Prelude to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Prelude to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

In the early months of the U.S. presidency of George W. Bush, foreign policy began to coalesce around an anti-Iraq strategy that pitted hard-line neoconservatives (neocons) against pragmatic realists in the administration. The initial phase of this policy was confi ned to fi nancial support to the INC and to increasing the air strikes begun during the Clinton administration.

However, the differing opinions within the Bush administration resulted in a temporary stalemate regarding U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein. The stalemate was broken on September 11, 2001, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. (as well as a failed attempt in which an airliner crashed in a fi eld in Pennsylvania).

The U.S. government publicly identifi ed al-Qaeda as the group behind the attacks, a terrorist group that had close ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership. On October 7, 2001, U.S. and British bombers targeted Taliban forces and al-Qaeda strongholds within Afghanistan in support of insurrectionary ground forces from the socalled Northern Alliance (various Afghani warlords who made common cause against the Taliban). Kabul, the capital, was one of the targets. The purpose of the invasion was to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and to overthrow the Taliban. In 2002, U.S. ground forces joined in the invasion.

The Taliban was quickly overthrown, although most of the leadership escaped to the mountainous frontier region that bordered Pakistan, while bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were never captured, having escaped initially to the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Khyber Pass in eastern Afghanistan. It is believed that the brief truce in fi ghting, ostensibly to allow al-Qaeda fi ghters to surrender their weapons, in reality allowed bin Laden and other high-ranking members of the organization to escape. Nevertheless, by early 2002, the United States and its allies were fi rmly in control of Afghanistan, although by 2006, Taliban infl uence and insurrection would rise again.

With the comparatively easy “success” of the Afghanistan phase of the “war on terror” under their belts, the neocons, the advisory group toward which President Bush leaned, were in the ascendant. In the annual State of the Union speech, delivered on January 29, 2002, President Bush linked Iraq, Iran, and North Korea “and their terrorist allies” in what he called an “axis of evil” (White House 2002), thus playing on two 20th-century historical ideas: the Axis powers of World War II (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the more recent vintage “evil empire” as President Ronald Reagan had characterized the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The press picked up on the phrase, and the notion was planted that all three countries were direct threats to U.S. security, though, of course, the three countries were not allied (in the case of Iraq and Iran far from it). Referring to Saddam Hussein in the same State of the Union speech, Bush declared, “This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world” (White House 2002).

What Hussein was hiding, the Bush administration claimed, was WMD. This (mis)information was allegedly given to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the INC. Hussein denied such claims, but the warlike rhetoric coming from the United States, not to mention the October 2002 joint congressional resolution that authorized U.S. military force in Iraq, prompted him to agree to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq. Thus, as per the unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the UNMOVIC, headed by Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, began inspecting sites in November 2002. Although the inspectors found no WMD, the United States remained adamant.

An anxious Hussein, according to the account by journalist Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, after consultations with the RCC, military advisers, and members of the Baath Party, announced that Iraq had no WMD and “called on several select offi cials to confi rm his disclosure. Iraq’s defense minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, told U.S. interrogators after the fall of Baghdad that many of the generals were stunned by the news. . . .” According to Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, morale “plummeted” (Gordon and Trainor 2006, 118). However, the Bush administration was not about to publicly take its sworn enemy at his word, no matter who confi rmed that word.

In February 2003, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell (who had been chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War) addressed the United Nations General Assembly, with “evidence.” Though Powell failed in his attempt to gain UN sanction for the invasion, the United States and Great Britain decided to push on with it. Powell’s so-called evidence was later proven false, but by then the war was on. Whether faulty intelligence was at the heart of the claims or administration pressure on the CIA to produce intelligence that would justify the claims has yet to be completely decided.

