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date: 21 January 2021

US War in Iraq since 2003free

  • Timothy Andrews SayleTimothy Andrews SayleDepartment of History, University of Toronto


In March 2003 US and coalition forces invaded Iraq. US forces withdrew in December 2008. Approximately 4,400 US troops were killed and 31,900 wounded during the initial invasion and the subsequent war. Estimates of Iraqi casualties vary widely, ranging from roughly 100,000 to more than half a million. The invasion was launched as part of the US strategic response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and ended the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. After the collapse of the regime, Iraq experienced significant violence as former regime loyalists launched insurgent attacks against US forces, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group linked to al-Qaeda, also attacked US forces and sought to precipitate sectarian civil war. Simultaneously with the increasing violence, Iraq held a series of elections that resulted in a new Constitution and an elected parliament and government. In 2007, the United States deployed more troops to Iraq to quell the insurgency and sectarian strife. The temporary increase in troops was known as “the Surge.” In November 2008, the US and Iraqi governments agreed that all US troops would withdraw from Iraq by December 2011. In 2014, AQI, now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), attacked and captured large swaths of Iraq, including several large cities. That year, the United States and allied states launched new military operations in Iraq called Operation Inherent Resolve. The government of Iraq declared victory over ISIL in 2017.

From Desert Shield to the Iraq Liberation Act (1990–1999)

In 1990, in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the United States deployed troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. In 1991, US and allied forces evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm and under the authorization of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 678.1 While the United States inflicted tremendous casualties on Iraqi armed forces during this Persian Gulf War, US forces did not march on Baghdad nor compel the resignation of Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath of the war, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to suppress uprisings by Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq, and Iraqi Shiites in the south. In the early 1990s, United Nations weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, especially its nuclear weapons program, were better developed than had been previously understood. Following the Persian Gulf War, Iraq was heavily sanctioned by the international community. Under the United Nations Security Council resolution, Iraq was obligated to destroy all chemical and biological weapons, and all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers. Iraq was already obligated not to develop nuclear weapons under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but it was determined after Desert Storm that Iraq had been seeking materials for such a program.2 This category of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons came to be known as “weapons of mass destruction” or “WMD.”

Following Saddam Hussein’s crackdown, the United Nations established “no-fly-zones” over the country’s northern and southern thirds, prohibiting Iraqi air forces from operating in those regions. The zones were patrolled by US and UK air patrols. These patrols were frequently fired upon by Iraqi air defense forces. In 1998, US and UK forces initiated Operation Desert Fox, a sustained bombing campaign against Iraqi air defenses.

The events of the 1990s helped establish strong anti-Iraq sentiment in US political and foreign policy circles. The Iraqi attack on Kuwait, a later assassination attempt against President George H. W. Bush seemingly organized by Saddam Hussein, the brutality of the crackdown after the war and the inhumanity of the regime in general, and sustained lobbying of Americans by Iraqi exiles led President Bill Clinton to sign into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1999. The effect was to enshrine the “policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”3

September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror (2001–2003)

Figure 1. President George W. Bush meets with his National Security Council in the Cabinet Room of the White House on September 12, 2001. Seated with the President from left are: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Secretary of State Colin Powell; and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, no. 5997266.

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four commercial jetliners. They purposely crashed two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon outside Washington, DC. A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers overwhelmed the hijackers.

Senior administration officials raised the idea of taking action against Iraq as a response to the 9/11 attacks as early as the afternoon of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, the United States invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden and the leadership of al-Qaeda. The attack on Afghanistan, however, was considered by the administration as only one part of the US response to 9/11. The US strategic concept that emerged after 9/11 called for efforts to prevent any future terror attack on the United States. The strategy, championed especially by officials from the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense, called for action against any terrorist group or state sponsor of terrorism that may attack the United States, whether or not there was a direct connection between that group or state and the 9/11 attacks.

Iraq, both as a state that had developed and used weapons of mass destruction and one that supported terrorist groups (though not al-Qaeda), was frequently identified by officials as a target in the “war on terror.” Iraq also had more readily identifiable targets for military action, as opposed to Afghanistan, and an attack on Iraq would offer the US an opportunity to impress on other states that the development of weapons of mass destruction and the sponsorship of terrorist groups was unacceptable to the United States.

