as the Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The US also provided support to Iraqi forces during the 2006-2007 "surge" strategy, which aimed to reduce violence and stabilize the country.
Photo: US army helping to pull down a statue of Saddam/ Getty Images

But the all efforts went in vain when the US left Iraq. Here's what happened: 

  • Destabilization and sectarian violence: The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, but it also resulted in significant destabilization of the country. The removal of Saddam's regime, (without proper planning of who could replace him) also led to the dissolution of the Iraqi military, police, and security forces, leaving the country vulnerable to insurgent attacks and increasing corruption. 
  • Formation of ISIS:  After the invasion of US and after it left, sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites increased, and many terrorist groups emerged in the country. The ISIS also emerged from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. A local offshoot of the group was founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2004. It faded into obscurity for several years after the surge of US troops to Iraq in 2007. But it began to reemerge in 2011 after the US left Iraq, which is tormenting Iraq and Syria till now. 
Photo: Men with ISIS flag/ AP
  • Political and social challenges: Following the invasion, Iraq faced numerous political and social challenges, including the establishment of a democratic government, the rebuilding of infrastructure and institutions, and the reconciliation of various sectarian and ethnic groups. The country also faced issues of corruption, human rights abuses, and security threats which have continued to impact the country to this day. 

To sum up, after the US withdrew its troops from Iraq in December 2011, here’s what happened in the country:

  • Political instability: Following the withdrawal of US troops, Iraq faced ongoing political instability, with the government struggling to maintain control over the country. The sectarian tensions that had been simmering under the surface erupted, and the government struggled to form a functional governing coalition. 
  • Rise of ISIS: In 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged as a major threat to Iraq's stability. ISIS seized control of large parts of the country, including the city of Mosul, and declared a caliphate. The group carried out widespread violence and human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians and the enslavement of women and girls. The country still is facing a war against ISIS.
Photo: ISIS/AP
  • Humanitarian crisis: The conflict in Iraq caused a massive humanitarian crisis, with millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes and in need of assistance. The UN estimated that more than 10 million people were in need of humanitarian aid in 2016, and the conflict has led to a significant increase in poverty, food insecurity, and displacement.

Overall, the US withdrawal from Iraq was followed by a period of instability and conflict, including the rise of ISIS, ongoing political challenges, and a significant humanitarian crisis.

Photo: A general view of the destruction in Mosul's Old City, Iraq/ July 9, 2017/ (AFP)

Today, 20 years after the US invasion, every person in Iraq is still fighting a war to survive in strenuous conditions of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and of course violence.

Last updated: March 20, 2023 | 01:00
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