The War in Iraq
What’s the current status of the war in Iraq?
The American military’s role in Iraq has ended. The last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq in August, 2010; our military mission there was formally ended on 12/15/11. Iraqis are now responsible for maintaining security in their own country. However, thousands of American diplomats and security contractors remain.
As soon as the last U.S. troops departed, violence and political upheaval erupted in Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, the Shiite-dominated government’s security forces have beaten, arrested, and harassed activists and journalists. The party that represents most of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims briefly boycotted Parliament to protest what they saw as moves to exclude them from power. And terrorist attacks, mostly by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, escalated after the U.S. exit.
Why did the U.S. invade Iraq in 2003?
The roots of the War in Iraq go back to the first Gulf War. Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, but a U.S.-led coalition forced Saddam Hussein’s army out of the country in 1991. The U.N. resolution that ended the war forbade Iraq from possessing or producing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Saddam refused to give U.N. weapons inspectors free access, however. For the next 12 years, world leaders worried about the possibility that Saddam was developing, or had already produced, these weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
President George W. Bush and members of his inner circle focused closely on Saddam after 9/11. Saddam himself alternately denied that he had WMDs and gave the impression that he really did have them. (Shortly before his execution, he told an F.B.I. interviewer that he’d done this to prevent Iran from seeing him as weak and vulnerable: see this Washington Post article for more on these interviews.)
President Bush insisted that Saddam posed a threat to the security of the U.S. and the Middle East. In a televised address in 2003, he gave Saddam an ultimatum: leave Iraq or the U.S. military will attack Iraq and remove you. He claimed to have hard evidence that Saddam possessed WMDs, and that Iraq had aided, trained and harbored al-Qaeda terrorists. In order to pre-empt a future terrorist attack using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, the president said, the U.S. had the right to defend itself by removing the threat.
On March 20, 2003, American armed forces invaded Iraq. President Bush declared victory on May 1.
After toppling Saddam’s government, U.S. investigators found no evidence of WMDs, and concluded that Iraq had stopped developing these weapons in 1991. No evidence for an Iraq/al-Qaeda connection ever surfaced, either; Saddam himself, in the F.B.I. interviews mentioned above, denounced Osama bin-Laden and denied having any dealings with al-Qaeda.
Other justifications for the invasion offered by the Bush administration included Saddam’s history of human rights abuses, his support for terrorist groups (he paid rewards to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers), and the chance to bring democracy to Iraq.
President Bush’s critics, on the other hand, believe that he and his inner circle wanted to remove Saddam from power, and relied on questionable evidence to justify the invasion.
Arguments against the invasion
The attack on Iraq was one of the most controversial decisions in recent American history. Opponents made the following points:
• To invade Iraq without the U.N.’s approval, because we think Saddam may have WMDs, violates international law.
• Overthrowing Saddam may create chaos in Iraq, which could destabilize an already dangerous region.
• Invading Iraq without the support of the international community will isolate the U.S. and create enemies for us, especially in Islamic countries.
• If we want to keep America safe from those who would harm us, then we should put our resources into destroying Al-Qaeda. Iraq poses no immediate threat to us.
“Preemptive War”: a new direction for the U.S.
The U.N. Charter forbids the use of force against any nation in the absence of an acute and imminent threat. By attacking Iraq (based on concerns about what Saddam might someday do), the U.S. violated this rule, and set a precedent that many Americans found deeply disturbing.
Many officials and observers, including some who supported the invasion, found fault with the Bush administration’s handling of the war. Critics said the administration vastly underestimated the number of troops that would be needed to contain the fighting after Saddam’s overthrow, and failed to plan for the rebuilding of Iraqi society. Many have also pointed out the heavy costs of the war, in dollars and in American and Iraqi lives.
