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3 takeaways 20 years after the invasion of Iraq

U.S. Marine Maj. Bull Gurfein pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on March 21, 2003, a day after the start of the U.S. invasion, in Safwan, Iraq.
Chris Hondros
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U.S. Marine Maj. Bull Gurfein pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on March 21, 2003, a day after the start of the U.S. invasion, in Safwan, Iraq.

Two decades ago, U.S. air and ground forces invaded Iraq in what then-President George W. Bush said was an effort to disarm the country, free its people and "defend the world from grave danger."

In the late-night Oval Office address on March 19, 2003, Bush did not mention his administration's assertion that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That argument — which turned out to be based on thin or otherwise faulty intelligence — had been laid out weeks before by Secretary of State Colin Powell at a U.N. Security Council meeting.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds a vial representing the small amount of anthrax that closed the U.S. Senate in 2002 during his address to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, in New York City. Powell was making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq was deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds a vial representing the small amount of anthrax that closed the U.S. Senate in 2002 during his address to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, in New York City. Powell was making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq was deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Bush described the massive airstrikes on Iraq as the "opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign" and pledged that "we will accept no outcome but victory."

However, Bush's caveat that the campaign "could be longer and more difficult than some predict" proved prescient. In eight years of boots on the ground, the U.S. lost some 4,600 U.S. service members, and at least 270,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed. While the invasion succeeded in toppling Saddam, it ultimately failed to uncover any secret stash of weapons of mass destruction. Although estimates vary, a Brown University estimate puts the cost of the combat phase of the war at around $2 trillion.

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When Ryan Crocker, who at the time had already been U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria and would go on to hold the top diplomatic post in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, first saw Bush's televised speech announcing the start of combat operations, he was at an airport heading back to Washington, D.C.

"I was thinking, 'Here we go,' " he recalls. But it was a sense of dread, not excitement. Crocker wondered, "God knows where we're going."

Peter Mansoor, a colonel attending the U.S. Army War College at the time, was concerned about his future, knowing that he'd soon be in command of the first brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which would go on to see action in Iraq.

"I was very interested in the outcome of the invasion and what would happen in the aftermath," says Mansoor, who is now a military history professor at Ohio State University. "I didn't expect the Iraqi army to be able to put up much resistance beyond a few weeks."

Meanwhile, Marsin Alshamary, an 11-year-old Iraqi American growing up in Minneapolis, Minn., when the invasion occurred, says "seeing planes and bombing over where my grandparents lived made me cry." Alshamary, who is now a Middle East policy expert at the Brookings Institution, says to her at the time, the possibility that Saddam would be deposed seemed "unreal."

Crocker, Mansoor and Alshamary recently shared their thoughts with NPR on lessons learned from one of America's longest conflicts — the war in Iraq. Here are their observations:

Wars aren't predictable. They're chaotic — and costlier than anyone anticipates

U.S. optimism for a quick and relatively bloodless outcome in Iraq was apparent even before the invasion.

In the months leading to the 2003 invasion, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a radio call-in program, predicted that the coming fight would take "five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." Bush, in what's been dubbed his "mission accomplished" speech on May 1, 2003, declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

Rumsfeld's prediction would prove hopelessly optimistic. In the days and weeks after Baghdad fell, a growing insurgency took root and U.S. forces began to come frequently under fire from hostile militias.

Mansoor says the Bush administration "made a certain set of planning assumptions that didn't pan out."

"They basically planned for a best-case scenario, where the Iraqi people would cooperate with the occupation, that Iraqi units would be available to help secure the country in the aftermath of conflict, and that the international community would step in to help reconstruct Iraq," he says. "All three of those assumptions were wrong."

Although many Iraqis were happy to see Saddam gone, "there was a significant minority who benefited from his rule. And they weren't going to go quietly into the night," Mansoor says.

That was not only the Iraqi army, but government bureaucrats who owed their livelihoods to Saddam.