President Bush made this connection explicit in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he identified an “Axis of Evil,” including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. “By seeking weapons of mass destruction,” Bush said, “these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In one of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”4 A speech at West Point in June 2002, and the National Security Strategy of 2002, released to the public in September 2002, set out a policy variously referred to as pre-emption or anticipatory self-defense. This policy indicated that the United States would use force against a potential enemy “even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.”5 In October 2002, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the President to use military force against Iraq.

Invasion Planning and International and Domestic Politics (2001–2003)

Policy planning for a war, and the updating of existing war plans, began in earnest in the United States in 2002. Throughout the year, US officials worked to build a coalition of states to support and participate in potential military action against Iraq. In July 2002, UK officials reported that their conversations with US officials indicated war with Iraq was “inevitable.”6 There is little evidence, however, that President Bush had made a decision to invade Iraq at this point. A September 2002 meeting of senior administration officials at Camp David seems to have been an important turning point in the move toward war, although the United States was careful not to make an explicit commitment to war. The Bush administration took various other steps, including purposefully not establishing an office for managing post-war reconstruction in Iraq, so as not to signal inevitability of war and foreclose diplomatic options.

Both Bush’s main international ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell encouraged the President to use the United Nations to confront Iraq. In September 2002, after the Camp David meeting, President Bush spoke at the United Nations and effectively issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, saying: “If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose, and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles, and all related material.”7 In the months after Bush’s speech, the United Nations Security Council resolved, as per UNSCR 1441, to afford Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.”8 In response, Iraq submitted a 12,000 page document, but the records were incomplete and out of date and seemed to confirm that Iraq would not respond to UN requests.

In addition, after the Camp David meeting, in fall 2002, officials including Vice President Richard B. Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice led a sustained public relations campaign highlighting Saddam’s history of weapons of mass destruction programs and usage, and support of terrorism. Cheney suggested a link between one of the 9/11 hijackers and the Iraqi intelligence service, although this connection was dubious and the Central Intelligence Agency was skeptical of any connection. Rice, in emphasizing the potential effects of an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program, warned: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”9

In October 2002, the CIA issued a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, and also made available an unclassified summary of the NIE to the public. The key judgments from the NIE, titled “Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” included that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and would “probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade.”10 On February 3, 2003, the British government released a dossier of intelligence claiming an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction capability. Both the US NIE and UK dossier were analytically flawed documents. The US NIE suggested far more certainty about the existence and capability of Iraq’s WMD programs than was supportable by evidence.11 In the United Kingdom, the Iraq Inquiry that investigated the decision to go to war found that British intelligence reporting was similarly wanting.12

The NIE was significant in that it led to agreement within Congress to issue a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. The resolution passed in the House of Representatives with a vote of 296 to 133, and passed in the Senate 77–23. The NIE may have had a less significant effect on public opinion, which, in the United States, was already overwhelmingly in favor of war with Iraq. As early as January 2002, before the President identified the Axis of Evil in his State of the Union address, one poll found 77% of Americans supported military action against Iraq, with only 17% opposed.13 In the lead-up to the war, proponents of the assertive use of American power—dubbed “neoconservatives”—found common ground with champions of humanitarian intervention to help forge a bipartisan consensus in favor of war.14

In early 2003, Tony Blair pushed Bush to seek a new resolution that would alleviate any confusion as to whether the United Nations had authorized the use of military force against Iraq. US officials believed that sufficient authority existed in UNSCR 1441, passed in November 2002. Nonetheless, President Bush agreed to seek a second resolution, although US officials had determined they had the legal authority to act under already existing resolutions. Secretary of State Colin Powell briefed the United Nations Security Council on the evidence the United States had demonstrating that Saddam Hussein was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. Several members of the Security Council, including China, France, Germany, and Russia, resisted efforts by the United States to gain a second resolution. The result was no resolution, strained relations between the United States and its NATO allies, France and Germany, and an outpouring of public protest. On February 15, coordinated protests occurred in hundreds of cities around the world and in the United States, with some marches in major cities drawing hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters. To protest lack of French support, the cafeteria in the United States Capitol building renamed French Fries and French Toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast, respectively.

