The Iraq War lasted from 2003-2011. Thousands of American and Coalition forces died during the conflict, as well as many thousands of Iraqis. The American decision to go to war in Iraq remains controversial today.
Understanding the Iraq War
One of the most controversial foreign policy decisions of the last century occurred in 2003 in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. After those attacks, President George W. Bush and his administration declared a 'War on Terror,' striking against terrorist groups and states that sponsored terrorism. While many applauded the War on Terror initially, controversy began when the United States became involved in numerous ground wars, including the long and arduous conflict in Iraq. Let's learn more about the war in Iraq.
Years of Tension
Iraq and the United States have a history that goes back far before 2003. For years, Iraq had been an unstable country in the region and had seen many regime changes. In the late 1970s, a leading figure from the Ba'athist political party, Saddam Hussein, became the president of Iraq, a post he held until his death several decades later. Hussein was a brutal dictator, and his rule ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, as well as lives in other countries. During the 1980s, Hussein waged a prolonged brutal war with Iran, with over 500,000 soldiers and civilians dead over eight years. Hussein used poison gas on civilians during the war, a shocking display of brutality that characterized his rule.
In 1990, Hussein's Iraq invaded the tiny neighboring country of Kuwait. In response, U.S. President George H.W. Bush led a broad international coalition of military forces to push Iraq out. With American forces leading the way, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was a relatively short conflict that pushed Iraqi military forces. Hussein was left in power, but U.N. sanctions on Iraq continued for years, trying to ensure that Hussein would not develop chemical or nuclear programs. Iraq did its best to ignore as many of these sanctions as possible.
In 2001, Iraq still posed a problem on the international stage, as many nations, especially the United States, thought that Hussein continued to secretly develop weapons of mass destruction. Hussein refused to comply with U.N. sanctions and guidelines for years.
Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and his administration adopted a tough new foreign policy. Referred to as the War on Terror, the Bush Administration sought to destroy international terrorist networks and to destroy or minimize nations that supported and subsidized such networks. This effort was not conducted solely to find the perpetrators of 9/11 but also to ensure that other such attacks did not occur in the future. The first target of this war was Afghanistan. Next in Bush's sights was Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein.
In late 2002, with evidence from the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence agencies of other nations in the world, such as the United Kingdom and France, suggesting that Hussein and Iraq had continued their chemical weapons programs despite the U.N. sanctions, the United States Congress voted on a Joint Resolution, authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Soon after, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution declaring that Iraq had been in violation of prior resolutions and that Hussein had one last chance to let in U.N. inspectors and fully comply to avoid war. In March 2003, President George W. Bush declared that Hussein had 48 hours to leave Iraq. When the deadline passed, U.S. and Coalition forces began their military campaign.
The Iraq War officially began on March 20, 2003. United States forces led a coalition of 40 nations in an invasion and intense bombing campaign designed to overthrow the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein. Though the advance into Iraq was not easy, resistance was far less than what U.S. forces had expected prior to the war. After several weeks, American and Coalition forces reached the Iraqi capital, and Baghdad fell on April 9. In December 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured. He was put on trial, and in 2006, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court. He was executed by hanging later that year.
While many were relieved that the Iraqi government fell, the Iraq War was still far from over. The first phase of the war had come to an end, but soon an insurgency would begin that would last for years. This insurgency was fueled by remnants of Saddam Hussein's ruling party. Militants, radical Islamists, and terrorists soon flocked to Iraq, and American and Coalition troops were embroiled in a bloody, grueling, and dangerous war against an enemy who was both visible and invisible in the country. While the initial invasion of Iraq lasted for several weeks and ended in Coalition success, the insurgency lasted for eight years and exacted 96% of the American and Coalition casualties during the Iraq War.
Insurgents used improvised explosive devices, mines, suicide attacks, snipers, car bombs, and many other means to attack American and Coalition vehicles, troops, and Iraqi infrastructure. All the while, American forces were trying to set up a new ruling government in Iraq. Once this government was up and running and had security forces of its own, they, too were subjected to attacks from radicals and insurgents.
With this insurgency lasting for years, the Iraq War became extremely unpopular at home in the United States. President George W. Bush and the Republican Party suffered a drop in the polls, and political winds were pushing hard against continuing the war. In the midst of this, Bush made a controversial decision in 2007, deciding that, instead of following the calls of many to pull American troops out of Iraq, he was going to send a surge of over 20,000 troops, on top of increased financial aid and reconstruction funds, to Iraq to turn the war around.
By many accounts, the surge of more American troops into Iraq in 2007 helped to turn the tide of the war. General David Petraeus was given command of all Coalition forces in Iraq. With the extra troops and Petraeus' leadership, American military deaths began to decline, and Iraq and military forces were able to better control security within their own country.
In 2009, President Barack Obama came into office having campaigned heavily against the action in Iraq, and made it a priority to withdraw American forces from the region. While American forces had already begun drawing down in size and strength, President Obama continued this trend. In 2010, the U.S. government changed the name of the operations in Iraq from the initial phrase, Operation Iraqi Freedom, used during the invasion and first years of the insurgency, to Operation New Dawn, which applied to the American withdrawal and Iraqi takeover of security within Iraq. By the end of 2011, the last U.S. combat forces left Iraq, although thousands of advisers, military guards, and military contractors remained behind.
Following the American withdrawal, Iraq did not remain stable for long. By 2014, a new radical group of Islamic extremists, known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, took control of large portions of the country, and bloody combat continued. Clearly, the story of the war in Iraq is not over. In 2014, American forces are being reengaged with enemy fighters from the air and by training Iraqi military troops to combat this new threat.
Because the results are not yet clear, it is difficult to understand the Iraq War. It had extremely controversial beginnings, with many alleging dishonesty in the allegations of chemical and nuclear weapons programs in the country. No large-scale nuclear weapons programs were found in Iraq, although recent evidence has showed that Iraq did possess some weapons of mass destruction. The debate continues, and will continue, for some time to come.
Despite thousands of American deaths, and many more thousands of Iraqi deaths, President George W. Bush still maintains it was the right decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Critics point to the large human and financial toll of the war, as well as the instability in the region, as negative consequences of the action. Supporters cite the spread of democracy and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as positive benefits of the war. It will be years before the verdict of history is clear.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States government began what is known as the War on Terror, striking against terrorist groups and the states that harbor them. Iraq was seen as a threat by President George W. Bush because of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his cruel and aggressively anti-American views and actions. Believing Iraq to be a threat because of weapons programs, American forces launched an invasion in 2003, overthrowing Hussein's government and instituting a new democracy. The initial invasion was quick and successful, but it gave way to a years' long insurgency that cost thousands of lives on each side. Even once American and Coalition troops withdrew in 2011, Iraq remained, and still remains, an unstable place.
Be certain that you can complete these actions when the lesson ends:
- Recall when the Iraq War took place
- Evaluate the events that led to the Iraq War
- Discuss the beginning of the Iraq War
- Consider the impact of insurgents on the war
- Analyze America's withdrawal from Iraq and the impact it had
- List the controversies surrounding the Iraq War