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Significance of the 20th anniversary of the Iraq Invasion 2003

Victoria Jagger

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

At What Cost? - Reflecting on the Iraq Invasion 2003

20 years ago on March 17, 2003, United States President George W. Bush gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein an ultimatum. Hussein and his sons had 48 hours to leave Iraq or else a US-led coalition would commence a military incursion, dubbed ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.

Shortly after the deadline expired, US, British, Australian, and Polish troops invaded Iraq. By April 9, forces had gained control of the capital Baghdad. By May 1, the invasion was complete and the military occupation and de-Baathification of Iraqi leadership commenced. This involved installing a US-backed democratic government, establishing a new constitution, and conducting free and fair elections. This shifted the balance of power, from a historically Sunni-minority leadership to the election of a Shia majority government in 2006.

The foreign policy rationale behind this operation was security. Following the 911 attacks in September 2001, curbing the War on Terror became the primary national and foreign security objective for the Bush Administration. As part of this, Bush declared Iraq part of the Axis of Evil and demanded the cessation of Hussein’s leadership. This was largely due to his alleged affiliation with terrorist organisations and procurement of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Under Prime Minister John Howard, Australia committed three ships and 500 troops, in an effort to strengthen our strategic alliance with the US and UK.

The rise of the Islamic State

While coalition forces successfully captured Hussein in December 2003 and executed him in December 2006, the conflict was far from over.

Regional instability increased partly due to the US-led coalition’s failure to consider the prolonged implications of the operation for the Iraqi people. The invasion contributed to increased sectarian conflict between the Sunni Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia Arab populations. Simultaneously, coalition forces were working with Sunni Tribes to combat the rising force of Al-Queada in Iraq (AQI).

Forces finally withdrew in 2011 under the Obama Administration, on the understanding that the Iraqi Government would include Sunni Tribes in governmental decision-making. However, the Iraqi Government reneged on this deal, exacerbating sectarian conflict and political distrust.

This paved the way for the increased radicalisation of Muslims and bolstered AQI’s prevalence in the region. Accordingly, the group rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013, and as the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, following its dramatic expansion.

The past decade features a constant military struggle between IS militants, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian troops, and a US-led coalition airstrike campaign for territory and control. IS lost control of Iraq’s Mosul in 2017 and its last territorial stronghold of Baghouz in Syria in 2019.

Despite their current lull, the rise of IS is indicative of US’s foreign policy failure to adequately curb terrorism and bring peace to Iraq.

The situation today

Political instability is still rife in Iraq. Currently, the state is recovering from the 2021-2022 political crisis, which resulted from an inability to form a coalition government. In October 2022, Abdul Latif Rashid, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was elected President, ending the political deadlock. Iraq is currently ranked 157th out of 180th countries on the Corruption Perception Index. This instability indicates that the US-led coalition failed to achieve its goal of creating a transparent government free from misconduct.

The impact of the 2003 invasion is still evident today. An estimated 280 771 - 315 190 Iraqis have died and a further 9.2 million have been internally displaced or sought asylum overseas due to the invasion. According to the Ministry of Planning, Iraq’s 2023 poverty rate is 25% or 11 million. This is only a slight decrease from 26.4% reported by the World Bank in 2006.

Clearly, the invasion has significantly disrupted the lives and well-being of Iraqis.

Lessons learned (or to be learned) from the invasion of Iraq

The Iraqi invasion is a reminder that US foreign policy is precarious. The great power is often willing to pursue double standards - namely disregarding international laws and institutions they hold other states accountable to - as a means of promoting their national interests.

A Dutch Inquiry into the US-led invasion found it contravened international law, as United Nations Security Council Resolutions nor the United Nations Charter authorised military intervention. Further, the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s role in the invasion found a lack of evidence that Iraq possessed chemical and biological WMS and that collaboration between Iraq and Al-Qeada was “unlikely”. Accordingly, the invasion was unjustified, as there was no just cause that legitimised the decision to invade.

Two decades on, the West has shown some remorse for its harmful foreign policy decisions. On March 29, 2023, the US Senate voted 60-33, to repeal the authorisation for the use of military force in the 2003 invasion. Additionally, eleven low-ranking US soldiers received criminal convictions for the role they played in torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. However, given the gravity of the atrocities conducted during the occupation, these acts of accountability and justice are merely symbolic.

Currently, the West still deems it their responsibility to intervene in the affairs of non-Western states. For instance, the US is currently involved in operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria as part of their continued fight against terrorism and to promote democracy.

The bottom line is that invading another state’s sovereignty must only be done when there are legitimate reasons. All actors must engage in a thorough and realistic cost-benefit analysis, consider the long and short-term consequences of their decisions and act accordingly. The West, particularly the US should keep these considerations front of mind when making foreign policy decisions.

Even after 20 years, the significance of the Iraq invasion remains the same. While the West won the war, they lost the peace.


Victoria Jagger is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Arts, majoring in Human Rights at Monash University. As a New Colombo Plan Scholar, she is currently located in Singapore interning with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). She is interested in exploring how international relations and foreign policy decisions impact both individual and collective rights.