The Royal Fusiliers Desert Rats Basra 2003 Iraq war Image ID C55RPC Purple Pilchards Alamy Stock Photo
The Royal Fusiliers/Desert Rats in action, near Basra, during the 2003 war in Iraq (Picture: Purple Pilchards / Alamy Stock Photo).

Remembering the Iraq War: Key facts and figures

The Royal Fusiliers Desert Rats Basra 2003 Iraq war Image ID C55RPC Purple Pilchards Alamy Stock Photo
The Royal Fusiliers/Desert Rats in action, near Basra, during the 2003 war in Iraq (Picture: Purple Pilchards / Alamy Stock Photo).

Unlike the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq started amidt great controversy.

In a speech in 2002, President George W Bush had declared that Iraq was part of an 'Axis of Evil', along with Iran and North Korea.

The Bush Administration argued that Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq had ties to the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda, and that Iraqi officials had tried to acquire yellowcake powder from Niger. 

Yellowcake is a kind of uranium used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The term WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction – was used extensively by the Bush Administration throughout this time.

During the Cold War, it described only nuclear weapons, although became a catch-all term for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons in later years. 

Iraq had used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, and again against Shia populations that rose up in 1991.

But in a speech to the American people on 7 October, 2002, Bush emphasised the nuclear side of WMDs over the chemical or biological: 

"Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

The threat articulated by the Bush Administration was that an Iraq with nuclear technology could pass hugely destructive weapons onto Islamic terrorists, who could use them to commit another 9/11, or worse.

Of course, now we know better, but at the time Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) acknowledged that Saddam Hussein had continued to pursue basic nuclear (and other weapons) capacities, aklthough they said he had no active nuclear programme because, as the Chilcot Report summarises, "nuclear facilities had been dismantled by... weapons inspectors" and it was judged that "Iraq would be unable to obtain a nuclear weapon while sanctions remained effective".

Perhaps somewhat obviously, a post-invasion CIA report pointed out that Saddam Hussein naturally desired WMDs of some sort to prop up his dictatorial regime and ensure his political, and physical, survival. "He sought to balance the need to co-operate with UN inspections – to gain support for lifting sanctions – with his intention to preserve Iraq's intellectual capital for WMD". He needed the sanctions to be lifted so that he could re-launch his weapons programme. As the Chilcot Report points out, the mixed signals this must have sent was taken by the British to be a sign of duplicity about active rather than intended weapons programmes.

The UK Intelligence and Security Committee would report in late 2003 that based on the JIC assessments, it determined there was "convincing intelligence that Iraq had active chemical, biological and nuclear programs" despite UN efforts to stop them.

What the JIC had definitely not found was any evidence of a working relationship between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, deeming any suggestions to the contrary as "fragmentary and uncorroborated".

In fact, it explicitly said:

"(There is) no credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD-related technology and expertise to terrorist groups."

It reiterated this in 2003 but, ironically, al-Qaeda would pour into Iraq after the invasion, taking full advantage of the political volatility, and terrorist attacks would happen in Britain – the 7/7 bombings – but in response to the war.

But the JIC's rejection of President Bush's claims about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda had not dissuaded Prime Minister Tony Blair from moving towards war in conjunction with the Americans.

US President George W Bush British Prime Minister Tony Blair Iraq Camp David 270303 CREDIT REUTERS Alamy Stock Photo
US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair stand together as they conclude a joint news conference at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, 27 March, 2003 (Picture: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo).

The 2002 'September Dossier', officially named 'Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government', was the source of President Bush's assertion about Yellowcake powder in Niger. 

Tony Blair's forward to the dossier also stated:

"The document discloses that (Saddam Hussein's) military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes."

A fierce dispute between the British Government and the BBC would centre on this claim, with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan claiming that the Government had "sexed up" Iraq's weapons capabilities with the report.

In the controversy that followed, Gilligan's source, weapons expert David Kelly, committed suicide and the subsequent Hutton Inquiry into his death concluded in early 2004 that the September Dossier was not 'sexed up' and that the BBC had been in the wrong.

Meanwhile, in the US, African and Middle Eastern ambassador Joseph Wilson had written a New York Times Op-Ed entitled 'What I Didn't Find in Africa' in which he said there was no evidence Iraq had tried to obtain Yellowcake there. 

He went on to allege that the Bush Administration had manipulated intelligence to start a war with Iraq unnecessarily. 

Irish Guards in Basra, Iraq, April 2003  Image ID H46EF4 CREDIT Johnny Saunderson Alamy Stock Photo
Irish Guards in Basra, Iraq, April 2003 (Picture: Johnny Saunderson / Alamy Stock Photo).

