A timeline and photos of a costly war
Sunday marks 20 years since US and coalition forces invaded Iraq on a mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and find weapons of mass destruction.
Former President George W. Bush and his administration bet the American public and the international community that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The coalition found no such weapon, and two years later the ADM Commission, established by Bush, acknowledged in a report that the “ADM” fiasco was “one of the most public intelligence failures – and most damaging – in recent American history”.
The forces succeeded in ousting Hussein from power, setting the stage for an arduous nation-building project that would span almost a decade.
When the United States withdrew in 2011, the costs of war were high:
- At least 4,480 American dead and more than 32,000 injured
- At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead
- At least $806 billion spent on war
- Thousands of soldiers with illnesses believed to be caused by exposure to burning fireplaces
In 2003, an American public still stunned by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 overwhelmingly supported the war. But public opinion has now changed. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 62% of Americans thought war was “not worth it.” In the same poll, 64% of veterans shared the same view.
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Bush and war supporters would continue to admit the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, but would maintain that the world would have been “much worse” had Hussein remained in power.
The Iraq war in pictures
In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush hinted that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
“This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world,” Bush said. “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil… The United States of America will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.
Just over a month before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an impassioned speech and presentation to the United Nations Security Council, claiming that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
The speech helped swing the American public in favor of the war. Powell, who died in 2021, would go on to regret the speech.
“I will always regret it,” Powell said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette five years later. “It was a terrible mistake on our part and the intelligence community… I wish it had been different.”
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As war became imminent, thousands of protesters across the United States and around the world marched.
After the deadline he had given Hussein to leave Iraq expired, Bush announced the start of the invasion on the evening of March 19, 2003.
US airstrikes hit Iraq to clear the way for invading troops.
After three weeks of fighting, American troops take Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and overthrow the statue of Hussein, symbolically ending his reign.
In May 2003, Bush declared “mission accomplished,” but the war would drag on for years as sectarian violence and insurgency engulfed the country.
Hussein was captured by US forces in December 2003. He will be tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity. He was executed in 2006.
The United States saw protests throughout the war.
President Barack Obama, elected in 2008, promised to withdraw troops from Iraq.
The United States completed its withdrawal from the country in December 2011, leaving security in the hands of the Iraqi government.
Major conflicts and violence would continue to rock the country. A rising terrorist group, ISIS, would emerge and conquer parts of neighboring Iraq and Syria in the mid-2010s.
Today, a small network of 2,500 American troops are stationed in the country as part of the United States’ continued partnership with Iraq.
Contributors: Tom Vanden Brook and Dan Nowicki, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press