The United States, under the President George H. W. Bush, had decided in 1991 not to prolong the Gulf War by seeking Saddam’s ouster. But it did persuade the United Nations to impose economic sanctions against Iraq, as well as monitor the country’s clandestine development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, known collectively as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In 1998, after Iraqi officials had consistently interfered with UN inspectors, President William Clinton ordered the bombing of several Iraqi military installations. Iraq countered by banning the UN inspectors. Moreover, the impact of economic sanctions had waned as some countries quietly resumed trading goods for Iraqi oil.
The toughened stance against Iraq
With his approval ratings as high as 90 percent in some polls after the 9/11 attacks and U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush made the war on terror the centerpiece of his administration’s efforts. And with the overthrow of the Taliban accomplished, the administration turned its attention to an old nemesis: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In 2002, President George W. Bush began demanding that the UN toughen its dealings with Iraq. Bush argued the Iraqis had, or were close to having, weapons of mass destruction. Further, he said, they were harboring members of the al-Qaida terrorist group that had engineered the Sept. 11 attacks. On Oct. 10 and 11, Congress approved a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. The vote was 297-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate.
On Feb. 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the UN Security Council to restate American claims about WMDs, displaying aerial photographs of purported chemical weapons sites and mobile nerve gas labs.
“Ladies and gentlemen, these are sophisticated facilities,” Powell said. “For example, they can produce anthrax and botulinum toxin — in fact, they can produce enough dry biological agent to kill thousands upon thousands of people.” Powell was countered by UN inspectors who said they were again making progress with Iraq and had found no evidence of WMDs.
On March 17, 2003 — despite the objections of U.S. allies such as France and Germany, but with the backing of most of Congress — Bush issued an ultimatum that gave Saddam 48 hours to resign and get out of Iraq.
When he didn’t, U.S. and British forces on March 20 launched air attacks on Iraqi targets, including a bunker in which Saddam was thought to be meeting with aides.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq
Within days, U.S. forces invaded from neighboring Kuwait. By April 9, the Iraqi capital of Baghdad had fallen. Saddam’s sons were killed and Saddam went into hiding. He was captured in December, and turned over to Iraqi authorities. On Dec. 30, 2006, he was executed.
On May 1, Bush landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego and declared an end to major combat. “Because of you, the target has fallen, and Iraq is free,” Bush told the crew. “The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.”
But if the tide had turned, it seemed to have turned the wrong way. The United States lacked a comprehensive post-war plan for rebuilding the country. Looting and riots dismantled much of Iraq’s infrastructure and damaged public buildings.
U.S. occupation leaders barred members of Saddam’s Baath Party from serving in the provisional government and largely disbanded the Iraqi army. That resulted in a dearth of experienced political leaders and military officers to help with the country’s reconstruction.
In the aftermath, guerrilla warfare caused far more casualties than the brief war had, and fighting between militias of the rival Islamic Sunni and Shiite sects threatened to plunge the country into civil war.
Worse for Bush, an intensive search failed to turn up any weapons of mass destruction, and it became clear that Saddam had almost no connection with al-Qaida. By mid-November 2008, more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel had died in Iraq, and the war was costing an estimated $10 billion a month