How we left Iraq

March 19, 2013

In the early hours of March 20, 2003, an air raid siren and ten-minute round of explosions in Baghdad punctuated the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A 13-year-old Iraqi who witnessed the ensuing war, which killed an estimated 176,000 to 189,000 people and forced millions out of the country, would be 23 this year. On the tenth anniversary of the invasion, a generation that grew up amid war now faces a future in a country plagued by political crisis, human rights abuses, and violence.

What's next for them?

The stated goal of the invasion was to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction – which never materialized – and topple dictator Saddam Hussein, who turned up in a farmhouse cellar later that year and ultimately was hanged for his role in a massacre of Iraqis in 1982.

The civilian casualty count was grisly, with at least 134,000 Iraqis killed, according to a report from the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Reuters journalist Daniel Trotta points out that this number does not account for deaths caused indirectly by the war, such as ruined infrastructure and “the mass exodus of doctors” from the country.

Political turmoil was quick to follow. The week U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi fled the country after authorities put out a warrant for his arrest.  Hashemi’s supporters called the terrorism charges against him a power grab by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Last September, an Iraqi court sentenced Hashemi to death in absentia.

Iraq’s sectarian strife extends to its foreign relations with neighbors like Shia Iran. In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, Hashemi complained of the “growing influence of neighboring countries in our internal affairs.” Before the war, Iraq and Iran balanced each other while vying for regional power in the Persian Gulf. With Iraq destabilized, Iran stepped up to fill the void in the region and exert influence on Iraq’s domestic politics, throwing cold water on U.S. hopes that installing a pro-American government in Iraq would put pressure on Iran. A 2007 CATO Institute report notes that the Bush administration was so concerned with ousting Saddam Hussein that they “largely overlooked the wider geopolitical ramifications of his removal.” (For more on Iraq’s sectarian conflict, read this Council on Foreign Relations report from August 2012.)

Human rights abuses still abound in Iraq, both from armed opposition groups and the government’s subsequent response. According to a March 2013 report by Amnesty International, torture, unfair trials, and ill-treatment of detainees are rife. Women’s rights are in a precarious position. And Human Rights Watch noted in its 2013 World Report that Iraqi leadership used “draconian measures” against journalists, prisoners, protesters, and politicians last year.

A recent uptick in violence also puts the country on wobbly legs. Though the number of deaths is much lower than during the civil war, insurgent attacks and ongoing sectarian violence don’t bode well for the country’s stability.

Such is the state of Iraq, all for a cool $2 trillion (at least $8 billion of which may have been wasted, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen). U.S. spending on projects was often misdirected; as one Iraqi told author and former foreign service officer Peter Van Buren, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”

To mark the ten year anniversary, Reuters presents a selection of the most iconic images from our photographers over the course of the war. As a generation of war-scarred Iraqis face their country’s future without U.S. involvement, the number of images reaching an international audience will undoubtedly decline. These photographs serve as a testament to the legacy of the decade of U.S. intervention.

See the full photo gallery with first-person accounts from the photographers here.

PHOTO: U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad April 9, 2003. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

TOP PHOTO: A group of Iraqi boys gather to watch smoke billowing from burning oil on the outskirts of the town of Baiji, north of Baghdad, March 15, 2005. REUTERS/Sabah Hamid HH/AT/FA


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2 trillion dollars, 200,ooo people dead; but we got saddam for having killed a fraction of how many we killed. and to this day ask any richtie how many of the three gop lies pushed to start the war are true and they will still believe one and probably all three are still true!
1. saddam had wmd’s just before we invaded.
2. saddam had an active nuclear program just before we invaded(nucular to the right).
3. saddam had anything to do with 9/11.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

This is a much needed report. It documents and clarifies issues pertaining to a destructive war. The war was led by neoconservatives who were driven by vengeance. They get satisfaction in seeing innocent people killed. Unfortunately, instead of holding them responsible for their crimes against humanity, the neoconservatives are free, rewarded, and still assume influential positions.

Posted by JohnGlobe | Report as abusive

“2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which killed an estimated 176,000 to 189,000 people”

The Iraq war was stupid on the part of GW Bush, but let’s unwrap the baloney in this story.

The actual figure of ALL Iraqi deaths is 112,000 (includes Iarqi police and military). Source IBC
“Total deaths from coalition forces:
14,896 (13%) of all documented civilian deaths were reported as being directly caused by the US-led coalition. (The majority of deaths were from Islamic groups fighting for control.) Source IBC -“IBC’s figures are not ‘estimates’ but a record of actual, documented deaths.”
Saddam killed over 600,000 people including 100,000 Kurds so deaths are down greatly in Iraq since the “invasion” of the COALITION. This does not include the 900,000 Iraqis killed in Saddam’s war with Iran, which would make the total 1,500,000 KNOWN Iraqis dead under Saddam.
Give the one sided stories a rest, Reuters.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

Moral of the story; once the U.S. sticks their nose into another countries business it goes to pot.

Posted by sjtom | Report as abusive

What’s really sad is despite all our money and hard work, according to Reuters, the country faces a future plagued by political crisis, human rights abuses, and violence, which is exactly how it was when we arrived.

Posted by Blackbird1996 | Report as abusive

I think this article left out some content on purpose in order to push a view.

Posted by Jebp51 | Report as abusive

This institute didn’t do any real research, it just regurgitated IBC numbers which say about 123-134k civilian deaths, a number that INCLUDES those killed in suicide bombings. So a bit less than half the total comes from suicide attacks (using 55k number for those killed in that way)… reporting that as somehow all America’s fault is biased and ugly. That civilian death toll also includes deaths of the war, like malnutrition, disease, lack of water, etc. I think the breakdown of the numbers is extremely important, and reporting that does not include that breakdown is very weak. American and British soldiers DID NOT KILL 130k Iraqi civilians. In fact I feel comfortable saying that they killed more combatants than civilians, though still too many civilians (a reasonable collateral damage ratio being 1:5, no way it was that low – probably closer to 2:3)

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Was Iraq any better before. Saddam killed 100’s of thousand of his own people. Less Iraq people died in the 10 years after saddam was kicked out then before.

Posted by costag1 | Report as abusive

Well, the only intelligent thing to do under the circumstances is to just repeat the whole fiasco except three times bigger this time by launching Operation Fool Me Twice later this year or next. That will show everyone that Operation Fool Me Once was no fluke.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

In pretty bad shape things were much much better under Saddam….

Posted by Invictuss | Report as abusive