Following the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration introduced a policy which has become known as the Bush Doctrine. This policy favored preventive war to combat terrorism, and as a result, the U.S. became increasingly belligerent towards states suspected of aiding terrorism and decreasing global security, particularly the nations of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, dubbed the Axis of Evil during the 2002 State of the Union address. Following this statement, the already frigid relationship between the Iraqi government lead by President Saddam Hussein and the U.S. began to becoming increasingly tense.
On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented intelligence information provided by anonymous sources, much of which has now been discredited and retracted by Powell, as justification for the coming invasion. In this presentation, Secretary Powell cited purported evidence of the U.S. claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which they intended to use against U.S. allies and supply Al-Qaeda terrorist cells in the region. Some of these claims were repudiated by Hans Blix, the UN Chief Inspector to Iraq, on 14 February 2003 in his report to the Security Council.Amid widespread international skepticism, France said that it would veto the proposed resolution legitimizing the U.S. lead invasion of Iraq.
Even without U.N. support, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his two sons to surrender and leave the country within 48 hours on March 17th, 2003, while simultaneously warning all U.N. peacekeepers to exit the nation. At 9:34 p.m on March 19th, 2003, the U.S. began bombing the Iraqi capital, following unconfirmed reports of targets of opportunity. Named Operation Iraqi Freedom, the original military operation lasted a total of three-weeks before Baghdad was captured by U.S. Marines and the core of the Iraqi government was disbanded.
On April 21st, 2003, coalition forces formed what would become known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, which would act as the transitional government before elections could be held. President Bush would then appear on April 1st, 2003 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln before a banner stating Mission Accomplished and proclaiming an end to major U.S. combat operations in Iraq, despite having not captured or confirmed the death of Saddam Hussein.
Despite assurances of victory, It soon became clear that the war was not truly over. In May 2003, over 50 U.S. troops were killed, heralding a period of rampant violence and a decreasing level of control over the occupied nation. While the Bush Administration stated that this violence was the result of a few pockets of resistance left over from Saddam Hussein’s regime, British intelligence would then estimate that between 40,000 and 50,000 insurgency fighters were now operating in the country. However, intelligence reports from the Provisional Authority estimated that around 200,000 insurgents were active, a number that eclipsed the number of U.S. military forces.
Utilizing guerrilla-style tactics that included suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombings, snipers, and small arms fire, the insurgency had claimed the lives of 168 U.S. and U.K. soldiers by August of 2003. In that month, insurgents would then use car bombs to attack the Jordanian Embassy and U.N. headquarters within the Baghdad Green Zone, killing 31 people in total and triggering a withdrawal of U.N. workers and numerous aid organizations citing a deterioration of security within the country.
From there, levels of violence in the country continued to increase. Following 110 deaths in November alone, the bloodiest month of the conflict to that point, Saddam Hussein was captured alive on December 13, 2003 near Tikrit. While many pundits and sources within the Bush Administration hoped that this would abate the insurgency, the dip in violence seen at the start of 2004 is now seen as a time in which the insurgency was rearming and reorganizing. The insurgency had now expanded to include Sunni Muslims, formerly dominant under Hussein’s Baathist regime, who felt sidelined as Shiite Muslims gained new levels of authority under the Provisional Authority.
2004 would mark a turning point in the war; the failure to find any WMDs, prompting U.S. weapons inspector David Kay to declare before the U.S. Senate that he did not think they ever existed, only further damaged the U.S.’s tenuous hold over the country. Where previously insurgent forces had largely only been targeting Coalition forces, deaths began to increase against Iraqi police and militia forces trained by the U.S. as a means to increase opposition to the U.S. occupation. Insurgent militias, such as Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, also became increasingly active, as well as al-Qaeda terrorist cells. The fiercest fighting of the war so far then began, as insurgents ambushed a Blackwater USA convoy in Fallujah, in which four U.S. military contractors were beaten, killed, and then displayed hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates river. U.S. forces then unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the insurgent forces present in Fallujah in what is now known as the First Battle of Fallujah in April 2004, and again in November 2004 during the Second Battle of Fallujah. The 46-day battle was a Coalition victory, but lead to large amounts of collateral damage to the city’s infrastructure, with 107 Coalition soldiers and over 1,200 insurgents killed in what was to become the bloodiest battle of the war and the fiercest urban conflict experienced since Vietnam.
To make matters worse, 2004 also saw the infamous scandal at the Abu Ghraib Prison. Photos were released of U.S. soldiers abusing, rape, sodomization, torturing and killing Iraqi prisoners of war, leading to international outcry over the dozens of recorded human rights violations.
While 2005 saw the first democratic election in Iraq for over two decades, the ratification of a constitution, the fighting continued to increase as sectarian violence and anti-coalition attacks threatened to plunge the country into a civil war, with the death toll of May 2005 alone being higher than any previous month of the war.
On May 20th, 2006, the Iraqi government replaced the Provisional Authority, but the conflict showed no signs of slowing down and was now recognized by the U.N. to be a civil war. The February 22 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims, is largely credited as being one of the most exacerbating moments of the war, as it triggered a wave of sectarian violence and reprisal killings. Additional charges of abuse from U.S. soldiers also began to surface, including reports of 5 marines raping and killing a 14-year old girl before incinerating the body.
By 2007, it became clear that a change in tactics was required to establish peace in the region. On January 21st, President Bush announced a plan to deploy an additional 20,000 U.S. troops in a strategy that has now become known as the Surge. 2007 would then become the bloodiest year of the war, with combat fatalities in Baghdad rising to 3.14 deaths a day within the first seven weeks, and leading to the infamous Qahtaniya bombings in which 796 civilians were wounded and 1,562 were killed, making it the second worst act of terrorism in world history. At the end of the year, levels of violence began to drop, but speculation remains whether this was as a result of the surge or the increased use of covert tactics by the U.S. as a means to debilitate the insurgent activities.
During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, one of the hallmark issues of debate was the continuation of combat operations in Iraq. President Bush’s handling of the war was widely criticized, leading to record lows in his approval ratings, and was seen as an indictment of the Republican Party’s foreign policy. After election, President-Elect Barack Obama pledged an end to the war. Iraqi Security Forces, trained by U.S. troops, had begun to take over more combat duties, including an Iraqi-lead assault on Mosul, regarded to have been the last remaining al-Qaeda stronghold in the nation. President Bush would then sign a bilateral agreement to see all U.S. troops exit the nation by December 31st, 2011.
Under President Obama, the shift of control from U.S. soldiers to Iraqi Security Forces continued in 2009 and 2010, with Operation Iraqi Freedom being renamed Operation New Dawn to signify the increased emphasis on Iraq adopting a policy of self-reliance. Civilian death tolls reached their lowest points since the beginning of the war in 2003. Abu Ayyub al-Masri, leader of al-Qaeda forces in Iraq, was killed on April 18th, 2010, which was described by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency. President Obama then pledged an end to all major combat operations by August 19th, 2010, and the reduction of active military to a few peacekeeping regiments to further assist the Iraqi military.
While sporadic deaths continued during 2011, the last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18th, 2011. The Iraq War had been one of the most defining and divisive conflicts of the current era. It has shaped the political ideals of an entire generation, whether they be for or against. Lasting 8 years, 8 months and 3 weeks, the Iraq War has cost the lives of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians according to varying estimates, and 4,485 soldiers killed from the U.S. alone. It is the second longest war in U.S. history, and having cost between $900 billion and $3 trillion, it is regarded as one of the most expensive military operations of all time.