The U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army a couple of months later — thus leaving 400,000 disgruntled and combat-trained Iraqi men with no income — proved a turning point in the conflict. It helped fuel the insurgency and is credited by some historians with having helped to spawn the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group.

Iraqi children sit amid the rubble of a street in Mosul's Nablus neighborhood in front of a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State group on March 12, 2017.
Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Iraqi children sit amid the rubble of a street in Mosul's Nablus neighborhood in front of a billboard bearing the logo of the Islamic State group on March 12, 2017.

"The Iraq conflict sucked thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jihadi terrorists into the country," Mansoor says. "It also created a battleground in Iraq where ... civil war could take place."

"None of this was foreseen," he says. "But the outcome of removing Saddam's regime enabled that."

Alshamary calls the Bush administration's approach to the Iraq invasion "outrageous."

"There has been no history of short, successful interventions that have resulted in successful regime change. So the arrogance of assuming that could happen was astounding," she says.

Instead of a conflict that lasted weeks or months, as Bush's Cabinet officials and advisers had hoped, a years-long occupation ensued that would be inherited by the administration of President Barack Obama. The word "quagmire" — largely disused since the Vietnam War — was dusted off to describe the situation in Iraq.

The potential for a protracted occupation should have been foreseen, says Crocker. "To overthrow someone else's government and occupy the country is going to set into motion consequences that aren't just third and fourth order. They're 30th and 40th order — way beyond any capacity to predict or plan."

"In Iraq, we paid for it in blood as well as money," the former ambassador says. "Somebody tell me when we decide if it was worth those 4,500 lives, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of lives that Iraqis lost."

If you set out to "reshape" a region, you may not like the shape it becomes

Key figures in the Bush administration believed that regime change would make Iraq a U.S. ally in the region and provide a pro-American bulwark against neighboring Iran, while reducing the threat of terrorism at home. Alshamary calls that notion, at least in relation to Iran, "wishful thinking."

Instead, she says, Tehran may have been the biggest beneficiary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year conflict in the 1980s and were still bitter enemies at the start of the U.S. invasion. Today, the Iraqi army is just half its pre-invasion size. And some analysts argue that the Iraq War has made it much more difficult for the international community to respond to Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Instead of containing Tehran, the invasion of its neighbor and rival only "created a vacuum of power that Iran filled," Mansoor says.

It's a view shared by Crocker. "We basically left the field to adversaries with greater patience and more commitment," he says. "That would, of course, be al-Qaida to the west and Iran and its affiliated militias to the east."

The Islamic State also exploited sectarian tensions following the invasion to entrench itself in both Iraq and Syria, causing the U.S. to send troops back to Iraq three years after first withdrawing from the country.

A woman from an Arabic family cries after her family was denied entry to a Kurdish-controlled area from an ISIS-held village in late 2015 near Sinjar, Iraq.
John Moore / Getty Images
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A woman from an Arabic family cries after her family was denied entry to a Kurdish-controlled area from an ISIS-held village in late 2015 near Sinjar, Iraq.

Not all outcomes are bad

Despite the huge loss of life and the other consequences from the U.S. invasion, Alshamary, Mansoor and Crocker agree that Iraq is a fundamentally freer country today than it was before 2003.

Yes, there's crippling corruption, unemployment, poverty and a complete reliance on oil as a source of wealth, Alshamary says. On the other hand, Iraq has elections "that aren't perfectly free and fair but are actually a lot better than people think they are."

Even so, attacks on activists and journalists are not uncommon. Recent street protests have been forcefully quashed by authorities. Two years ago, Iraq's prime minister narrowly survived an assassination attempt, allegedly by an Iranian-backed militia group.

Despite these problems, Iraq has held together. It's a democracy with peaceful transitions of power — things that wouldn't exist without the U.S. intervention, Mansoor says.

Meanwhile, Crocker points to a recent visit to Iraq, where he met with a group of recent university graduates. What was Iraq's biggest problem? he asked.

"Corruption," was the answer. "And it starts at the top, including the PM."

"I noted they were saying this in the PM's guest house," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.