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20 Years After The Iraq War

Giovanni Sale, SJ - Sat, Nov 11th 2023

20 Years After The Iraq War

‘Iraqi Freedom’

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by a large international “Coalition of the Willing” led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The stated goal was to topple Saddam Hussein, in power since 1979, who was accused of hiding weapons of mass destruction and protecting and financing terrorist groups, particularly al Qaeda.[1] The operation, dubbed “Iraqi Freedom,” was part of the so-called “Global War on Terrorism” waged by the U.S., which had already led to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and later, in March 2003, to the invasion of Iraq. Two parallel wars, driven by the spirit of revenge for the attacks on U.S. territory by al Qaeda and for the thousands of people killed, and at the same time by a desire to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East. The occupations, despite the extraordinary speed of the invasions (in which the allied forces fielded unprecedented firepower), actually lasted many years – the first 20 and the second 9 – and were disastrous, both in terms of the U.S. budget and the number of casualties, including military and civilians. In both cases it has been said that while the military and the Pentagon “got the job done quickly, the politicians failed to win the peace.”[2]

With Saddam deposed and the Baath Party marginalized, the conquering coalition was partly banking on the secular elites and leaders such as Ahmad Chalabi[3] and Iyad Allawi. But Shiites, seeking revenge, turned instead to religious figures such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,[4] clerics belonging to the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, and personalities such as Muqtada al-Sadr. The fall of the dictator represented a unique opportunity for the Iraqi Shiite community to gain a position of strength that had been denied it for decades. This would open the door to “a dark scenario of fratricidal strife that in some ways echoed what had happened in Pakistan in the previous decade.”[5]

Before the invasion

The events leading up to the invasion are now well known and part of history. First and foremost was President George W. Bush’s speech to the American people, his 2003 State of the Union address promising a swift and radical intervention in Iraq to avert a growing threat to the U.S. emerging from one of the most dangerous regions on earth: “Seldom,” he said, “has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many.”[6] He claimed that Saddam Hussein was the “ultimate evil” and had to be eradicated. He promised that the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, would soon reveal information to the UN Security Council about programs to build weapons of mass destruction conducted by Iraq and links between its political class and international terrorism. He also affirmed that, if he deemed it necessary, he would act without the consent of the United Nations.

In the United States, as well as in many Western countries, voices were raised against an invasion, but the ruling political elite, the military, security agencies and most of the press sided with the president and his advisers. In the Senate debate, Joe Biden admonished the Republican administration not to commit “the sin of Vietnam,”[7] even though he later supported the resolution in the final vote. Three years later he called his support a mistake. In addition, Vice President Dick Cheney, an eager supporter of intervention, claimed that there was evidence in Niger of Saddam’s purchase of uranium to build nuclear weapons, and that action had to be taken before it was too late.

On February 5, 2003, the Secretary of State, as expected, showed the U.N. evidence – later found to be false – of Saddam’s Iraq developing “weapons of mass destruction.” At the end of his speech to the Security Council, Powell brandished a test tube filled with white powder in front of the cameras. It was “material proof,” he claimed, of the Iraqi dictator’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Years later, in 2005, he admitted that that act still pained him.

The American source was an Iraqi engineer, Rafid al-Janabi, who, in order to obtain asylum in Germany, had made supposedly important disclosures to that country’s intelligence services, namely that there were troops in Iraq ready to employ chemical weapons hidden from UN inspections. Even at that time, German intelligence considered these claims to have little credibility, while U.S. intelligence took them at face value, deeming them sufficient to trigger a war.[8]

On February 15, 2003, millions of people around the world mobilized in demonstrations of all kinds against the war. The “pacifist” diplomatic front was led largely by two major nations, Chirac’s France and Schröder’s Germany. Pope John Paul II openly condemned the unjustified “preventive war.”[9] Italy, like other Western countries, joined the international coalition in favor of armed intervention.

In short, out of that decision came the turmoil that for years rocked the Middle East and the entire world. Out of it sprang first chaos and civil war in Iraq, and then the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” (a splinter group from al Qaeda), starting in the al-Anbar and Mosul region and eventually conquering part of Syria and threatening the security of the entire region. This war also gave Iran, which supported Iraq’s Shiite majority, a chance to become a first-tier regional power.

The War of March 20, 2003

The war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003. It was a campaign, it has been said, characterized by surprise, the shock of a powerful and lightning-fast attack. The air and ground assault quickly annihilated the Iraqi armed forces, which were then the fourth most powerful army in the world. Baghdad was captured in just over three weeks. Saddam disappeared on the very night of the attack, after bidding farewell to his General Staff and making an appointment to meet them the following day. The Iraqi army of nearly half a million soldiers at first responded to the invasion; later it dispersed, overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the coalition army, but especially when its officers abandoned the battlefield. The troops returned to their home villages, that is, to the Sunni area of Iraq, between Tikrit, Saddam’s home country, and Mosul, which was the capital of the country’s ethnic minority that had long been in power.

