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Definition: Iraq War from The Macquarie Dictionary

a military conflict in Iraq, beginning with the invasion of that country by a coalition of forces led by the US and Britain in mid-2003, leading to the overthrow of the government of president Saddam Hussein, and continuing during the subsequent occupation of Iraq by a coalition of US, British and other forces which was aimed at controlling insurgency and putting in place a new government based on presidential and parliamentary elections; final US forces withdrew in 2011.

Summary Article: Iraq, War in
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

The decision to use force against Iraq developed quickly in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. Strong advocates of the war were Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The justifications for the war given by the Bush administration were the charges of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and ties between the regime of Saddam Hussein and international terrorists, particularly al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

In September of 2002, President George W. Bush attempted to gain United Nations support for military action, working closely with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who became the United States's main ally in the war in Iraq. Within the U.N., the issue was the lack of ongoing inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The U.N. group, UNSCOM, set up after the Gulf War in 1991, had been excluded from Iraq when Saddam Hussein charged that it had been infiltrated by U.S. intelligence agents.

French President Jacques Chirac called for a U.N. resolution that would give the Iraqi leader only three weeks to readmit the international inspectors. European allies of the United States were prepared to lend support to a pressure campaign against Hussein. If Baghdad refused to comply, then Chirac favored a second resolution on intervention.

In November 2002, the United Nations passed Resolution 1441, calling for the return of inspectors to Iraq, with the requirement that they would make an initial report in sixty days. Despite a strong speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003, charging that Iraq had massive stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear program, a vast majority of U.N. members favored intensifying inspections rather than immediately going to war. Nevertheless, in March 2003, the United States and the United Kingdom began the war with no U.N. resolution.

A New Strategic Doctrine on Preemptive War

The war was justified by earlier U.S. declarations of a new doctrine, whereby the United States could launch a preemptive military strike against a nation if there was a sufficient threat. This doctrine was spelled out in a 2002 report, “The National Security Strategy of the United States,” that discarded the policy of détente and containment and endorsed preemptive or preventive military actions against states with which the United States was at peace. The report warned that the United States would “make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them.” It also stated, “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.” In the section dealing with weapons of mass destruction the document stated, “The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.” This doctrine was in stark contrast to prevailing norms of international relations whereby military force is only justified in self-defense, a doctrine specified in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

The Iraq war was the first test of the Bush administration's belief that preemptive or preventive war can stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The administration had not accepted the notion that U.S. diplomacy had achieved major successes in the former Soviet Union in destroying and dismantling strategic weapons or that international diplomacy would be effective in limiting the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. The successes of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Pact of 1968 and other disarmament treaties in limiting the number of nuclear powers were also discounted.

International Reaction to the War

The Iraq war was seen by many nations as the first move by the United States toward a hegemonic position, based on its overwhelming military superiority. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following September 11 had been fully supported by the international community; the war against Iraq left the United States with limited support. Members of the Bush administration subsequently ignored the concern of its allies and fostered ill-will against the United States by a series of rebuffs and insulting statements, typified by Secretary Rumsfeld's description of our traditional NATO allies, for example, France and Germany, as “old Europe.”

The Pew Global Attitudes Project, perhaps the most respected poll of international attitudes toward the United States, indicated in the summer of 2003 that the war had widened the rift between the United States and Western Europe, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the United Nations and the North Atlantic alliance.

The Occupation of Iraq

Six weeks after the start of the war, President Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and declared “mission accomplished,” although within months, more American soldiers had been killed after the official end of the war than during the war itself. The rate of casualties continued with no decline even after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003. The causes of this continuing violence were the failure of the occupation to create dependable security, the hostility of ethnic groups within Iraq and their resistance to a U.S. formula for government, and the continuing involvement of groups once loyal to Saddam Hussein.

In the opening weeks of the occupation, key government buildings in Baghdad were looted and sacked, except those concerned with the oil ministry; no protection was given to hospitals, generating a medical crisis throughout the country; and no protection was given to the museums and ancient sites housing major antiquities. Soon loyalists of Saddam Hussein were joined by a widening group of insurgents. The aim of the invasion to establish a democratic government capable of maintaining order became less and less realizable. President Bush said the U.S. would stay, and he confronted the insurgents with “My answer is, bring 'em on.”

At a political level, the Pentagon initially relied heavily on Ahmed Chalabi as a possible elected ruler of Iraq despite evidence that he was unreliable. Once certain that Chalabi would have little political support in Iraq, the Pentagon had no clear plan for a transitional government to offer, or any comprehensive plan for the reconstruction of Iraq, or any idea of the number of troops needed for the future. The Pentagon indicated a need for at least one hundred thousand U.S. troops until 2006, a reduction of forty thousand from levels maintained throughout 2003.

The sudden end of the initial phase of the War, the invasion of Baghdad, heightened focus on the failure to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction. After the war, in response to heavy criticism at home and abroad, the United States eventually created an Iraq Survey Group under former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay to search for documents. Kay's preliminary report in October 2003 indicated that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found in Iraq, and, in December 2003, Kay announced that he would be leaving his position as the Central Intelligence Agency's emissary in Iraq. In July 2004, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a bi-partisan report identifying many failures in intelligence gathering and analysis, resulting in numerous inaccuracies on the part of the U.S. government in making its case for going to war. Links between al Qaeda and Iraq were judged to be incidental and non-strategic. The intelligence community was judged to be under pressure to produce certain results, and many reforms in its operations were recommended.

