What happened when Iraq was invaded 20 years ago?

Smoke rises from explosions during the first few minutes of a massive air attack on March 21, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq [Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images]

Twenty years ago, the US and the UK announced that Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and supporting "terrorist groups".

On March 19, 2003, a US-led coalition began bombing Iraq, and one day later a ground invasion began. In the coalition were US, UK, Australian, and Polish soldiers.

President Bush shakes hands with British Prime Minister Tony Blair
Bush shakes hands with UK PM Tony Blair, left, his ally in launching a war on Iraq, at the White House in the US capital, January 31, 2003 [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

In 2011, the coalition forces withdrew from Iraq, declaring the war over and leaving behind at least 275,000 people dead and a country ravaged.

Al Jazeera breaks down some of the war's defining moments in the following timeline.

Building up to invasion

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, US President George W Bush began claiming that Iraq had WMDs - a claim later proved false - and that it supported al-Qaeda, making disarming it a new priority.

Bush signs a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq, on October 16, 2002 [Ron Edmonds/AP Photo]

On September 24, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons: "Of course there is no doubt that Iraq, the region and the whole world would be better off without Saddam."

Tony Blair as British Prime Minister making statement to House of Commons on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, London, Britain, video still
Blair speaks in the House of Commons on Iraq's purported WMDs in this video still, London, UK, on September 24, 2002 [AP Photo]

Hearing the intent behind those statements, hundreds of thousands of people around the world poured onto the streets to protest against a war in Iraq.

Iraq War protest
Global demonstrations against a looming US-led war on Iraq were the biggest since the Vietnam war [Reuters]

In November 2002, UN Security Council Resolution 1441 afforded Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”.

Iraq members of parliament with arms raised to vote
Iraqi MPs vote against UN Security Council Resolution 1441, Baghdad, Iraq, November 12, 2002 [AP Photo]

Four days later, the Iraqi parliament voted to reject the UN resolution.


Bush sends Saddam an ultimatum

George W. Bush, as US President, addresses the nation about Iraq
Bush addresses the nation about Iraq on March 17, 2003 [AP Photo]

On March 17, 2003, Bush declared an end to diplomacy and gave Saddam and his sons an ultimatum to "leave Iraq within 48 hours".

March 19, 2003

George W Bush with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld standing on the lawn
Bush talks to Vice President Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld after authorising the invasion of Iraq, Washington, DC, March 19, 2003 [AP Photo]

In a televised statement, George W Bush says coalition forces are in the “early stages of a military operation to disarm Iraq” from its purported WMDs and remove Saddam from power.

The first assaults on Baghdad begin shortly after the expiry of the 48-hour deadline for Saddam and his sons to leave Iraq.

March 20, 2003

US soldier in Basra, Iraq, photo
A US soldier in Basra, Iraq, on March 22, 2003 [AP Photo]

Coalition forces at the Iraqi-Kuwait border begin their offensive from the Gulf to take Basra and the surrounding oilfields.

Saddam Hussein, as Iraq President, addresses nation following US air strike, Baghdad, Iraq, video still
Saddam in a televised address to the nation after coalition air raids begin, on March 20, 2003 [AP Photo]

Wearing a military uniform, Saddam appears on Iraqi state television to condemn "the criminal junior Bush" and call on Iraqis to defend their country.

March 23, 2003

Military operations move into southern Iraq, coming up against Iraqi resistance in the Battle of Nasiriyah, which lasted till April 2.

Smoke rises from a missile strike in a night-vision photo
Smoke rises from a coalition missile raid on Baghdad in this night-vision still on March 20, 2003 [AP Photo]

Air raids across the country kept the defending Iraqi army in chaos and prevented effective resistance.

April 9, 2003

US forces roll into the Iraqi capital and Baghdad is occupied.

A young Iraqi stands in front of a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein with a noose around its neck
A young Iraqi stands in front of a statue of Saddam with a noose around its neck, Baghdad, April 9, 2003 [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

Saddam’s statue in the main square is pulled down in an iconic moment broadcast live around the world. Operations continue against smaller factions of the Iraqi army.

May 1, 2003

George W Bush declares an end to the invasion, marking the beginning of the military occupation.

Bush on board the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003 [Larry Downing/Reuters]

On May 25, 2003, the new, US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) launched an extensive de-Baathification process aimed at eliminating the former ruling Baath party's influence in Iraq.

Despite being a secular leader, Saddam’s dictatorship was viewed by the majority, which was Shia Muslim, as inherently sectarian. Many Shia Muslims were forced out of Iraq under his regime's Sunni minority rule.