Without a second resolution, but with a large coalition of states willing to support US action, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons on March 17, urging them to leave Iraq within forty-eight hours or face “military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.”15

Invasion (2003)

Figure 2. US Marine Corps (USMC) personnel from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT1), assault a small town at the intersection of Route 7 and Route 17, in southern Iraq on March 27, 2003, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, no. 6636900.

At 9:30 pm Eastern Time on March 19, 2003, US missiles struck Iraq in an attempted decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein. Forty-five minutes later, Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office and explained that the United States was at war with Iraq. By this date, there were over 340,000 US military personnel ashore or afloat in the Persian Gulf region, another 47,000 from the United Kingdom, and 2,000 from Australia.16 Unlike Operation Desert Storm, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom, did not begin with an isolated air bombardment but with a combined air and ground assault. The ground force, launched from Kuwait, consisted of fewer than 150,000 US troops and approximately 20,000 coalition forces (mostly British). This relatively lean fighting force, designed to be agile and quick, sped toward Baghdad, frequently skirting other urban centers in a dash to the capital. The invasion was spectacularly successful and gained control of all major cities in Iraq within twenty-five days. On May 1, 2013, President Bush flew to the USS Abraham Lincoln wearing a flight suit and sitting in the co-pilot seat of a US Navy S-3B Viking. In a speech aboard ship, Bush declared “victory” and announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” The Abraham Lincoln, which was returning from supporting the invasion, bore a large banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” The phrase became closely associated with the President’s speech.

During the initial phase of combat operations and after, US forces searched for leading members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Saddam himself. Troops were issued a fifty-two-card deck of playing cards, called the “Personality Identification Playing Cards,” that featured the faces and information regarding the “most wanted” members of the former administration. Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein, the Ace of Hearts and the Ace of Clubs, respectively, were killed in June 2003. The Ace of Spades, Saddam Hussein, was captured in December 2002 and later executed in December 2006.

In addition to the search for key figures of the former regime, American forces searched Iraq for the weapons of mass destruction described in the 2002 NIE. US troops did find a small number of chemical weapons left over from the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War. The Iraq Survey Group, a multinational group of civilian and military experts who scoured Iraq for WMD, found no evidence that Saddam had sought to reactivate his nuclear weapons program after 1991 and concluded that he had disposed of his chemical weapons stockpile in the years after Desert Storm. Iraq’s biological weapons program had been abandoned in 1995. While Saddam desired to recreate a nuclear program, sanctions prevented him from doing so in the 1990s.17 The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence later determined that although the US intelligence community had assessed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and had biological and chemical weapons, “not one bit of it could be confirmed when the war was over.”18

Governance (2003–2005)

The summer of 2003 saw an increase in looting in urban centers, destruction of offices and facilities crucial to civil governance, and problems maintaining water and electricity services. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which had been established in the months preceding the invasion, operated in Iraq for two weeks before it was replaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Both entities sought to assist in reconstruction efforts and manage the transition to a new Iraqi government. In May 2003, the CPA Administrator, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, issued the CPA’s first two directives: CPA Order 1, “De-Ba’athification of Iraqi Society,” dismissed tens of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from government service. While many were later rehired, the Order and its implementation limited the pool of experienced administrators at a crucial time. CPA Order 2 disbanded the Iraqi military and intelligence services, leaving hundreds of thousands of weapons-trained Iraqis without employment. US commanders would later blame the CPA orders for Sunni alienation from the political process and for preparing “fertile ground for AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq].”19

Despite the end of major combat operations, insurgent attacks against US forces and other international targets continued into the summer months. In addition to various hit-and-run or guerrilla-type attacks, a number of suicide bombers struck important targets. In August 2003, a cement mixer packed with explosives destroyed the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, killing the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq and sixteen others.

