Horrifying Images of the Iraq War

Source: Chris Hondros / Getty Images News via Getty Images

The Iraq War, waged by the U.S. and several allies against the government of Saddam Hussein and then Fedayeen insurgent groups and other Middle Eastern militant forces between 2003 and 2011, was a war that never should have been. 

In 2002, with our nation still reeling from the effects of the devastating al-Qaeda attacks on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration successfully sought congressional approval to launch a military attack on Iraq.

The rationale for the invasion of this far-off Middle Eastern country, which began on March 20, 2003, was twofold: that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had supported al-Qaeda, perhaps aiding in the Sept. 11 attacks, and that he was stockpiling so-called WMDs – weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons. (Here’s a chilling look at the world’s most dangerous chemical weapons.)

Both claims were soon proven to be false, but by that time the war was well underway, with coalition forces on the ground. (There was also speculation, which Bush strenuously denied, that he had targeted Hussein to impress his father after Hussein’s earlier invasion of Kuwait or to get revenge for a supposed Iraqi plot to assassinate the elder Bush.)

Though Bush famously (and fatuously) declared “Mission accomplished!” on an aircraft carrier in California in May 2003, U.S. involvement in Iraq was just beginning. A vigorous insurgency was mounted, including members of Hussein’s Ba’athist party as well as various paramilitary Fedayeen groups. Hussein was captured in December of that year and executed three years later – but meanwhile the insurgency grew, drawing forces from elsewhere in the Middle East, including (finally) al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups, and Iraq devolved into civil war.

Presumably realizing that American attempts to rebuild Iraq had failed utterly, and widely criticized for his adventure’s costs both in human lives and financially (a Harvard University study pegged the true cost of the war at more than $3 trillion), Bush agreed in 2008 to withdraw U.S. troops from the country – though the withdrawal wasn’t completed until late 2011 under President Barack Obama. 

By that time, an estimated 4,500 American troops and almost 18,000 pro-American Iraqi forces had lost their lives in the conflict, as did more than 70,000 pro-Hussein combatants and insurgents and well over 100,000 civilians, and much of the country was left in ruins. While most analysts agree that the U.S. didn’t exactly lose the war, it is generally agreed that the invasion accomplished nothing of substance. (Here’s how every war in U.S. history ended.)

At every stage of the Iraqi debacle, war photographers were on the ground (and sometimes in the air), documenting the alternately poignant, depressing, and often horrifying face of the conflict. To assemble an album of dramatic images of the Iraq War, 24/7 Tempo combed through the archives of Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons. Information on the war itself comes from sources including the New York Times, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Britannica.

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