Almost a week after, Washington Post journalist Robert Novak's rebuttal of Wilson's New York Times piece created an even bigger firestorm.

In the process of arguing that Wilson's investigation had not been taken seriously by the CIA, Novak stated:

"Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

A covert CIA operative had just been outed in a newspaper spat, and although Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage became known as a clear source of Plame's identity for Novak, ultimately, Scooter Libby, an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, would be convicted of lying to those heading up the criminal investigation into the matter. (His sentence was later commuted by President Bush).

As it turned out, the Iraq Survey Group headed by David Kay would later conclude that no weapons programs ever existed before the 2003 war.  

In 'Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq', Washington Post and Wall Street defence journalist Thomas E Ricks writes: 

"(President Clinton's 1998 Operation) Desert Fox (air) raids on Iraq… were far more effective in terminating Iraq's weapons programmes than was understood at the time."

The CIA agreed but, as already noted, would later conclude that Saddam Hussein desired and likely planned to restart WMD programs if the opportunity ever presented itself, and might have even worked out how to do so under the sanctions that had been in place before the 2003 invasion. 

Back in early 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair had been working to get UN and international support for the war, making a case to President Bush that British involvement simply for the sake of regime change would not be legal. 

TV capture US Secretary of State Colin Powell US invasion of Iraq United Nations New York City 2003 Image ID 2H95W1W PICTURE culliganphoto Alamy Stock Photo
TV capture of the US Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to the United Nations in New York City (Image: Culligan photo / Alamy Stock Photo).

UN Resolution 1441 became the agreed-upon framework.

It required Iraq to comply with disarmament obligations and gave Blair the legal basis he needed for joining the US in a war if Saddam Hussein was seen to not be living up to the agreement.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell made a presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 about WMDs in Iraq.

In it, he lobbied members to authorise military action against Iraq by presenting 'evidence' of Saddam Hussein's weapons program.

But behind the scenes, Hans Blix, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the man in charge of monitoring Iraq’s weapons program (or lack thereof), was having doubts.

 He called the "full compliance" expected of Saddam Hussein to be a nebulous concept.

Blair seemed convinced that even intelligence from the French and Germans, whose leaders were opposed to the war, showed Iraq had a WMD program.

 But Blix begged to differ:

"Perhaps there is not much WMD in Iraq after all… It would be paradoxical and absurd if 250,000 men were to invade Iraq and find very little."

In the end, though, troops did invade Iraq in response, ostensibly, to what President Bush and Prime Minister Blair claimed was non-compliance with Resolution 1441.

Anti Iraq war demonstrators March 2003 CREDIT REUTERS ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Thousands of anti-war protesters took part in demonstrations around the country, March 2003 (Picture: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo).

And the war went forward despite huge protests. In London, up to one million people marched against military intervention, as did many in other cities.

There is a perception that the majority of the country was firmly opposed to going into Iraq.

The anti-war movement was indeed strong, and most people certainly did come to oppose the war, but a YouGov poll indicates that, in actual fact, 54% of people in Britain did support the war at this time.

On 20 March, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom started with a "shock and awe" bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion by troops from the US, UK, Australia and Poland, and support from the Netherlands and Kurdish Peshmerga. 

Saddam Hussein went into hiding and was eventually captured, tried, and executed, although chaos would ultimately arrive in Iraq in the wake of his removal from power – something the post-war Chilcot Report concluded was foreseeable.

Disagreeing with Mr Blair, Mr Chilcot stated on the publication of the report:

"We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion."

Operation Iraqi Freedom
The 2003 Iraq occupation (image: Kpalion)

Staking his presidency largely on Iraq, George Bush was under pressure to stabilise the situation.

In 2007, the troop surge under General David Petraeus was implemented to bring down the level of violence and was largely seen as a success, even by sceptics like Obama. 

Unfortunately, the Shia-Sunni schism still had the potential to start trouble, and it would be the violent put down of Sunni protests by Shia Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would create support for ISIS from some Sunnis in Iraq.

For the US, though, the Iraq War officially ended at the close of 2011.

1.5 million US personnel had been involved in the venture since 2003, and 4,474 of them had lost their lives.

Operation Telic was the codename for British operations in Iraq, the bulk of which had been wound down by May 2009, while a small number, mostly Navy personnel, remained until the end of May 2011.

141,200 British personnel served during the conflict, from 2003 – 2011, and 179 of these died.


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