Gulf War 2: The 2003 Invasion of Iraq

As was stated in the introduction to this section, history is not an exact science. It is impossible to know everything about any historic event, and with complicated events, what we know is generally but a fraction of the twists and turns of the things that actually occur on the ground, let alone in the heart and minds of the figures responsible for those events. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by United States and coalition forces is one such case, a conflict about which much has been written, but conclusions that have been reached by supporters and critics of the war are contradictory and sometimes at odds with what may in fact be the truth. Concerning the combat phase of the war, which lasted only a matter of weeks, nothing of a controversial nature about the actual fighting itself has been evident. However, the controversy surrounding the war involves the issue of whether it should have been fought in the first place, and how the occupation that followed the end of combat was handled.

The entire story cannot be told here, but a brief overview will cover the major points, and suggestions for further research will be included at the end. Further, the causes and results of the Second Gulf War that began in 2003 have been examined by historians, military analysts, journalists and others in an attempt to understand the war in all its ramifications. It is clear, however, that a complete picture of everything that occurred, including what went on in the minds of those responsible for the conduct of the war and the occupation of Iraq that followed may never be revealed. What follows is an analysis of what we think we know about the major events based on the available information. It may happen in the future that documents concerning the conflict may become declassified, after which more will be known about the causes and effects of the war.

us tanks in iraqThe Iraq War, also called the Second Persian Gulf War, began in March, 2003. It was in some ways an extension of the first Persian Gulf War, called Operation Desert Storm, that occurred in 1990-1991. In that war a coalition of forces led by the United States drove the Iraqi army out of the nation of Kuwait, which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had invaded months earlier. Saddam remained in power, however, and continued to preside over an oppressive regime that resisted uprisings by Kurds and Shi'ite Arabs. He was viewed as a ruthless dictator who carried out inhumane policies even towards his own people. Although the Operation Desert Storm was considered a successful military campaign, some critics and other observers felt that the operation had ended too soon, and that Saddam Hussein should have been overthrown. That feeling persisted and helped form the decisions that led to the Second Persian Gulf War.

During the years following Desert Storm, claims were made that Saddam was developing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, which could be used against dissidents within his own nation or against other nations in the region. The threat of those weapons contributed to the general instability that had seemed to plague that part of the world for decades. In response, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq in an attempt to prevent Saddam from developing what were called weapons of mass destruction (WMDs.) Sanctions against Iraq were implemented by the United Nations to prevent the Iraqi government from developing WMDs. When violations were detected, President Clinton ordered American forces to bomb Iraqi installations thought to be producing those weapons. Subsequently, however, Saddam refused to allow UN inspectors into Iraq to investigate whether those weapons were in fact being produced. His refusal contributed to the decision by the United States and coalition partners to conduct further military operations against Iraq.

Another factor that kept American attention focused on the nation of Iraq was a possible connection between the events of September 11, 2001, and the presence in Iraq of supporters of al-Qaeda who might have found a sanctuary in that country. Anger over that attack continued to fester in the United States long after the event itself, and that anger may also have fed into the decision-making process that led the United States to invade Iraq for the second time. The belief that Saddam had an ongoing program to develop WMDs persisted, and that belief, whether justified or not, provided the chief rationale for the invasion. The fact that intelligence failures also contributed to the decision to invade Iraq a second time added to the controversy that surrounded the war.

Regarding the intelligence assessment about possible WMDs, one case illustrates the problem that arose. The CIA sent a former Ambassador to Niger Joseph Wilson to investigate whether Iraq had imported tons of uranium from that country, as had been claimed. Ambassador Wilson met with the leader of Niger and others and concluded that it was very unlikely that such a purchase could have been made. The ambassador later heard president Bush declare in his State of the Union address in January 2003 that, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” From what he had learned during his trip to Niger, the former ambassador believed that the information was incorrect and should not have been included in the address. Attempts to set the record straight were unsuccessful, and Wilson later wrote an op-ed supporting his conclusion that appeared in the New York Times. In apparent retaliation for his op-ed, the ambassador’s wife, a covert CIA operative named Valerie Plame, was exposed. The resulting so-called Plame affair continued for some time, and as a byproduct of the investigation, one former administration official was convicted of lying to a grand jury about the incident.