Colin Powell, who served as Secretary of State during Bush’s first term, changed his view of the war over time. Powell made the case for military action in a speech at the U.N. in 2003, citing evidence that Saddam had biological weapons and was working to produce nuclear weapons. The evidence proved inaccurate, and, in an interview with Barbara Walters two years later, after resigning as Secretary of State, he called the speech a painful blot on his record.
Results of the invasion, in brief
By overthrowing the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led coalition won the gratitude of many Iraqis. Soon after he was gone, however, Saddam loyalists and religious radicals began to strike at American soldiers. Fighting also broke out between Sunnis and Shiites (see below), claiming thousands of lives. Despite continuing tensions between different factions, and ongoing violence, the country now seems to be on the road to developing a functioning democratic government—but it’s uncertain what will happen once U.S. forces leave.
Sunnis vs. Shiites
The split between these two sects of Islam originated in a disagreement over who should lead the faithful after the death of Muhammad in the year 632. The differences between their beliefs are relatively small, but their experiences have been very different. Most Muslim rulers and elites have been Sunnis; the Shiites have seen themselves as an oppressed class.
Worldwide, 85-90% of Muslims are Sunnis, but Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq. In Iran, Shiites dominate the government. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis ruled despite being outnumbered; after Saddam’s overthrow, Shiites took over. The Sunnis, accustomed to running the country, refused to accept the loss of power. Many took up arms against Shiites and against American military forces. Shiites responded by forming their own militias. Thousands died in sectarian fighting, sowing bitter hatred that will not soon be healed. (For a brief overview on the Sunni/Shiite split, see this Christian Science Monitor article. For a more detailed account of the conflict, past and present, see this article from Time.)
Saddam became President of Iraq in 1979. Determined to modernize Iraq and make himself the leader of the Arab world, he built a massive secret police force to repress opposition to his rule. Many of Iraq’s high officials were his relatives, or came from his home village, Tikrit.
Seeing Iran in a weakened state after its Islamic Revolution in 1979, and fearing that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini would succeed in convincing Iraq’s Shiite majority to overthrow him, Saddam launched a war against his country’s historical rival. The eight-year war left Iraq deep in debt. (The Reagan Administration sided with Saddam in this conflict, against Iran: an understandable choice after the hostage crisis of 1979. For more on the hostage crisis, see the News-Basics article on Iran.)
To save Iraq’s economy, Saddam invaded oil-rich Kuwait in 1990. This provoked the Gulf War, a three-month conflict in 1991 in which U.S. President George H.W. Bush enlisted military support from 35 nations to force Saddam out of Kuwait.
Taking advantage of Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds and Shiites rebelled. Saddam crushed both uprisings, killing more than 180,000 people and destroying thousands of villages.
Because Saddam refused to comply with U.N. weapons inspections, the U.N. banned all trade with Iraq. The economic sanctions resulted in poverty and widespread malnutrition, especially among children; in 1995, the U.N. created an oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq to export a small amount of oil in order to buy food and medicine, but Saddam used some of the income for weapons development.
After Baghdad fell to U.S. forces in April, 2003, Saddam went into hiding. He was found eight months later, bearded and disheveled, in an underground hideout near his home village. After two successive trials before a high tribunal, he was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, and hanged in December, 2006. Part of his legacy: after the invasion, coalition soldiers discovered thousands of bodies in mass graves—see Wikipedia for more on this—and stashes of cash totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
Major events of the war
2003 On March 20, about 300,000 American and British troops invade Iraq. Most members of the U.N. oppose the war. On May 1, President Bush declares victory, but violence erupts against American soldiers and Iraqis who support them. … Due to lax security, looters manage to steal priceless archaeological relics from the National Museum in Baghdad, and tons of explosives are stolen from an Iraqi weapons facility. … The Iraqi Army is disbanded, and members of Saddam’s ruling Baath party are prohibited from participating in the government. … In December, Saddam is found in a small underground hideout.
2004 A temporary constitution is approved. … Photographs reveal abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison. (For more on the Abu Ghraib story, see Wikipedia.) … Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of American involvement in Iraq, leads an uprising against U.S. troops. Terror attacks occur almost daily.
