On the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, these photos tell the story of the war
Sunday marks 20 years since American and coalition forces invaded Iraq on a mission to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and find weapons of mass destruction.
Former President George W. Bush and his administration wagered to the American public and the international community that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The coalition found no such weapons, and two years later the WMD Commission, established by Bush, acknowledged in a report that the "WMD" fiasco was “one of the most public – and most damaging – intelligence failures in recent American history.”
Forces did succeed in knocking Hussein out of power, clearing the way for a fraught nation-building project that would stretch for nearly a decade.
By the U.S.’s withdrawal in 2011, the costs of the war stood high:
At least 4,480 U.S. deaths and more than 32,000 wounded
At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead
At least $806 billion spent on the war
Thousands of troops with illnesses believed to be caused by exposure to burn pits
In 2003, an American public still stunned by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks largely supported the war. But public sentiment today has shifted. A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found 62% of Americans thought the war “wasn’t worth it.” In the same poll, 64% of veterans shared the same view.
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Bush and supporters of the war would go on to admit the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, but maintain the world would've been "a lot worse off" had Hussein remained in power.
The Iraq War in photos
In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush suggested Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
"This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world," Bush said. "States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil … The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Just more than a month before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an impassioned speech and presentation before the United Nations Security Council, arguing that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
The speech helped swing the U.S. public in favor of the war. Powell, who died in 2021, would go on to regret the speech.
“I will always regret it," Powell said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette five years later. "It was a terrible mistake on all our parts and on the intelligence community … I wish it had been different. "
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As the war grew imminent, thousands of protesters in the United States and around the globe demonstrated.
After the deadline he issued for Hussein to leave Iraq passed, Bush announced the beginning of the invasion on the evening of March 19, 2003.
U.S. airstrikes pummeled Iraq to clear the way for invading troops.
After three weeks of combat, American troops took Baghdad, Iraq's capital, and toppled the statue of Hussein, symbolically ending his reign.
In May 2003, Bush declared "mission accomplished," but the war would drag on for years as sectarian violence and insurgency engulfed the country.
Hussein was captured by American forces in December 2003. He would be tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity. He was executed in 2006.
The U.S. saw protests throughout the war.
President Barack Obama, elected in 2008, promised to withdraw troops from Iraq.
The U.S. completed its withdrawal from the country in December 2011, leaving security in the hands of the Iraqi government.
Major conflict and violence would continue to rack the country. A fledging terrorist group, ISIS, would famously emerge and conquer parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria in the mid-2010s.
Today, a small network of 2,500 American troops are stationed in the nation as part of the United States' ongoing partnership with Iraq.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook and Dan Nowicki, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iraq invasion 20th anniversary: A timeline and photos of a costly war