At some point in late 2003 or early 2004, a Jordanian criminal, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, wrote to al-Qaeda’s leadership suggesting that spectacular attacks against Shia religious symbols might help draw the Iraqi Shias into a sectarian war.20 In 2004, he swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and his terrorist organization, which continued to attack US and coalition forces, was renamed al-Qaeda in Iraq. In March 2004, another al-Qaeda splinter group ambushed private military contractors from the Blackwater USA corporation. Four Americans were killed and their bodies mutilated. Videotape of a crowd celebrating below two of the bodies, hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River, received global coverage. President Bush, in response, ordered an attack on Fallujah that was called off; a second US effort to take the city succeeded in November 2004. In April 2004, photographs circulated in US and global media showing Iraqi prisoners being abused by US Military Police at the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. The photographs led to courts-martial and investigations, but also symbolized the lack of training and preparation for the post-war phase of hostilities.

In June 2004, the CPA prepared to end the state of occupation and transfer sovereignty back to Iraq. Given the increase in violence and risk of spectacular attack, Bremer opted to hold the transfer ceremony two days early. On June 28, the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved. Bush, informed of the transfer by a note passed to him at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, wrote on the note: “Let Freedom Reign!”21

Six months after the dissolution of the CPA, Iraq held an election for its National Assembly in January 2005. Parliamentarians elected in that election wrote a new Constitution for Iraq, and elections were held again in December 2005 under the new Constitution. After voting, Iraqis dipped their fingers in purple ink to confirm they had voted and prevent double-voting. Despite some attacks, the elections were not impeded by violence. Much of the Sunni population boycotted the election, however, raising worries among US officials that a significant part of the population did not consider the new Constitutional order legitimate.

Figure 3. In South Baghdad, an explosion goes off from a second car bomb aimed at US and Iraqi forces arriving to inspect the first car bomb detonated an hour earlier, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, no. 6642248.

Violence, Surge, and Awakening (2005–2007)

In November 2005, President Bush authorized the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (NSVI), a document meant to reaffirm existing US strategy in the war. US strategy as described in the NSVI was premised on the notion that political progress would lead to stability in Iraq. The elections in 2005 offered partial support for this strategy, but increasing violence in 2005 and especially in 2006 caused reconsideration in Washington and ultimately the development of a new strategy for 2007. On February 22, 2006, the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, a holy site for Shia, was destroyed by explosives. The destruction of the shrine did not mark the start of increasing violence, but did serve as a symbol of increased sectarian violence in Iraq as per Zarqawi’s plan. In April 2006, Iraqis elected a national government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and that same month, US forces killed Zarqawi. The increase in violence, combined with the election of a government and the death of the AQI leader, generated confusing signals as to whether the US strategy was working.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2006, various groups of officials in the National Security Council, State Department, Office of the Vice President, and at the direction of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff re-evaluated US policy in light of ever-increasing violence. After the 2006 midterm elections, in which the Republican Party suffered dramatic losses, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned and the President created a formal interagency body to study strategy in Iraq. The culmination of the informal evaluations earlier in 2006 and the formal group appointed in the fall was a Presidential decision to change strategy in Iraq to emphasize population security. In late 2006, President Bush and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley worked to bring skeptics of this new approach, including now-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on board. Bush also planned to appoint a new ground commander and ambassador in Iraq to support the new plan, dubbed “the Surge.” In January 2007, President Bush again spoke to the nation to announce what would be the deployment of approximately 30,000 more troops to Iraq.22

In 2007, the number of Army brigades and Marine regiments in Iraq increased. As expected and forewarned by the President in his speech announcing the Surge, violence initially increased in Iraq as more US troops arrived. The new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who had participated in the development of a new counter-insurgency manual, deployed troops into urban centers to quell sectarian violence. Special operations forces also pursued enemy leaders at a higher tempo, killing and capturing key figures including bombmakers. Petraeus also increased US support to Sunni militia groups that confronted AQI. This policy was made possible by an indigenous effort by some Sunni groups who rejected AQI’s brutal treatment of Iraqis. The movement, which had its origins before the Surge, was known as “Awakening,” or the “Anbar Awakening” for the Iraqi province of Anbar.

