HomeMiddle EastThe Iraq war, 20 years later

The Iraq war, 20 years later

Exactly 20 years ago, on March 20, 2003, the United States launched a ground invasion of Iraq, vowing to end the government of President Saddam Hussein and destroy suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the oil-rich country.

Air operations had begun the night before, as US President George W. Bush announced in a televised address: “At this time, US and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, Free your people and defend the world. in grave danger.”

However, US forces, backed mainly by UK troops, never found weapons of mass destruction.

And though Saddam was captured, tried and hanged, the country remains deeply scarred by conflict, plagued by economic devastation and political turmoil, and gripped by Iranian and American influences.

With more than 200,000 Iraqis civilians and 4,500 US troops dead, and chaos and instability engulfing the entire region as a result of the invasion, questions about why this war was fought in the first place remain potent.

US President George W. Bush during a visit to the Pentagon on March 25, 2003, to discuss his request to Congress for nearly $75 billion to finance the war in Iraq (File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

the case of war

American politicians and ideologues began laying the groundwork for the occupation of Iraq years before it happened.

After Saddam invaded his oil-rich neighbor Kuwait in 1990, US President George HW Bush, the young Bush’s father, declared his intention to impose “liberal democracy” on Iraq, opening a floodgate for neoconservative politicians. Americans who lobbied for Saddam be deposed.

The decision to go to war was driven by security concerns engendered by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and mixed with ideological motives to liberalize and democratize Iraq and the region.

The US-led invasion was also closely linked to Iraqi exiles in the West, who pushed for Saddam’s removal. However, in the postwar era, exiles established in Iran were able to take advantage of and dominate postwar Iraqi politics.

The Stream - Iraqi refugees returning home
Ramadan 14 Mosque stands above Firdos Square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled during the US invasion on April 13, 2015 in Baghdad, Iraq (File: John Moore/Getty Images)

Capturing Baghdad

US, British and other coalition forces invaded Iraq from Kuwait on March 20, 2003, quickly crushing the regular Iraqi army and driving Saddam from power.

Three weeks later, on April 9, US troops took Baghdad. Along with Iraqi civilians, they toppled a statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a historic moment that became a symbol of US victory and made headlines around the world.

On May 1, Bush declared “mission accomplished” aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and ended major combat operations in Iraq. Lawlessness, which had spread rapidly across the country, highlighting the failure of US troops to bring order, was dismissed by US government officials as minor.

President Bush declared an end to major fighting in Iraq as he spoke aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California on May 1, 2003 (File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

No weapons of mass destruction

Before the end of 2003, US troops captured Saddam, who was hiding in a hole near his childhood home in Tikrit. He was later tried by an Iraqi court and executed for his role in mass murder and crimes against humanity.

The date chosen for his execution, December 30, 2006, which also happened to be the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, has been controversial ever since.

Shortly after Saddam’s capture, the Bush administration admitted that its prewar arguments about the presence of stockpiles of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in Iraq were unfounded.

A presidential commission concluded in 2005 that US intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was completely flawed and that there was “not one shred” of evidence. Ultimately, the testimony and accounts of defectors and members of the Iraqi National Congress were found to be unsubstantiated accounts.

saddam hussein
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein speaks during his trial in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on May 31, 2006 (File: Erik De Castro/EPA)

transition phase

In May 2003, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army and intelligence services and barred the long-ruling Baath Party from participating in the government formation process. The decision alienated hundreds of thousands of trained men and created a security and governance vacuum in the country that devastated it for years.

The transition from US to Iraqi rule in the mid-2000s saw the murder of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the launch of an al-Qaeda-led armed uprising, the outbreak of a sectarian civil war, and eventually the rise of ISIS (ISIS).

Elections, sectarian violence

After the fall of Saddam, accused of sectarian oppression against Kurdish and Shiite groups in Iraq, the Provisional Authority was concerned with creating an ethnic-sectarian balance in the country.

He used the muhasasa, or sectarian quota system, to select Iraq’s first post-2003 governing body, the Iraq Governing Council (IGC), and provide proportional government representation among the country’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups.

While the system gave political and economic power to the parties that came to dominate Iraqi politics after 2003, one of the main evils of the muhasasa system was how it deepened sectarian divisions, which continue to reverberate in Iraq and the region to this day. today.

Despite the outbreaks of violence, Iraqis voted for their first full-term government in 2005, giving the majority Shiites control of parliament. Under the system of government adopted after the introduction of a new constitution in 2005, the prime minister was a member of the majority Shia Muslim, the speaker a Sunni, and the largely ceremonial role of president was filled by a Kurd.

The first prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who dominated Iraqi politics for years, had close ties to Tehran and links to armed militias. His government was in power during an era of sectarian and authoritarian politics.

The failure of successive governments to come to terms with Iraq’s Sunni population and the presence of corrupt and ineffective state institutions were key factors in the rise of sectarian violence across the country. Sunni rebellions intensified in Anbar and Fallujah as violence by followers of the Shi’ite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr increased in the south.

Some suggest that a heavy-handed security response in Sunni areas radicalized many in the community, some of whom later supported ISIL. Others say that some Sunnis could never accept that they no longer controlled Iraq as they did under Saddam.

ISIL tightened its control when the US troop withdrawal in 2011 left a security vacuum in the region. He eventually declared a so-called “caliphate” over large swaths of the country in 2014, before being largely defeated in 2017 after a grueling military campaign, once again involving the US.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on March 24, 2013 (File: Jason Reed/AFP)

uncertainty prevails

In October 2019, largest protest movementAfter 2003, Iraq overthrew the government and forced parliament to adopt a new electoral law. Security forces and paramilitary groups killed more than 600 protesters during the uprising and have continued to attack activists ever since.

The unprecedented protests, which lasted for months until the introduction of coronavirus restrictions in October 2020, came in response to the crackdown on dissent by successive governments and the control of paramilitaries linked to political parties that have discouraged reform and increased risks of civil conflict.

Yet in today’s Iraq, the government is made up of a coalition that won less than 15 percent of the electorate’s votes. For many Iraqis who joined the protests, it represents an alliance of self-serving political groups and armed factions that have restricted civil liberties.

That has led many Iraqis to support Shiite leader al-Sadr, a self-proclaimed Iraqi nationalist, whose forces have been accused of carrying out some of the worst acts of violence in the post-2003 Iraqi civil war.

Violence between his supporters and rival Shiite factions last August left 30 dead and made clear that despite the gains Iraq has made, it remains inherently unstable, two decades after the invasion that was meant to usher in Iraq. of a new era.

protests in iraq
Security forces fire tear gas during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, on September 28, 2022 (File: Hadi Mizban/AP Photo)

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