2005 In the first elections in 50 years, Iraqis elect a National Assembly. Most Sunnis refuse to vote, and Shiites win a majority. … The “Downing Street Memo” surfaces: reporting on a 2002 meeting, the head of British Intelligence states that President Bush wanted to remove Saddam, and that the Bush administration manipulated the evidence to justify an invasion. … Saddam Hussein goes on trial for crimes against humanity.
2006 Nouri al-Maliki becomes Prime Minister of Iraq. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, leader of “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” is killed by American forces. … Saddam Hussein is executed.
2007 On the urging of General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, President Bush sends 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. “The surge” aims to suppress the violence and enable rival groups to reach a political reconciliation. … Ongoing violence by a group calling itself “al-Qaeda in Iraq” triggers a backlash, known as the Sunni Awakening. Nearly 80,000 former Sunni insurgents turn against Al-Qaeda and support the new government.
2008 The Iraqi government calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2011.
2009 In February, new U.S. President Barack Obama announces that American combat troops will leave Iraq by August 2010; but up to 50,000 will remain to advise and train Iraqi security forces and help with intelligence-gathering.
2010 President Obama announces in August that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended.
American soldiers killed in Iraq: 4,487
American soldiers wounded in Iraq: 32,226
Dollars spent (or approved to be spent) on the war, through 9/10: about $900 billion
Iraqi police and soldiers killed: 9,381
Iraqi civilians killed: estimates range from 50,000 to 600,000
Iraqi insurgents killed: about 55,000
Iraqi refugees who have left their country: more than 2.1 million (nearly 7% of the total population)
Iraqi refugees inside Iraq: more than 2.2 million as of 2007
How the war has affected the lives of Iraqis
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (in 2007), “Civilians bear the brunt of the relentless violence and the extremely poor security conditions that are disrupting the lives and livelihoods of millions. Every day, dozens of people are killed and many more wounded… Shootings, bombings, abductions, murders, military operations and other forms of violence are forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere in Iraq or in neighbouring countries.” (For the full report, go here.)
As of 2007, ¼ of Iraqi children suffered from chronic malnutrition; 40% of professionals had fled the country; homes had electricity only a few hours a day (as of 2007); and only 1/3 of homes were connected to sewer systems.
For more current and comprehensive statistics about life in Iraq and the effects of the war, visit the Brookings Iraq Index.
Names to know
General David Petraeus: Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, 2007-2008. Currently, Director of the C.I.A.
Nouri al-Maliki: Prime Minister of Iraq since 2006.
Moktada al-Sadr: a young, anti-American Shiite cleric who leads a militia, The Mahdi Army, that has attacked U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Blackwater: a private company that provides military and security services. Blackwater operated in Iraq (guarding diplomatic convoys and supply vehicles) until 2009. The company’s contractors were involved in a 2007 incident in Baghdad in which 17 civilans were shot dead, provoking outrage among Iraqis.
The Green Zone: a heavily fortified area in Baghdad, surrounded by high concrete walls, formerly the stronghold of Saddam’s government. After the invasion in 2003, American officials and private contractors moved into the buildings abandoned by Saddam and his followers.
For pictures of the war in Iraq
Visit the BBC’s website.
Questions raised by the Iraq War
Whether you’re liberal or conservative, challenge your own assumptions and think about these questions:
• Was the invasion a legitimate attempt to make the U.S. safe from terrorism and future aggression by Saddam Hussein, or an illegal assault on a sovereign state under cover of the War on Terror?
• Given Saddam’s history of violence against his neighbors, his antipathy toward the U.S., his many years of defying the U.N., and the widespread fear that he possessed dangerous weapons, what should the president have done in 2003?
• When is it legitimate to overthrow a dictator by force? What should the international community do about leaders who attack neighboring countries, oppress their own citizens, and murder enemies by the thousands?