Although the surge of troops to Iraq was ultimately successful in reducing violence in Iraq, the strategy came under fierce political attack in 2007. The House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution against the surge plan. The public advocacy organization took out a full-page ad in the New York Times that made a play on the commanding general’s name, titling him “General Betray Us.” The Bush administration resisted pressure for early troop withdrawals. Scholars and analysts continue to debate whether the change in the security situation in 2007 and beyond was due to the Surge, the Awakening, or the fact that ethnic separation in Iraq had largely been achieved by the end of 2006, lessening the likelihood of sectarian strife.

Drawdown, Withdrawal, and Return (2007–2017)

In late 2008, the United States and Iraq began negotiations over the future relationship of the two states, and in particular the status of US forces and personnel in Iraq. After the invasion in 2003, the United Nations Security Council had determined the situation in Iraq to “constitute a threat to international peace and security,” and US and coalition forces had operated in Iraq under the authority of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions invoking Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.23

By late 2008, recourse to Chapter VII of the UN Charter was no longer a viable political option for the Iraqi government or, for that matter, the United States. President Bush and his administration sought to arrive at a new strategic agreement to ensure that the fragile gains achieved as a result of the surge could be protected. In November, the President agreed to Maliki’s request that a timetable be set on the drawing down of US forces in Iraq. On November 17, 2008, the Iraqi Parliament ratified the “Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq,” a status of forces agreement (SOFA). The agreement committed the United States to remove all combat forces from “major populated areas” by June 30, 2009 and to remove all US forces from Iraq by December 31, 2011.24

The negotiation and agreement of the SOFA had occurred after the November 2008 presidential election won by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. As a senator, Obama had opposed the surge and pushed a bill, called the Iraq War De-Escalation Act, to withdraw all US troops from Iraq in 2008. During the presidential campaign, he declared that during his first day in office “he would give the military a new mission: end this war,” with troops to be withdrawn within sixteen months. In February 2009, President Obama gave a major speech declaring that the US “combat mission” in Iraq would end on August 31, 2010.25 This provided three key dates for the drawdown of US troops: the withdrawal of troops from cities, as per the SOFA; the end of the combat mission, as per Obama’s speech; and the final withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011 as per the SOFA. The United States would comply with all three dates.

Throughout 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki moved to consolidate and expand his own personal political power and was accused of authoritarianism. In the March 2010 parliamentary elections, Iraqiya, a coalition party consisting of both Sunni and Shia politicians, won more seats than Maliki’s Shia Dawa Party. Stalemate ensued as Maliki refused to step down. Iran, which had long-standing interests and newly developed influence in Iraqi politics, supported Maliki. Iranian leaders sought to broker a deal that would see Maliki remain in power. Ultimately, the US leadership supported Maliki, too. The Obama administration seems to have believed Maliki would provide the stability and continuity necessary ahead of US midterm elections and the end of US troop presence. Maliki’s success alienated some Sunnis who had only reluctantly begun to participate in Iraqi politics and who, after participating in a winning election coalition, were denied power.

Approximately 50,000 US troops had remained in Iraq to serve in advisory and training roles after the end of combat operations in August 2010. On December 16, 2011, the last US troops withdrew from Iraq. The day after US troops left, Maliki issued an arrest warrant for the Iraqi vice president, who fled Iraq and was sentenced to death in absentia. Maliki continued to arrest political opponents and to use force against Sunni protesters.

In October 2006, AQI had taken the new name Islamic State of Iraq, though it was often still referred to as AQI. The group had been reduced in size and capacity during the surge. In 2011, AQI took advantage of the Syrian civil war to enter Syria and raise money and recruits, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, but also Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS). Maliki’s crackdown on Sunni politicians and protesters caused some Sunni Iraqis—even those who had resisted AQI during the Awakening—to support ISIL. As one British expert on Iraq put it, the Islamic State seemed, to the Sunnis, the “lesser of two evils when compared with Maliki.”26