Iraqi students sit in the cafeteria in the burnt out Baghdad University
Iraqi students in the cafeteria of the burned-out Baghdad University June 4, 2003. US forces banned 'National Education', a course on Baath ideology, as part of efforts to root out the party [Timothy A Clary/AFP]

During the de-Baathification process, the CPA relied heavily on the expertise of exiled Iraqi Shia Muslims. This arguably resulted in personal bias and political score-settling becoming pervasive throughout the process.

De-Baathification gutted the civil service and disbanded the military, security and other organisations central to public order.

A photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture
A photo of Saddam after his capture shown at a press conference in Baghdad, December 14, 2003 [Reuters/Handout WS]

On December 13, US troops capture Saddam Hussein near his hometown of Tikrit.



A resistance effort against Western occupation forces in the country begins. Hundreds are reported killed in fighting during a US military siege of Falluja, an hour west of Baghdad, that began April 4.

Fighters guarding the streets of Falluja during the US siege of the city 65km west of Baghdad in April 2004
Iraqi fighters guard the streets of Falluja, on April 7, 2004. At least 60 Iraqis were killed and more than 120 wounded in overnight fighting in Falluja, hospital officials said [Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo]

In late April, photographs are unearthed of US troops abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, sparking an international outcry and a US senate probe of alleged abuses.

An Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison standing on a box, head covered by a hood and electrical wires attached to his hands - first seen on CBS TV programme Sixty Minutes, April 28, 2004 [EPA/DSK]

Meanwhile, images of gruesome violence in Iraq spread around the world via internet videos as the US claims that Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s armed group, which became al-Qaeda in Iraq in late 2004, has attracted more fighters.

Bilal Hussain Zaidan, right, and his nephew Taha Makki, look for household items on the roof of their partially destroyed house
Bilal Hussain Zaidan, right, and his nephew Taha Makki, look for their belongings in their partially destroyed house, Falluja, August 30, 2004 [Ali Ahmed/AP Photo]

In July, Saddam appears in court for the first time, facing charges including war crimes and genocide.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam sits in the dock during his trial inside the Green Zone in Baghdad [File: Scott Nelson/Pool/Reuters]

In the aftermath of the US invasion, the Iraqi unemployment rate reaches 70 percent in August.

The Arab League chief visits Iraq to prepare for a reconciliation conference, and the US military begins paying Iraqi contractors in dinars rather than in dollars.


On January 30, the first multi-party elections in 50 years are held amid stringent security measures. Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish politician, is sworn in as president.

Jalal Talabani headshot, as Iraqi Governing Council president and leader of Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, photo
Jalal Talabani, Iraqi Governing Council president and leader of the Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, February 12, 2005 [AP Photo]

Masoud Barzani becomes the regional president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

Voters accept a new constitution that aims to create an Islamic federal democracy. Iraqis vote for a government and parliament.

Two elderly Iraqi women comfort each other on their way to a polling station in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan 30, 2005 to vote in their country's first free election in a half-century. (AP Photo/Samir Mizban)
Two elderly Iraqi women on their way to vote in Baghdad, January 30, 2005 [Samir Mizban/AP Photo]

The Arab League chief visits Iraq to prepare for a reconciliation conference, and the US military begins paying Iraqi contractors in dinars rather than in dollars.

The United Iraqi Alliance - a Shia-led party - wins the parliamentary elections.


By April of 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq was fighting both against the occupation and other Iraqi sects, leaving the country awash in blood.

On May 20, 2006, Nouri al-Maliki becomes Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
A handout image showing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, on June 8, 2006. Al-Zarqawi and seven aides were killed in a US air raid in Hibhib [EPA/Multi-National Force Iraq/HO]

A month after the elections, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, is killed in a US air raid. Stepping up to fill the void at the top of al-Qaeda in Iraq is one of its founders - Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

In February 2006, the dome of the al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra was destroyed in a bombing. Sunni fighters are largely blamed for the attack, escalating sectarian tensions into what quickly became known as the Iraqi civil war.

Iraq shia shrine
Al-Askari Shia shrine Iraq

Fighters loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr target 40 Sunnis at checkpoints in Baghdad, and nearly two dozen people were killed in a car bombing in Sadr City, a Shia district in eastern Baghdad, killing 62 and injuring 114 on July 1.

In July, the deadliest month for attacks and bombings, nearly 3,500 Iraqis were killed, about 110 people a day.

‘"Death squads" and bombings killed thousands, with neighbourhoods in mixed cities like Baghdad adopting more sectarian identities as minorities left.