In such Sunni villages, resistance to the Western occupiers was organized a few months later, forcing the coalition army to change its original plan of attack and to study new counterinsurgency techniques to combat guerrilla groups. Starting in 2006, the majority of these officers of Saddam’s army would form the military and political apex of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” headed by the bloodthirsty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (a declared enemy of the Shiites) and later becoming Isis (or Daesh, in Arabic).

The coalition soldiers, in general, were welcomed by much of the population, particularly the Shiites, who had long suffered from the sectarian bias of Saddam’s regime. The general who led U.S. troops in Iraq, David Petraeus, says in this regard, “We were welcomed as liberators. Massive mistakes were made later, and I am ready to acknowledge them, but most Iraqis wanted to overthrow Saddam’s brutal regime.”[10]

In any case, weapons of mass destruction were never found. Al Qaeda was never welcomed by the rais, partly because its radical Islamist ideology was not shared. Osama bin Laden, for his part, would never have taken refuge in Iraq, and in any case would not have trusted Saddam.

Interpretations of the war in Iraq

The most symbolic moment of the first phase of the war was when, on April 9, the large bronze statue of the dictator (12 meters high) in Firdous Square in central Baghdad was torn down by American soldiers. Their action anticipated in effigy what was to happen next. On December 13, 2003, Saddam was found by U.S. forces hiding in a basement in Tikrit; he was hanged, after a summary judgment delivered by an Iraqi court, on December 30, 2006.

By April 15, 2003, all of Iraq’s major cities were in the hands of the coalition army; on May 1, President Bush affirmed that the goals of the Iraq war had been achieved and declared the large-scale military operations over. However, the conflict continued with increasing intensity for another eight years, transforming from a conventional into a guerrilla war. The former had been won, but in its place an endless asymmetrical conflict of ambushes, beheadings, and suicide truck bomb attacks would go on for a long time.

Among historians, there has been much debate about the real political or strategic motivations that prompted the Bush administration in 2003 to wage a war that committed the U.S. and its allies, on another Middle Eastern front, to fight against one of the world’s largest and most modern armies.[11] According to so-called “realists,” Bush, advised by the hawks in his administration (including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz), would take advantage of the contingent situation (fighting terrorism) to “redo the war in Iraq” after the 1991 Kuwait war. In fact, for many conservatives, the mistake Bush-senior had made in that war was to have stopped at the liberation of Kuwait, defeating the Iraqi army, without having gone on to Baghdad, thus saving the Baathist regime, which remained in power. Now, as the president said in the 2003 State of the Union address, the “history offered a greater opportunity.”[12]

According to others, it was primarily ideological motivations that drove the Bush administration to act against Saddam, considered one of the most ruthless dictators in the Middle East, in order to “bring democracy” to that region, an action which the U.S. considered relevant to world security. Max Boot, a leading neoconservative ideologue, wrote in this regard, “The invasion of Iraq would give the opportunity to install the first Arab democracy and show the Middle East that America is as committed to them as it was to the former communists of Eastern Europe.”[13] Other analysts suspect that there were also economic reasons, such as the control of regions very rich in hydrocarbons, that prompted Western armies to go into “the land of the two rivers,” and particularly into the Mesopotamian desert, especially since the U.S. did not yet have energy self-sufficiency at that time.

What kind of democracy was then “exported” to Iraq? Certainly not the Western type, based on the principle of representation and the rule of law. In 2004, Governor Paul Bremer announced the dissolution of the U.S.-led Iraqi Interim Governing Council and the formation of Iraq’s first real interim government, the so-called Iraqi Interim Government, which was to lead the country to the first multiparty elections in its history on January 30, 2005 (as in fact happened). It was formed based on the same criteria as the previous executive, which ended up being the model for the Iraqi democracy that was being established, based on overtly ethnic and tribal criteria.

The new government consisted of 25 members, including 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds and two representatives of smaller communities, namely Turkmen and Chaldean Christians. It was, in short, a kind of “Lebanon-ization of Iraqi politics, in which a numerical majority of Shiites was not enough to speak of democracy.”[14] This structure was conceived and to some extent imposed, despite protests from Iraqi secular intellectuals and by the Western occupiers, because it was deemed the most consonant with the country’s traditions.

