2003 invasion of Iraq: two decades of regional shockwaves

Fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein, April 9, 2003, in Baghdad. ASSOCIATED PRESS - Jerome Delay

Text by: Nicolas Falez Follow

5 min

On March 20, 2003, at 5:35 a.m. local time, the sky in Baghdad went up in flames. This is the beginning of the American bombing of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which will lead in a few days to the fall of Saddam Hussein. From 2003 to 2011, more than 100,000 civilians were killed in the country, according to Iraq Body Count. Washington planned this operation by denouncing the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, none of which have ever been discovered.


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Twenty years later, the new Iraqi political system set up following the US invasion is in a state of permanent crisis. And the Middle East still bears the scars of this military adventure. The US invasion has opened a new chapter for another of Washington's enemies in the region: Iran. And it has permanently weakened the West's credibility with regard to respect for international law.

By invading Iraq, have George Bush's United States and its allies done their enemy Iran a huge service? Yes, according to specialist Clément Therme, associate researcher at the Rasanah International Institute of Iranian Studies. For him, "Washington has achieved what the Iranian armed forces failed to achieve during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)".

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Rid of its threatening neighbour Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran was able to benefit in the long term from the American adventure in Iraq. This proved disastrous (inter-Iraqi violence, jihadist surge) "it strengthened the Iranian regime which no longer feared the American military option," continues Clément Therme. Gone is the "Iran Next" that was desired by some and feared by others in this period of extreme American interventionism.

Therefore, "this military intervention by Washington has opened a space for the construction of Iranian networks of influence," explains Clément Therme. Iran has paradoxically become an omnipresent and influential ally in the "new Iraq" designed by Washington after the invasion. And Tehran has been able to extend its "strategic corridor that starts from Iran, crosses Iraq and Syria and ends in Lebanon," adds Clément Therme. Which summarizes: to the speech of Bush on the 'axis of evil' answered the speech on the 'axis of resistance' claimed by Tehran.


The US invasion of Iraq allowed the country's Shiite majority to rise to power, while it was marginalized and oppressed under Saddam Hussein. This reversal has had consequences throughout the region. "There has been in the Shiite worlds a renaissance of Najaf [Iraq's holy city and important religious center of Shiite Islam] and an increased influence of Ayatollah Sistani, who is the most popular of the 'sources of imitation' ("marja") of the Shiite worlds," explains Clément Therme. This development has often been seen as favouring a "Shiite axis" or "Shiite crescents" in the service of the Shia-majority Iran's regional ambitions.

Did the invasion of Iraq destabilize the region? "It has destabilized Iraq, but not the region," says Thomas Pierret (CNRS, Iremam) for whom it would be wrong to look for a continuum between the 2003 war in Iraq and the one that began in Syria in 2011. But the first was "an aggravating factor" of the second, for three reasons, according to Thomas Pierret: "First, because the Islamic State group (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is a product of the US invasion of Iraq and this group then played an extremely toxic role in the conflict in Syria. Secondly, because Iraqi paramilitary groups supported by Iran have committed themselves to the side of Bashar al-Assad. Finally, because without the failure in Iraq, the Americans would probably have thought more about an operation in Syria in the name of the responsibility to protect."

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Lie of the US administration

The decision of the US administration of George Bush Jr. (2001-2009) to overthrow Saddam Hussein was accompanied by a historical lie: false evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, no nuclear or chemical programs were found after the invasion.

The deadly chaos that followed the 2003 intervention shattered the promises of a "new Middle East" brandished by the White House at the time.


The United States has fallen into the trap of blindness and ideology, ignoring the lessons of history and the past. ", summarizes historian Pierre Razoux, director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES). But - he continues - "history takes revenge: Iraq was the tomb of American hubris , even more than Afghanistan. And the 2011 U.S. withdrawal paved the way for ISIS on one side and Iran on the other. The sequel will mark the return of the other players in the region: Iran, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia."

Historical turning point

A historic turning point, the invasion of Iraq dealt a blow to Western interventionism in general, American interventionism in particular. Thus, the ghost of Iraq petrified Barack Obama's United States in the summer of 2013 when Washington renounced intervening in Syria while the use of chemical weapons – attributed to Bashar al-Assad – violated the "red line" that the US president himself had defined. "The entire mandate of Barack Obama (successor to George Bush, 2009-2017) is based on the promise of a military disengagement from the Middle East," says researcher Thomas Pierret (CNRS, Iremam).

Twenty years later, does the US invasion of Iraq still weigh on international relations? According to Clément Therme, "it has weakened Western credibility with regard to respect for the rules of international law". A break observed today when the West is struggling to rally the support of some southern countries to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(*)Hubris: Outrage in behavior inspired by pride; Excess.

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