In early 2014, ISIL fighters attacked the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Although they were expelled from Ramadi, they established a stronghold in Fallujah. From Fallujah and Anbar province, ISIL attacked and held Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014. ISIL committed a number of atrocities in Iraq and supported and sought to inspire terrorist attacks in the region, Europe, and North America. Iraqi government forces proved ineffective against ISIL and Maliki sought assistance from other states, including Iran and the United States. Iranian paramilitary forces entered Iraq to aid the fight against ISIL. The United States initially rebuffed requests for airstrikes until the summer of 2014. In August, the United States made military action against ISIL contingent on Maliki relinquishing power. On August 9, 2014, Obama announced that US forces had conducted strikes against ISIL.27 While Obama stated that the United States was “not going to have US combat troops in Iraq,” the United States took the lead in a multinational coalition of states supporting the Iraqi government with intelligence, airstrikes, and special operations forces operating in advisory roles. The US mission is named Operation Inherent Resolve. In July 2017, Iraqi government forces retook Mosul, and in December 2017, the Iraqi government declared military victory against ISIL. Operation Inherent Resolve continues.

Figure 4. US soldiers fire a howitzer in Iraq, August 12, 2018, while supporting Iraqi forces as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Army photo by 2nd Lt. Jamie Douglas, Photo Courtesy of Department of Defense, no. 180812-A-AB123-004C.JPG.

The Iraq War in US Politics and Culture

The invasion of Iraq and subsequent war was quickly absorbed into American politics and pop culture. The war featured as a prominent issue in the 2004 US presidential election, as President Bush defeated Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry. The Bush campaign accused Kerry of changing his position on the war: Kerry voted for the authorization to use military force in Iraq and then ran an election campaign critical of the war. While the Republicans faced a number of political problems in 2006, the state of violence in Iraq contributed to their midterm losses. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama called for an early withdrawal of troops while his opponent, Republican nominee Senator John McCain, criticized Obama’s plan. Throughout the war, Americans formed non-governmental groups to support the war, to act in service of returning troops, especially wounded veterans, and to oppose the war. Even after the withdrawal of American troops, the Iraq War played a role in presidential elections. In 2016, Republican presidential nominee and future President Donald J. Trump frequently and falsely claimed he had opposed the invasion of Iraq. These claims were used to distinguish himself from the traditional foreign policy establishment of the Republican Party and his Democratic rival, Hillary R. Clinton, who had voted for the authorization to use force against Iraq as a senator in 2002.

In March 2003, the lead singer of the musical group the Dixie Chicks told an audience in London, United Kingdom that the band was against the war and ashamed by the President. The band was boycotted and threatened as a result. The Iraq War served as the subject and background for a large number of music albums, Hollywood movies, television shows, and fiction. The US band Green Day claimed that its 2004 album “American Idiot” was inspired by the war, and a music video for the single “When September Comes” featured a cinematic Fallujah-style battle. Some films, such as 2008’s Stop-Loss, focused on the US policy colloquially referred to as the same name that required soldiers to return to active duty. Another 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, followed a fictional Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq as it confronted the improvised explosive devices that were a hallmark of the war. The movie won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture. On television, HBO ran a seven-part miniseries called Generation Kill that follows a Marine reconnaissance unit during the initial invasion. The miniseries, based on embedded journalist Evan Wright’s book of the same name, won three Emmys. Michael Moore, a US filmmaker, directed Fahrenheit 9/11, a high grossing documentary film that helped popularize a number of theories that the United States invaded Iraq to enrich the Bush family and other members of the administration. Late night programming on the television network Comedy Central, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and later The Colbert Report, regularly featured satirical segments related to the war in Iraq. Veterans of the Iraq War contributed many non-fictional and fictional accounts; the former Marine Philip Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, published by Penguin in 2014, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014 among other prizes.

Discussion of the Literature

The war in Iraq has received significant attention from analysts of contemporary affairs, political scientists, and, increasingly, historians. Edwin Moïse of Clemson University has developed an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources related to the wars in Iraq.28

Most Bush administration officials involved in the decision to invade or in the occupation have written memoirs. This includes President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.29 Douglas J. Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the lead-up to the war, has written an extensive account describing the strategic concept that emerged after September 11, 2011, and best explains the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Historian Melvyn Leffler has used the memoir accounts to describe the Bush administration’s foreign policy in historical perspective.30 Several of the ground commanders have also written accounts of the war, including Commander in Chief of Central Command Tommy Franks, Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, and General George W. Casey Jr.31