Mistakes and weaknesses of the coalition

Nine years of uninterrupted war, occupation and guerrilla warfare caused a frightening number of casualties. According to the Iraq Body Count Project, from the beginning of the war until the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, more than 110,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the conflict, while the number of fallen coalition soldiers was 4,910, the vast majority of whom were American.[15]

Once Saddam was defeated, Bremer – who had previously been ambassador to Baghdad – made a tragic mistake that would produce serious consequences in the long run. He issued an order banning anyone who had belonged to the Baath Party,[16] virtually the entire military and civilian apparatus of the Iraqi state. Within months of the occupation, tens of thousands of senior officers of the armed forces, civil servants of all ranks, police officers and many others were left without jobs and salaries. Most of them were Sunnis, who were a minority in the country and were very loyal to the regime. Thus a great wealth of professional experience and expertise was excluded, indeed offered to the enemy, who immediately took advantage of it, recruiting these people into irregular groups to fight the coalition. After a few years, it was they who represented the political leadership of the Islamic State.

According to General Petraeus, dismissing the Iraqi army without guaranteeing a salary to support soldiers and their families and pursuing a policy of open opposition to and purging of members of Saddam’s party without first agreeing on a policy of reconciliation were disastrous choices. “Along the way,” he said in an interview with la Repubblica, “hard lessons were learned, until we developed the counterinsurgency field manual and improved the preparedness of our units.”[17] Then he adds, referring to the present situation, “I hope we will not forget these lessons, because even though we are now shifting our focus to the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe, we continue to assist local partners fighting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and northeastern Syria.”[18]

The fight against what remains of Isis and al Qaeda is not yet over; indeed, murderous attacks in these regions, even in recent months, are becoming more frequent and claiming many civilian victims. However, not everyone in the U.S. agrees with the analysis made by General Petraeus. There are Pentagon leaders who would like the U.S. military to forget the long Middle East experience (and the attack strategies used there) as soon as possible and turn to new strategies of action and objectives that are more important and meaningful to American policy.

Another mistake made at the beginning of the war was to include in the defense and interior ministries people who belonged to Iranian-financed militias. The kind of democracy that was implanted, starting in 2005, on the Afghan or Lebanese model had nothing substantial to offer and only contributed to increased political and social strife.

Among the most important effects of the invasion should be mentioned: the civil war that broke out between 2006 and 2008; the weakening of state structures; the establishment of a political system that distributed power and resources on a confessional basis, openly favoring the Shiites, who had now become, with American and especially Iranian support, the real masters of the country. It should be remembered that this system came into effect without first taking a census of the population to determine the numbers of each of the three basic components of society: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.[19]

In short, 20 years later, the invasion has left Iraq mired in financial and administrative corruption. The state is dominated by factions that resort to arms to impose their authority. “Iraq,” writes journalist Raed al-Hamid, “has become a battleground for other regional and international powers, particularly the United States and Iran, who seek to exert their influence over the country, while political forces are subservient to unstable balances and alliances.”[20]

Today, Iraq still appears far from the democracy the U.S. would have liked to install in one of the most important and oil-rich countries in the Middle East. Rather, there is a so-called “hybrid” system in Iraq, based on an understanding between the leaders of the major parties, who make the most important decisions and manage armed militias that are always ready to intervene. This system, which has been in place for several years, weakens the democratic process and fosters cronyism and corruption. Young people are not resigned to this state of affairs and dream, as in the 2019 uprisings, of a new “Arab Spring.”

New perspectives

The war in Iraq had very important and lasting consequences for the way a conflict is conducted. It reshaped both the conventional strategy of attack (which was taught in military academies), as an asymmetric war was being fought, and how to use effectively the new, very technologically advanced weapons, such as the Abrams tank and the Chinook helicopter. For the first six years of occupation, the number of U.S. troops engaged in the theater of war never fell below 120,000 combatants. It was President Barack Obama, in 2011, who withdrew, as he had promised on the campaign trail, troops from the Land of the Two Rivers, only to send a good number of them back after the Islamic State attacked northern Iraq and Syria in 2014. Today there are still about 2,500 U.S. troops in that territory.

The cost of military operations in Iraq, from 2003 until the end, exceeded $800 billion, according to one conservative estimate, and a trillion, according to other estimates. Never had a war cost so much. Despite the fact that the Obama administration had set the Pacific – and particularly the military confrontation with China, and no longer the Middle East – as the pivot of U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. military still devoted most of its efforts for many years to fighting irregular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A large number of naval officers could be trusted,” said one U.S. government adviser, “to explain the intricacies of every street in Baghdad, but far fewer of them know the military and diplomatic geography of maritime Southeast Asia.”[21]

China, for its part, had become a superpower in those years, quadrupling its economy. During the years of the war in the Middle East, it observed and studied with great attention the movements of the armies engaged in Iraqi territory. It noted acutely that they relied on large military bases set up near the theater of war and on carefully planned and secure logistics, as well as guaranteed constant access to satellites. Soon after, China sought to upgrade its military arsenal with very technologically advanced weapons capable of rivaling those of the United States.