On the morning of the start of Eid al-Adha on December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein is executed for crimes against humanity.

A video grab from al-Iraqiya television shows Saddam, centre, moments before being hanged in Baghdad, December 30, 2006 [Ali Haider/EPA]


An escalation in rebel activity prompts President Bush to propose a surge of 21,500 additional troops into Iraq in January 2007.

US troops - Iraq
This photo dated April 24, 2007, shows US troops patrolling the streets of Baghdad [Ali Haider/EPA]

The al-Askari shrine in Samarra is attacked again.

Golden Mosque, Samarra, Iraq
The destroyed Askari shrine on June 13, 2007, after armed fighters blew up its two minarets. The dome was also bombed on February 22, 2006, by fighters believed to be linked to al-Qaeda [Getty Images]

Suicide attacks hit the north of the country, targeting Yazidis and killing and injuring hundreds.

By October of that year, there are 171,00 US soldiers in Iraq and 12,000 from other countries.

middle east in 2008
An Iraqi soldier lights brush on fire to deprive armed fighters of cover on February 29, 2008, in Arab Jabar [Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

The Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni political bloc, withdraws from cabinet following a dispute.

Britain hands over the security of Basra to Iraqi forces as the country pushes towards reducing the number of its troops in Iraq.

British troops in Basra
British armoured vehicles patrol a road after pulling out from Basra Palace, on September 3, 2007 [Atef Hassan/Reuters]


Violence continues to escalate despite a troop surge. In April the British defence secretary says the final withdrawal of troops has been postponed after clashes between Shia fighters and Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Army soldiers are seen moments after a suicide attack in the Karradah neighbourhood of central Baghdad
Iraqi soldiers after a suicide attack on Iraqi Army day in Karradah, Baghdad, on January 6, 2008. A suicide bomber killed at least eight people and injured a dozen others, police said [Hadi Mizban/AP Photo]

In March, the Iraqi army, supported from the air by the US-led coalition, attacked al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Basra. Iraq's PM Nuri al-Maliki vowed security forces would battle the Shia militia in Basra "to the end".

A Mahdi Army fighter holding a rocket-propelled grenade
A Mahdi Army fighter near a burning truck after clashes in Sadr City March 27, 2008 [Kareem Raheem/Reuters]

In May, the government and armed fighters reach a ceasefire.

By the end of 2008, the total number of foreign troops in the country - including US soldiers - stands at just over 151,000.


In February 2009, new US President Barack Obama announces that the US combat mission in Iraq would end by August 31, 2010, and that the final withdrawal of all US forces would take place at the end of 2011.

US President Barack Obama visited Al Faw Palace on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7,2009 [Lee Craker/EPA]

By April, Britain officially ends combat operations in southern Iraq. It hands control of its Basra base to US forces.

Anti-war protesters from the 'Stop the War' group, wearing rubber masks
Anti-war protesters wearing masks of British PM Brown, right, former US President Bush, centre and former British PM Blair, left, outside the Iraq war inquiry, in London on November 24, 2009 [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo]

In July, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, orders an independent inquiry into the decisions that led the country to war.


Parliamentary elections are held in March and no coalition wins enough votes for a majority as Iraq’s neighbours anxiously eye the voting.

Iraq’s leading army official criticises the planned withdrawal of US troops, saying that Iraq may not be ready for the move. The last US combat brigade leaves Iraq in August, but 50,000 troops remain for training and advisory purposes.

In November, Jalal Talabani is appointed as president and Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. Parliament approves a new government that includes the major factions.

Nouri al- Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks to the press in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 26, 2010


In January, Muqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq after years of self-imposed exile in Iran.

Muqtada al sadr
Muqtada al-Sadr speaks to his supporters in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq on January 8, 2011

Thousands gather in Baghdad and northern Iraq, demanding improved services and an end to corruption, apparently inspired by the Arab Spring protests that have spread across the region.

The Iraqi government plans a summit to decide whether US troops are needed in the country past the 2011 withdrawal deadline, as US officials continue to advocate for a future presence.

Al-Sadr says his fighters will suspend military attacks on the US, which will resume only if the US fails to pull out in time.

In October, US officials announces they have abandoned plans to keep troops in Iraq and will leave by the end-of-year withdrawal deadline.

By December, the US announces an end to combat operations.

US troops quit Iraq
The final section of the last US military convoy to depart Iraq from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crosses the border into Kuwait on December 18, 2011, Khabari Al Awazeem, Kuwait [AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera