U.S. declares an end to the War in Iraq

In a ceremony held in Baghdad on December 15, 2011, the war that began in 2003 with the American-led invasion of Iraq officially comes to an end. Though today was the official end date of the Iraq War, violence continued and in fact worsened over the subsequent years. The withdrawal of American troops had been a priority of President Barack Obama, but by the time he left office the United States would again be conducting military operations in Iraq.

Five days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush announced the “War on Terror,” an umbrella term for a series of preemptive military strikes meant to reduce the threat terrorism posed to the American homeland. The first such strike was the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, which began a war that continues to this day.

Throughout 2002, the Bush Administration argued that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was allied with terrorists and developing “weapons of mass destruction.” By all accounts, Hussein was responsible for many atrocities, but there was scant evidence that he was developing nuclear or chemical weapons. Behind closed doors, intelligence officials warned the case for war was based on conjecture—a British inquiry later revealed that one report’s description of Iraqi chemical weapons had actually come from the Michael Bay-directed action movie The Rock. The governments of the U.S. and the U.K., however, were resolute in their public assertions that Hussein posed a threat to their homelands, and went ahead with the invasion.

The invasion was an immediate success insofar as the coalition had toppled Hussein’s government and occupied most of Iraq by mid-April. What followed, however, was eight years of insurgency and sectarian violence. American expectations that Iraqis would “greet them as liberators” and quickly form a stable, pluralistic democracy proved wildly unrealistic. Though the coalition did install a new government, which took office in 2006, it never came close to pacifying the country. Guerilla attacks, suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices continued to take the lives of soldiers and civilians, and militias on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide carried out ethnic cleansings.

The American public remained skeptical of the war, and many were horrified at reports of atrocities carried out by the military and CIA. Leaked photos proved that Americans had committed human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, and in 2007 American military contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Opposition to the war became an important talking point in Obama’s bid for the presidency.

On New Year’s Day 2009, shortly before Obama took office, the U.S. handed control of the Green Zone—the Baghdad district that served as coalition headquarters—to the Iraqi government. Congress formally ended its authorization for the war in November, and the last combat troops left the following month. Even by the lowest estimates, the Iraq War claimed over 100,000 lives; other estimates suggest that the number is several times greater, with over 205,000 civilian deaths alone.

Over the next three years, ongoing sectarian violence blossomed into a full-out civil war. Many of the militias formed during the Iraq War merged or partnered with extremist groups in neighboring Syria, itself experiencing a bloody civil war. By 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which absorbed many of these groups, controlled much of Syria and Iraq. The shocking rise of ISIL led Obama to launch fresh military actions in the region beginning in June of 2014. Though ISIL has now been driven out of Iraq and appears to be very much diminished, American troops are still on active duty in Iraq, 16 years after the initial invasion and eight years after the official end of the Iraq War.

READ MORE: The War on Terror: A Timeline

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Baghdad falls to U.S. forces

On April 9, 2003, just three weeks into the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces pull down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolizing the end of the Iraqi president’s long, often brutal reign, and a major early victory for the United States.

Dramatic images of the toppled statue and celebrating citizens were instantly beamed around the world. With Hussein in hiding and much of the city now under U.S. control, the day’s events later became known as the Fall of Baghdad.

“Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom,” then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing.

The Iraq War was far from over, however. Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 and executed in December 2006, but the United States would not formally withdraw from Iraq until December 2011, eight years after the conflict first began. 

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Saddam Hussein captured


Updated:
Original:
Year
2003
Month Day
December 13

After spending nine months on the run, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is captured on December 13, 2003. Saddam’s downfall began on March 20, 2003, when the United States led an invasion force into Iraq to topple his government, which had controlled the country for more than 20 years.

Saddam Hussein was born into a poor family in Tikrit, 100 miles outside of Baghdad, in 1937. After moving to Baghdad as a teenager, Saddam joined the now-infamous Baath party, which he would later lead. He participated in several coup attempts, finally helping to install his cousin as dictator of Iraq in July 1968. Saddam took over for his cousin 11 years later. During his 24 years in office, Saddam’s secret police, charged with protecting his power, terrorized the public, ignoring the human rights of the nation’s citizens. While many of his people faced poverty, he lived in incredible luxury, building more than 20 lavish palaces throughout the country. Obsessed with security, he is said to have moved among them often, always sleeping in secret locations.

In the early 1980s, Saddam involved his country in an eight-year war with Iran, which is estimated to have taken more than a million lives on both sides. He is alleged to have used nerve agents and mustard gas on Iranian soldiers during the conflict, as well as chemical weapons on Iraq’s own Kurdish population in northern Iraq in 1988. After he invaded Kuwait in 1990, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 1991, forcing the dictator’s army to leave its smaller neighbor, but failing to remove Saddam from power. Throughout the 1990s, Saddam faced both U.N. economic sanctions and air strikes aimed at crippling his ability to produce chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. With Iraq continuing to face allegations of illegal oil sales and weapons-building, the United States again invaded the country in March 2003, this time with the expressed purpose of ousting Saddam and his regime.

Despite proclaiming in early March 2003 that, “it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression,” Saddam went into hiding soon after the American invasion, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape, and his government soon fell. After declaring Saddam the most important of a list of his regime’s 55 most-wanted members, the United States began an intense search for the former leader and his closest advisors. On July 22, 2003, Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, who many believe he was grooming to one day fill his shoes, were killed when U.S. soldiers raided a villa in which they were staying in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Five months later, on December 13, 2003, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. The man once obsessed with hygiene was found to be unkempt, with a bushy beard and matted hair. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as “a man resigned to his fate.”

After standing trial, he was executed on December 30, 2006. Despite a prolonged search, weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq.

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War in Iraq begins


Year
2003
Month Day
March 19

On March 19, 2003, the United States, along with coalition forces primarily from the United Kingdom, initiates war on Iraq. Just after explosions began to rock Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, U.S. President George W. Bush announced in a televised address, “At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” President Bush and his advisors built much of their case for war on the idea that Iraq, under dictator Saddam Hussein, possessed or was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction.

Hostilities began about 90 minutes after the U.S.-imposed deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war passed. The first targets, which Bush said were “of military importance,” were hit with Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. fighter-bombers and warships stationed in the Persian Gulf. In response to the attacks, Republic of Iraq radio in Baghdad announced, “the evil ones, the enemies of God, the homeland and humanity, have committed the stupidity of aggression against our homeland and people.”

Though Saddam Hussein had declared in early March 2003 that, “it is without doubt that the faithful will be victorious against aggression,” he went into hiding soon after the American invasion, speaking to his people only through an occasional audiotape. Coalition forces were able to topple his regime and capture Iraq’s major cities in just three weeks, sustaining few casualties. President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003. Despite the defeat of conventional military forces in Iraq, an insurgency has continued an intense guerrilla war in the nation in the years since military victory was announced, resulting in thousands of coalition military, insurgent and civilian deaths.

After an intense manhunt, U.S. soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a six-to-eight-foot deep hole, nine miles outside his hometown of Tikrit. He did not resist and was uninjured during the arrest. A soldier at the scene described him as “a man resigned to his fate.” Hussein was arrested and began trial for crimes against his people, including mass killings, in October 2005.

In June 2004, the provisional government in place since soon after Saddam’s ouster transferred power to the Iraqi Interim Government. In January 2005, the Iraqi people elected a 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. A new constitution for the country was ratified that October. On November 6, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. After an unsuccessful appeal, he was executed on December 30, 2006.

No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. The U.S. declared an end to the war in Iraq on December 15, 2011, nearly ten years after the fighting began. 

READ MORE: The Surprising Interrogations That Led to Saddam Hussein’s Capture

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The Dixie Chicks backlash begins


Year
2003
Month Day
March 12

In response to the critical comments made about him by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush offered this response: “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.” Of the backlash the Dixie Chicks were then facing within the world of country music, President Bush added: “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.” This music-related sideshow to the biggest international news story of the year began on March 12, 2003, when the British newspaper The Guardian published its review of a Dixie Chicks concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London two nights earlier.

In that review, The Guardian‘sBetty Clarke included the following line: “‘Just so you know,’ says singer Natalie Maines, ‘We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.’” (Clarke left out the middle of the full quotation, which was, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”) That line quickly became fodder for a grassroots anti-Dixie Chicks backlash. It began with thousands of phone calls flooding country-music radio stations from Denver to Nashville—calls demanding that the Dixie Chicks be removed from the stations’ playlists. Soon some of those same stations were calling for a boycott of the recent Dixie Chicks’ album and of their upcoming U.S. tour. Fellow country star Toby Keith famously joined the fray by performing in front of a backdrop that featured a gigantic image of Natalie Maines beside Saddam Hussein.

The economic and emotional impact of all this on the members of the Dixie Chicks is documented in the 2006 documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. In its opening sequence, one can see how popular and how far from controversial the Dixie Chicks were just prior to this controversy, when they sang the national anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl. The film also captures a scene in which the Dixie Chicks’ own media handler is counseling Maines not to speak her mind too openly about President Bush in an upcoming interview with Diane Sawyer. 

In 2019, after a 14-year hiatus, the Dixie Chicks announced they were releasing a new album. 

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