After the harsh Iraqi experience, the Pentagon became increasingly aware “that its main competitors were no longer regional threats, such as Iraq and the Yugoslavias of the world,”[22] but major economic and military powers, such as China. The recent war in Ukraine and the threat of an invasion of Taiwan or a possible conflict between powers in the Indo-Pacific has pushed the Pentagon to a change in its military strategy, to adapt to the changed international situations.

In conclusion, the war that was fought in Iraq in 2003 was costly and counterproductive, leaving painful and lasting scars on the victor.


[1].      Saddam Hussein for almost 35 years (1979-2003) was the Sunni leader who ruled with an iron fist over a Shiite majority population. In this respect, his was a regime that constituted the rule of an elite minority over a majority that could not adequately assert itself for many years. For decades, in fact, Iraqi Shiites (who make up about 60 percent of the population) had been subjected to a regime that had constantly marginalized them, when not persecuting them outright, and subjecting them to mass violence. Cf. M. Campanini – S. M. Torelli, Lo scisma della mezzaluna. Sunniti e sciiti, la lotta per il potere, Milan, Mondadori, 2017, 94.

[2].      A. Nicastro, “Iraq vent’anni dopo: nostalgia, mazzette e barche sul Tigri”, in Corriere della Sera, March 19, 2023.

[3].      Iraqi Ahmad Chalabi was already being pursued by an arrest warrant in Jordan for fraudulent bankruptcy and was known for his radically anti-Sunnite positions. Cf. M. Emiliani, Medio Oriente. Una storia dal 1991 a oggi, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2012, 161f.

[4].      Ali al-Sistani was the undisputed leader of the Iraqi Shiite clergy and the spiritual leader of the Shiite uprising. Unlike Khomeini, he had always advocated a more moderate and less activist position in the overtly political sphere. According to him, the new Iraq should not have followed Khomeini’s revolutionary model, but should have been based on more democratic and, so to speak, secular principles. Cf. M. Campanini – S. M. Torelli, Lo scisma della mezzaluna…, op. cit., 98.

[5].      Ibid., 94.

[6].      “How the Iraq war became a threat to American democracy”, in The Economist, March 22, 2023.

[7].      Ibid.

[8].      Cf. D. Quirico, “Iraq, 20 anni senza un perché”, in La Stampa, March 20, 2023.

[9].      The Holy See at that time put in place its “peace diplomacy” to prevent the war. In early March, the pope had sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to talk to Saddam, and Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Nuncio to the United States, to meet with President Bush, asking him not to invade Iraq. But the latter refused to comply with the pope’s urgent request, declaring that “liberating” that country was God’s will. In short, the arguments in favor of so-called “preventive war” prevailed, even though intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was false. On Sunday, March 16, shortly before the invasion, during the Angelus, the pope said, “Faced with the tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the people of Iraq and for the balance of the entire Middle East, which is already so tried, as well as for the extremisms that could result, I say to everyone: there is still time to negotiate, there is still time for peace, it is never too late to understand each other and to continue to negotiate.” Recall that the Catholic-Chaldean minority, which has always been present in the country, at the beginning of the civil war was attacked from both sides; with the creation of the Islamic State, they were cruelly persecuted and had to leave their home territory. Many left Iraq, never to return.

[10].    P. Mastrolilli, “Petraeus: Paragonare Iraq e Ucraina è follia. Ma a Baghdad abbiamo fatto errori”, in la Repubblica, March 20, 2023.

[11].    Cf. A. Beccaro, La guerra in Iraq, Bologna, il Mulino, 2013, 24; Z. Cheaab, Dentro la resistenza. La guerra in Iraq, la rivolta del Medio Oriente, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2006; J.-M. Benjamin, Iraq. L’effetto boomerang. Da Saddam Hussein allo Stato Islamico 1991-2003-2015, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 2015, 56.

[12].    “How the Iraq war became a threat to American democracy”, op. cit.

[13].    A. Nicastro, “Iraq vent’anni dopo: nostalgia, mazzette e barche sul Tigri”, op. cit.

[14].    M. Emiliani, Medio Oriente…, op. cit., 168.

[15].    Cf. D. Raineri, “Ritorno a Baghdad. 20 anni dopo la guerra: un Paese ancora diviso sull’intervento Usa”, in la Repubblica, March 18, 2023. The number of Italians killed was 33, of which 25 fell in Nassiriya.

[16].    Cf. M. Emiliani, Medio Oriente…, op. cit., 164.

[17].    P. Mastrolilli, “Petraeus: Paragonare Iraq e Ucraina è follia. Ma a Baghdad abbiamo fatto errori”, op. cit.

[18].    Ibid.

[19].    Cf. R. al-Hamid, “Vent’anni dopo l’invasione statunitense”, in Internazionale, March 24, 2023, 35.

[20].    Ibid.

[21].    “How the Iraq war bent America’s army out of shape”, in The Economist, March 21, 2023.

[22].    Ibid.


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