Several historians have sought to locate US foreign policy after September 11, 2001, including the decision to invade Iraq, in the broader context of the history of American foreign relations. See in particular a 2005 article by Melvyn Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy”; John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience; and Walter Russell Mead, Power, Terror, Peace and War.32 Hal Brands compares George W. Bush’s grand strategy to those of other presidents in What Good Is Grand Strategy?33 Several military historians have published accounts of the invasion itself. See especially Williamson Murray, The Iraq War.34 There are also accounts of the early stages of the war from an operational level, with one excellent example, Baghdad at Sunrise, written by solider-historian Peter Mansoor, describing the war from his perspective as brigade commander from 2003 to 2005. Some of the most useful accounts of the war were produced by the United States Combined Arms Center. See On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom and On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom.35 Tom Ricks’s Fiasco: The Military Adventure in Iraq offers an in-depth journalistic account of the planning, invasion, and subsequent violence to 2006.36 Michael R. Gordon and Bernard R. Trainor have written deeply researched accounts of both the invasion and the ongoing war.37

On the war within the context of the Bush presidency, Bob Woodward has written four volumes focused on the war on terror and the war in Iraq placed in the broader context of the administration’s policy and politics.38 The best single-volume account of the President is Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.39 For a scholarly consideration of Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s leadership, see Stephen Dyson’s Bush and Rumsfeld in Iraq.40

On politics and diplomacy at the United Nations, the essential reading is David Malone’s The International Struggle over Iraq: Politics in the UN Security Council, 1980–2005.41 On disagreement between the United States and its traditional European allies in the lead-up to war, see Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro, Allies at War: America and the Crisis over Iraq.42 On the planning and lead-up to the war, see the collection of essays in Thomas G. Mahnken and Thomas A. Keaney’s War in Iraq: Planning and Execution.43

Intelligence, and the role of and relationship between politics and intelligence in the pre-war period, have been the subject of much scholarship.44 The decision to surge troops has also received attention from journalists, scholars, policymakers, and soldiers.45 The effects of the Surge are the subject of scholarly debate: some scholars emphasize the role played by the US decision, others stress the importance of the Awakening, while still more point to a “synergy” between the two.46

Emma Sky, a political advisor to the Commanding General of US forces in Iraq from 2007–2010, has written an important account of the period leading up to the withdrawal.47 Joel Rayburn examines the state of Iraqi politics in Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance.48 There are several accounts of the connection between Zarqawi’s activities in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.49

Primary Sources

The National Security Archive’s Iraq Project hosts free and digitally available primary documentation on the war.50 The Digital National Security Archive’s “Targeting Iraq, Part 1: Planning, Invasion, and Occupation, 1997–2004,” is hosted by Proquest and contains over 2,000 documents. “Targeting Iraq” requires a subscription. The National Archives and Records Administration maintains a list of publicly available resources, photographs, and timelines related to “War in Iraq.”51

The main source for primary records will be the George W. Bush Presidential Library, although almost all relevant records remain security classified.52 The extensive inquiry into the United Kingdom’s decision to participate in the war has been archived online by the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and contains documents, interviews, and analysis.53 Some British records were initially published by Mark Danner, with analysis.54 All relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions are available online.

In preparing their memoirs, both Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith sought and partially succeeded in gaining public access to previously classified records. The Rumsfeld Papers are available online.55 Feith published thirty pages of records in an appendix to War and Decision.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Peter. Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
  • Biddle, Stephen, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro. “Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” International Security 37, no. 1 (July 7, 2012): 7–40.
  • Feith, Douglas. War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
  • Fontenot, Gregory, E. J. Degen, and David Tohn. On Point: The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004.
  • Gordon, Michael R., and Bernard E. Trainor. The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2013.
  • Jervis, Robert. Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.
  • Leffler, Melvyn P. “9/11 and American Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History 29, no. 3 (June 2015): 395–413.
  • Mahnken, Thomas G., and Thomas A. Keaney, eds. War in Iraq: Planning and Execution. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Mansoor, Peter R. Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Packer, George. The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
  • Rayburn, Joel. Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014.
  • Ricks, Thomas E. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
  • Sky, Emma. The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016.