Both Great Britain and the United States took care to involve Iraqi opposition leaders in exile. Conferences were held in London and Washington, D.C., in late 2002 and early 2003. On February 25, 2003, less than a month before the outbreak of hostilities, there was an opposition meeting held in Salahuddin in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the meeting’s agenda was whether to form a government in exile and the possibility of a provisional government after the fall of Hussein, which the United States opposed. Nonetheless, the Salahuddin conference did create the Leadership Council composed of Ayad Allawi, Massoud Barzani, Ahmad Chalabi, Abd el-Aziz al-Hakim, Adnan al-Pachachi, and Jalal Talabani.

The coalition President Bush put together to fi ght in Iraq included Great Britain, Spain, Italy, and Poland, among others, although notably France, Germany, Russia, and China opted not to join and even criticized U.S. policy. By far, the brunt of the fi ght, both with troops on the ground and weaponry, was borne by the United States, with heavy British assistance. A month before the invasion a worldwide antiwar rally in more than 800 cities and involving between 6 million to 10 million people took place. Yet, just prior to the war, nearly three-quarters of U.S. citizens favored invasion, an even higher percentage believing that Iraq was linked with al-Qaeda. All last-minute attempts at diplomacy were bound to fail.

The administration’s policy was also motivated by another development: Much to Western chagrin, the international air embargo on Iraq had all but collapsed in 2002, with Russian, Arab, and other fl ights regularly touching down at Baghdad airport after an absence of 12 years. Diplomats and traders began arriving in Baghdad, with ambitious business deals in their pockets; their appearance was usually preceded by a cargo of humanitarian supplies, which were presented to the “Iraqi people.” A Baghdad trade fair in that same year drew large crowds of international businessmen. Meanwhile, the Arab League invited Iraqi diplomats to attend the fi rst meeting in a decade; however, a rapprochement between Iraq and Kuwait, highly touted in the Arab press, never fully materialized.

At a highly publicized forum that year Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that “the UN was in danger of losing the debate in the court of international public opinion regarding its responsibility for the humanitarian crisis, ‘if we haven’t already lost it’ ” (Ismael and Ismael 2004, 26). To defl ect the growing clamor for an end to the embargo, the United States and United Kingdom introduced “smart,” or targeted, sanctions to the United Nations as replacement for the previous comprehensive sanctions (Ismael and Ismael 2004, 34).

But, as antisanctions activists pointed out, the changes were largely procedural in nature. Besides changing the system by which Iraq imported goods, Security Council Resolution 1409 tried to abolish the smuggling of commodities into Iraq in return for cheap oil, which was going on quite openly outside the oil-for-food program (Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq 2003, n.p.). However, this failed because too many Western allies in the Middle East region were profi ting handsomely by the deal.


For 20 years, even as he enjoyed near absolute power, Saddam Hussein’s regime was in a constant state of decay. Like many an autocrat before him, Hussein sought to bolster his authority by defl ecting attention away from Iraq’s numerous problems, fi rst with the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and then with the invasion of Kuwait. However, these merely accelerated the centrifugal forces that were pulling on Baghdad. While Iraq’s military disasters led to insurrections that were brutally put down, the corruption of the Baathist regime played a large role in spurring on inevitable social and political forces that would destroy Hussein’s Iraq.

The Kurds proved resilient in resisting Baathist brutality, and the Arab tribes were equally resilient in adapting to the times. Indeed, their paramount shaykhs seemed to all but outmaneuver Hussein at the bargaining table. Hussein’s ambiguous attitude toward Islam was primarily an attempt to prevent his being outmaneuvered by the Iranian ayatollahs, but in doing so, he gave legitimacy to the Iraqi ayatollahs, who were no longer willing to acquiesce to the regime.

However, it was the exiled opposition, whose infl uence in the West was far greater than its infl uence within Iraq (where many of the exiled leaders were distrusted), which kept up the anti-Hussein drumbeat throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. Their propaganda played well enough in London, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to bolster the sanctions against Iraq that would, themselves, play a role in the paranoia that would lead to yet another war.