Still wincing from the ignominy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush was determined to reassert American hegemony in the Middle and Near East. Following the initial military assault in Afghanistan that routed the Taliban and drove al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from the country, Mr. Bush focused on Iraq. Its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, had few friends and was the nemesis of Mr. Bush's father when he was U.S. president a decade before. More than that, many of Mr. Hussein's Iraqi enemies, Kurds and Shiites mostly, were alive and well and living in Washington. They had the ear of Mr. Bush's inner circle and urged invasion.
The case against the Iraqi leader was rejected by the United Nations Security Council and lacked the imprimatur of international law, at least until the White House proffered the "Bush doctrine" of preventive war: Even if Iraq did not actually possess a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Hussein certainly sought to acquire them and had to be stopped, the argument went.
The operation was intended to be short and sweet – a surgical strike that would take out the Iraqi leadership and turn the country over to members of the opposition. U.S. troops would be home for summer.
It didn't quite work out that way.
In the final weeks before the long-planned March 19, 2003, invasion, the Bush administration bowed to arguments by groups such as the hawkish Project for the New American Century, and resolved to stay in Iraq long enough to install a democracy that would serve as a model for the region. "Occupy and rebuild" replaced "liberate and leave," noted Stuart Bowen, the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. The initial budget of $2.5-billion for humanitarian relief rose to more than $20-billion within six months and would ultimately top $60-billion.
Invasion came easily. Iraq's once-mighty military had been pummelled by years of international sanctions and the U.S.-led forces rolled over it quickly. But the invaders underestimated the challenge of establishing order and security and overestimated the clout wielded by those ambitious Iraqi expats who were quick to return to Iraq and claim positions of leadership.
"The Americans made matters worse by their program of de-Baathification and the breakup of the armed forces," said Michael Bell, referring to the purge from Iraqi government of all who had membership in the ruling Baath Party. Mr. Bell, a former Canadian ambassador in the region, chaired the international donors group for Iraqi reconstruction.
"They destroyed the only institutions that could have helped in a secure transition," he said.
The result was chaos – looting, assassinations, abductions and bombings.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens were killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions were displaced, not so much by the war but by the largely sectarian struggle for power that followed, and continues still. The largely Sunni leadership of the Baath Party was replaced by the majority Shiites whose aggressive security forces had scores to settle. Then Sunni terrorists struck back with a vengeance.
Democracy, too, has been overshadowed by secular struggles after the 2010 election resulted in an increasingly autocratic Shia government.
As for reconstruction, there was very little consultation with the Iraqi people themselves as to what was needed. Tens of thousands of contractors, mostly American, set out to rebuild the country in hundreds of different ways, with the high cost of providing private security forces eating up much of their budgets.
The result was that few projects succeeded by the time they were turned over to Iraqi control.
Performance was especially bad in matters of necessities such as electricity. In Baghdad, most homes and businesses had to get by on only a few hours of power every day. If they could afford it, consumers paid for power from privately owned generators, or bought their own small units and lined up for the gas that fuelled them.
The supply remains inadequate.
The human toll
More than 110,000
Number of Iraqis killed, 2003 to 2012
More than 800,000
Estimated number of Iraqis wounded
U.S. military personnel killed
U.S. military personnel wounded
U.K. military personnel killed
Three deadly months: More than 125
U.S. military deaths in each of the three deadliest months
(April, 2004; October, 2004; May, 2007)
More than 3,000
Civilian deaths in each of three deadliest months
(March, 2003; April, 2003; June, 2006)
Iraqis executed (including Saddam Hussein) by post-Hussein authorities
Total number of U.S. troops that served in Iraq between March, 2003 and December, 2011
Average number of troops on the ground, 2003 to 2009 (when drawdown began)
Highest number of U.S. troops in Iraq at any one time – in October, 2007, at peak of the "surge"
Average number of U.K troops on the ground (2003 to 2009)
Where the money went
Amount spent by U.S. to invade and occupy Iraq
$3-trillion to $4-trillion
Total cost to the United States
U.S. aid to Iraq since 2003
Amount unaccounted for in that aid spending
Chicken dance in Iraq
Some U.S. aid projects were completed but served little or no purpose. An example is the chicken-processing plant described by Peter van Buren, an ex-U.S. official, in The Nation earlier this month.
The $2.2-million plant – built in eastern Iraq and using complex machinery brought in from Chicago – was intended to purchase local chickens, pluck them, carve them and package them for sale to grocery stores.
The scheme ignored the fact that Iraqis had raised and marketed chickens for 2,000 years, that there was little reliable electricity and no grocery stores.
"The gleaming $2.2-million plant processed no chickens," wrote Mr. van Buren. "It just sat there empty, dark and unused in the middle of the desert."
That is, except, the former State Department official admitted, when VIPs or media visited from the United States. On those occasions, the minders "stocked the place with hastily bought purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show."
Sources: Amnesty International; Iraq Body Count Project; Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies; United Kingdom Ministry of Defence; United States Department of Defense; United States Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction; WorldPublicOpinion.org
The Kurds' planning paid off
If chaos ruled in Baghdad, it was the opposite in the northern city of Erbil and the three provinces that comprise the region of Kurdistan.
The Kurds had been preparing for an invasion for more than a decade. Under the protection of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone that kept Saddam Hussein's forces at bay in the 1990s, they developed their economy, erected a parliament and set about creating something like a state.
Within hours of the 2003 invasion, the Kurdish militia, the pesh merga, pushed southward and captured the oil fields of Kirkuk.
With support from Iraq's majority Shiites and the strong backing of the United States, the Kurds benefitted from Iraq's adoption of a federal system of government. It recognizes the autonomy of the Kurdish region and permits the Kurds to retain their militia.
The Kurds took advantage of the reconstruction program brought in by the United States, developing infrastructure projects described as "models of success."
With an eye to greater independence, they have carved out a working relationship with Turkey – the two parties enjoy some $8-billion of trade annually – and even are planning a pipeline to ship oil north to Turkey, a move that infuriates the government in Baghdad, which insists on controlling all exports.
Iraqi public opinion
It didn't take long for the worm to turn.
Nine months after the invasion of Iraq and the celebrated fall of Saddam Hussein, only 17 per cent of Iraqis wanted the U.S.-led forces to leave, said Sadoun al-Dulame, founder of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. Just six months later, however, in June of 2004, more than 90 per cent of Iraqis wanted them gone.
What happened in between? The publication of photos showing the mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison was one factor, but so too was the omnipresence of U.S. forces and their general heavy-handedness.
Anti-American sentiment remained strong from then on.
Surveys in 2005 showed 65 per cent of Iraqis opposed the presence of coalition forces, while a 2006 poll revealed that 70 per cent wanted them to leave. In that survey, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, 47 per cent of Iraqis said they actually approved of attacks on U.S.-led forces that then were being carried out by Shia and Sunni militias A September, 2007 survey found 71 per cent of Iraqis wanted the foreign troops to go, but with a greater sense of urgency. Fully 78 per cent said the U.S. military presence was "provoking more conflict than it is preventing."