Meanwhile, the awkward handling of the occupation called attention to a lack of adequate planning. As late as January 2003, only two months before the start of the war, only two army officers had been assigned to Central Command to plan for the postwar period. The national security adviser who oversaw the operation, Elliott Abrams, had no expertise in the region. The Pentagon had armor and infantry units to fight an almost casualty-free war in a short time, but lacked the expertise and equipment to repair the physical and psychological damage it had created. While Iraq had a well-developed civil society, the U.S. occupation force apparently was at a loss to put it to work. As a result, the occupation has been protracted and costly, with a price tag of roughly four billion dollars a month.

Fighting the Insurgency

On December 13, 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured. On December 30, 2006, he was hanged after being convicted of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court. Yet the war in Iraq did not end despite the “Mission Accomplished” declaration of President Bush on May 1, 2003 while aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and despite the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein.

In 2004, after an initial lull, the insurgency broke out with renewed violence. In 2005, Iraqis elected the Iraqi Transitional Government, as the violence escalated. In 2006, the United Nations described Iraq as in a “civil war-like situation.” By then there were 1.6 million Iraqi refugees. The current government took office on May 20, 2006, and has stayed in power into 2008.

Acceptance of the coalition forces has dropped to a new low, with an overwhelming majority of the population rejecting their presence. The level of acceptance has continued to be low despite a decrease in violence in the last months of 2007, produced by an increase of 30,000 U.S. forces. This “surge” has brought the level of troops up to 160,000. Although the U.S. death rate in Iraq has fallen, 2007 was the worst year of the war. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, most nations who formed the initial coalition have withdrawn or reduced their commitment due to the failure of the occupying forces to create stability.

The technology of the insurgents has increased, with evidence that perhaps some of the equipment is being supplied by Iran, although recent diplomatic talks with Iran have attempted to deal with this issue. The insurgency is composed of a wide variety of groups, Sunni and Shiite, fighting each other, fighting the government, and the coalition forces. Diplomatic talks between Sunnis and Shiites, and some sharing of government responsibility, have helped lower tensions, although the country is still in a muted civil war.

Results of the War

The justification for the war in Iraq was originally the existence or suspicion that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons or was about to create them. When this proved not true, the Bush Administration substituted the idea that the United States, and its coalition of the willing, went into Iraq to create a democratic republic. What was not said, and clearly was the reason for going, was the need to secure oil. U.S. need for a secure oil supply has rapidly risen, as the United States now imports over 50% of its oil, and consumes 25% of the world's supply with only 5% of the world's population.

The mid-term elections on November 7, 2006, removed the Republicans from control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, driven in large part by opposition to the war. The war continues to be a major issue as the 2008 presidential campaign begins to take shape. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have not been successful in putting restraints on the war or setting a date for withdrawal and have generally backed the President's demands for support of the troops. The U.S. has currently spent approximately $550 billion in the war. The international reputation of the United States has fallen rapidly with a 73% world-wide disapproval rate recorded by the BBC World Service poll in January 2007. This has been driven not only by the war, but by human rights abuses, including the torture and prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison and recently disclosed other secret detention centers.

The war caused 139 American deaths during the forty-three days of initial fighting. However, as of early 2008, nearly 4,000 Americans have died in the fighting, with an additional 29,000 wounded, and with many thousands more Americans in the occupation force of approximately one hundred and sixty thousand showing signs of psychic trauma, particularly acute anxiety and depression.

The war has tied down more than half of the nation's readily deployable forces and seriously impeded the capacity of the United States to implement the kind of preemptive military policy proclaimed by the Bush administration.

U.S. Marines fire the main gun of their M1A1 Abrams tank in the western desert of the Najaf Province of Iraq during a training exercise on Jan. 24, 2005. Gunnery Sgt. Robert K. Blankenship, photographer. U.S. Department of Defense.

U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Ardell Ball (right) leads his team into a former agricultural building in Fallujah, Iraq, on Dec. 9, 2004. Petty Officer 1st class Jeremy L. Wood, photographer. U.S. Department of Defense.

Smoke fills the air after a car bomb was detonated in the parking lot of an Iraqi police station outside the gate of the Green Zone near the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 4, 2004. Spc. Katherine M. Roth, photographer. U.S. Department of Defense.

Abu Ghraib prison, with Iraqi prisoner forced to stand on box. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Ahmed, Nafeez Mosaddeq, Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq (New Society 2003) [examination of how the United States is attempting to realize its imperial ambitions in the Middle East].
  • Anderson, Liam; Gereth Stansfield, The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division (Palgrave Macmillan 2004) [study of the problems of reconstructing Iraq].
  • Chandrasekran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (Vintage Bks. 2007).
  • Clarke, Richard, Against All Enemies: Inside the White House's War (Free Press 2004) [highly critical of Bush's focus on Iraq rather than al Qaeda following 9/11].
  • Daalder, Ivo H.; James M. Lindsay, The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Brookings Inst. 2003) [well-researched analysis of shift toward military solutions by the Bush administration].
  • Eisendrath, Craig R.; Melvin A. Goodman, Bush League Diplomacy: How the Neoconservatives Are Putting the World at Risk (Prometheus 2004) [Chapter 3 puts Iraq war in context of Bush foreign policy].
  • Gordon, Michael R.; Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Pantheon Bks. 2012).
  • Holsti, Ole R., American Public Opinion on the Iraq War (Univ. of Mich. Press 2011).
  • Keegan, John. The Iraq War (Vintage Bks. 2005).
  • Lustick, Ian S., Trapped in the War on Terror (Univ. of Penn. Press 2006).
  • Malone, David M., The International Struggle Over Iraq: Politics in the UN Security Council 1980-2005 (Oxford 2007).
  • Woodward, Bob, Bush at War: With an Update on the War in Iraq (Simon & Schuster 2002) [how a president with an ideology for remaking the world responds to September 11 attacks and initiates war with Iraq].
  • Craig Eisendrath
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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