In any case, whether correct or faulty, the alleged intelligence regarding the presence of WMDs in Iraq led the impetus toward war, and the invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003. Troops from the United States, Great Britain and other countries quickly overcame the Iraqi army, which is not mounted serious resistance against the invaders. American troops entered the city of Baghdad, and President Bush declared a military victory on May 1. At that point the occupation of Iraq began, even though the coalition forces had no concrete plan for the aftermath of the conflict and occupation.

Following the weeks of heavy fighting that led to his downfall, Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders went into hiding. He sent messages to his followers urging them to resist his being deposed. For months American troops followed leads from intelligence sources and reports that he had been sighted. They eventually tracked Saddam down and found him hiding in a cave in the ground. He was captured in December 2003 and was later transported to an American base in the Baghdad area. Under questioning Saddam defended himself as a just leader who was not guilty of the charges against him. He was eventually tried by an Iraqi court and was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. Saddam was executed in December 2006 at an Iraqi army base.

During the period following the fall of Saddam’s regime, an insurgency developed in resistance to the occupation, which resulted in violence that coalition forces struggled for several years to control. As the American occupation of Iraq continued, it became clear that ending internal conflict and restoring law and order would be difficult. What President George Bush called “sectarian violence” escalated into a kind of guerrilla warfare that resulted in far more casualties to American and other coalition troops than occurred during the initial weeks of combat. Thousands of Iraqi citizens also died during the fighting in the occupation period. In addition, the Iraqi economy was in shambles and was saddled with high amounts of debt and few resources, in part due to the sanctions that had been imposed. The situation remained chaotic long after victory in the war itself had been declared.

Although additional troops were sent to Iraq later to try to help restore the country to a semblance of peace and order, not to mention prosperity, criticism of the war on the American home front continued, and people began to question not only the conduct of the war and its aftermath, but the decisions that had led to the war being undertaken in the first place. The criticism was directed not only against the Bush administration but also against Great Britain’s Tony Blair, who had been a loyal coalition partner from the beginning.

Reaction to the war in retrospect was mixed—some critics felt that it was unnecessary interventionism in a part of the world where American interests were limited; others felt that because of the brutal policies of Saddam Hussein and his regime, military action was necessary. Eventually, however, critics of the war came to agree that the occupation had been badly mishandled and had been undertaken without a clear program to resolve the conditions that the war had created. The issue became a factor in the election of 2004, which President Bush won by a small margin.

The fact that thousands of American troops remained in the country after American combat units were withdrawn to oversee the transition to a peaceful regime continued to focus attention on the region. In late 2006 bipartisan investigation was conducted by the Iraq Study Group which met to investigate the situation in the country. The study concluded that conditions in Iraq were “grave and deteriorating.” Following release of the study, President Bush decided to send an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq in another attempt to help stabilize the country. Although the level of violence continued for a time, it gradually abated for a variety of reasons, including changes in the postwar Iraqi government. In 2008 an agreement between the Iraqi government and the United States was signed that laid out a plan for the eventual withdrawal of American troops. The final withdrawal was scheduled to occur by December 31, 2011, and at the end of the year 2011, President Obama ordered the last American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.


  • Spencer C. Tucker. U.S. Conflicts in the 21st Century: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, and the War on Terror. 3 vols. ABC-CLIO, 2015
  • Galbraith, Peter W. (2007). The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
  • Gates, Robert M. (2014). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
  • Gordon, Michael R. (2006). Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.
  • Bruce R. Pirnie; Edward O'Connell. Counterinsurgency in Iraq (2003–2006). Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2008.
  • Thomas E. Ricks (2006). Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin, 2007.


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Updated April 6, 2020