• If Iraq succeeds as a democracy, will that justify the cost in lives lost and scarred? If the Iraqi government fails after we leave, how will we then judge the decision to overthrow Saddam?
What we call Iraq was once Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. (“Mesopotamia” means “between the rivers.”) The area has been the home of civilizations since 4,000 B.C.; in fact, it’s often called the “cradle of civilization.”
More recent news
• 8/19/10: After the U.S. military leaves Iraq by the end of 2011, U.S. civilian contractors, under the supervision of the State Department, will be responsible for training Iraqi police and helping to keep the peace. To protect civilians from insurgents, the State Department will employ a force of up to 7,000 security guards, according to the New York Times.
• 9/1/10: President Obama declares an official end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. For details, go here.
• 1/6/11: Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-American cleric whose Mahdi Army was responsible for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq before the Surge, has returned to Iraq after three years in Iran. Some observers think he wants to rein in his militant followers and take part in the political process, but many Iraqis fear what he’ll do now that he’s back. For more on this, see Newsweek.
• 10/21/11: President Obama announced that all but 150 U.S. troops will come home from Iraq by the end of this year.
• 12/13/11: As the last American soldiers prepare to leave Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s aggressive actions against political opponents have raised concerns about Iraq’s future as a democracy. In October and November, 600 former members of Saddam’s Baath party were arrested. See the New York Times for details.
• 12/15/11: The U.S. officially ended its military involvement in Iraq after nearly nine years. More than a million American soldiers served in the war; nearly 4,500 died, and more than 30,000 were wounded.
Daniel Larison, “Unlearned Lessons of the Iraq War,” The American Conservative, 3/20/13: “The pre-war debate should have taught us that moralizing in foreign policy is no substitute for sound analysis and argument, but it hasn’t. Moralizing rhetoric was often the bludgeon that war supporters used to quash skepticism and impugn the motives of opponents, and it remains the same now… Most politicians, policymakers, and pundits continue to have huge blind spots that cause them to overlook the humanitarian consequences of coercive U.S. policies. When assessing the costs of the Iraq War, the 130,000+ dead Iraqi civilians, the millions of Iraqis displaced or forced to flee their country, and countless others adversely affected by the war are often left out of the story altogether…. Perhaps the most important unlearned lesson from the war is that many Iraqis are worse off today than they were ten years ago.”
John Tirman, “The Forgotten Wages of War,” New York Times, 1/4/12: We have ignored the cost of the Iraq War in civilian death and destruction. That’s part of why so many in the Arab world oppose us. “The American military cannot afford to be so cavalier about the dynamics of war. The consequences of how we fight wars reveals a great deal about how and why others fight us… Ignoring the extent of civilian casualties and the damage they cause is a moral failing as well as a strategic blunder.”
Thomas Friedman, “The End, for Now,” New York Times, 12/21/11: Now that the last American soldiers have left, “we’re finally going to get the answer to the core question…: Was Iraq the way Iraq was because Saddam was the way Saddam was, or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraq is the way Iraq is—a collection of sects and tribes unable to live together except under an iron fist… [T]his is the issue that will determine the fate of all the Arab awakenings. Can the Arab world develop pluralistic, consensual politics… where people can live as citizens and not feel that their tribe, sect or party has to rule or die?”
For conservative opinion: The Heritage Foundation
For liberal opinion: Global Policy Forum
Is life better or worse for Iraqis after seven years of war? Two conflicting assessments:
Anthony Shadid, “After Years of War, Few Iraqis Have a Clear View of the Future,”New York Times, 9/1/10: describes the frustration of ordinary Iraqis with their living conditions, and pessimism over prospects for the future.
Ready to learn more? Start with these links:
For more on the current situation in Iraq: The New York Times
The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited by Gary Rosen
Fiasco, by Thomas E. Ricks
Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, by Seymour M. Hersh
What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by Scott McClellan (White House Press Secretary, 2003-2006)
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Last updated 3/26/13