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The beginning of the Iraq War in 2003

[This article was written in 2004. It was never published, and I have decided, fifteen years later, to post it online here.]

The invasion of Iraq was declared for the purpose of ending the decades-long dictatorship of President Saddam Hussein — which was suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction and sheltering terrorists who threatened the US — and to replace it with a democratic government. The U.S. military’s mission objectives were:

  1. End the regime of Saddam Hussein
  2. Identify, isolate, and eliminate Iraq’s WMD, systems, and facilities
  3. Capture or drive out terrorists sheltered in Iraq
  4. Collect intelligence on terrorist networks and on Iraq’s illicit WMD activity
  5. Secure Iraq’s oil fields and natural resources for the Iraqi people
  6. End sanctions and immediately deliver humanitarian relief and assistance
  7. Help the Iraqi people rapidly transition to a representative form of self-government that does not threaten its neighbors and is committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq

The United States and Britain already had combat-ready bases in Kuwait, which borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf southeast of Baghdad, and were able to ship soldiers to Iraq without meeting naval opposition (Murray 71). The troops stayed at these bases awaiting their next orders.

On 18 March 2003, President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq with his two sons. Saddam showed no intent of doing so. Within hours after the deadline had passed, military intelligence identified a building where Saddam was believed to be hiding and U.S. Tomahawk and F-117 missiles hit the building in a “decapitation strike” on 20 March. Saddam and his sons survived the attack, but this fact was not known to the US for days. Journalists, having been told to expect a “Shock and Awe” opening show of 3,000 cruise missiles on Baghdad, were surprised by the restraint of this attack. (Ryan) Iraq, too, was probably expecting the US to begin the war with bombs as it had done in the first Gulf War in 1991.

“Shock and Awe” did indeed initiate the war on 21 March, with strike aircraft hitting a thousand targets, mostly the evacuated buildings of Baath Party bureaucrats (Murray 75, 169). The opening air campaign lasted several nights while invading ground troops made their way toward Baghdad. The attack plan was for the British, supported by U.S. Marines, to capture the port of Umm Qasr and Basra while the US closed in on the capital city of Baghdad from the west and the east. This did not happen exactly as planned. US Marines captured Umm Qasr on the first day of ground warfare, but the British were tied up in Basra for weeks in a protracted siege.

Baghdad fell, with only 100,000 American forces on the ground defeating 400,000 Iraqi soldiers, defying conventional military wisdom that an invading army needs to outnumber the defense three-to-one. (These 100,000 U.S. troops, though, were part of a total of 250,000 U.S. and Coalition forces that had been committed to the war.) Iraqi military power had been ravaged by 12 years of continuous bombing by the US dating back to the previous Gulf War. The Republican Guard was disorganized and lost its weapons early in the combat, while the Air Force did not even make an attempt at resistance, having only 320 aircraft, less than half of which were in working condition (Cordesman 27). The U.S. Air Force, by contrast, had 863 aircraft at the peak of the war, and that number was doubled by the contributions of other branches of the U.S. military and the Coalition. Foreign fighters arrived from neighboring Arab countries to defend Saddam’s rule and have their chance to shoot at American soldiers, but they were largely untrained and lacked an official alliance with Iraqis who sometimes treated them as an enemy.

A zero-visibility sandstorm that lasted from 24-26 March afforded the Coalition soldiers time to rest during their trek to Baghdad. However, the unexpected pause caused supplies to dwindle and anxieties to rise. During this time, President Bush requested $75 billion from Congress for the war effort, a request which was approved a week later. As soon as the sandstorm ended, reconnaissance forces were sent to determine the location and strength of the Iraqi Republican Guard near Baghdad. (Murray 128)

During the next few days, as ground forces approached the city, Baghdad continued to experience heavy bombing. On 3 April, with U.S. forces less than 10 miles outside the city, Saddam International Airport was captured and renamed Baghdad International Airport. The next day, 2,500 Republican Guard soldiers surrendered. On 7 April, two presidential palaces fell, and there was another attempted decapitation strike on a restaurant where Saddam was believed to be hiding. Baghdad fell on 9 April with the symbolic removal of a huge statue of Saddam, plunging the city into chaos. Iraqis rioted with a mix of jubilant celebration and criminal acts including the looting of historical artifacts from museums.

As of 11 April, according to Cordesman, the US had launched 17,000 precision-guided weapons, 8,500 unguided weapons, and 900 cruise missiles against Iraq. USCENTCOM claimed that most of the precision-guided weapons used GPS technology (Murray 72).

On 1 May 2003, only 42 days after the beginning of the war, President Bush declared major combat operations to be over. This was a symbolic period, as the 1991 war on Iraq fought by President Bush’s father had also been 42 days long.

Saddam Hussein survived the initial combat and was caught in hiding on 13 December 2003. Sovereignty was officially transferred from the U.S. to the new Iraqi government on 28 June 2004, over a year after major combat had ended. U.S. and Coalition troops were never planned to be withdrawn from Iraq, however, and they continued to be attacked with bombs on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

The U.S.-led Coalition at least partly achieved its own objectives in that the Baath Party was decisively overthrown. However, a significant part of the Coalition’s mission, finding illicit weapons of mass destruction, was never achieved. President Bush finally conceded such weapons may never have existed. And the effort to drive out terrorists achieved the opposite effect, as foreign fighters poured across the border to defend Iraq and have their chance to take shots against Americans. A year and a half after the invasion, suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices were still detonating daily in Iraq, causing Iraqi civilian and U.S. military casualties. The bipartisan Report of the 9/11 Commission determined that there never had been any connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11. As for the objective of democracy for the Iraqi people, the significance of the war for the future of Iraq remains to be seen.

[Note: Again, this article was written in 2004. Readers may also be interested in my essay, There was no good reason for the US to invade Iraq in 2003."]


Anthony H. Cordesman. The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons. Washington, D.C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2003.

Williamson Murray and Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, Jr. The Iraq War: A Military History. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Mike Ryan. Baghdad or Bust: The Inside Story of Gulf War 2. South Yorkshire, England: Leo Looper, 2003.


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