Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 10:02 | SYDNEY
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The Iraq War was a war between American-led Coalition forces and the Ba’athist ruled Republic of Iraq. The War also included Iraq’s subsequent occupation, reconstruction and a counterinsurgency campaign that lasted until the official American military withdrawal in 2011. Australian Defence Forces were involved in the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003 but were largely scaled back, until 2005 when combat forces were deployed to southern Iraq. Australia withdrew most of its combat troops in mid-2008, with the last Defence personnel leaving the country in late 2013. The Iraq War also engendered significant domestic political debate within Australia, making it one of the most controversial Australian military operations since the Vietnam War.

First Gulf War

Saddam Hussein, the authoritarian leader of Ba’athist Iraq, came to power in 1979. During the 1980s many Western nations supported Saddam’s Iraqi regime in its 8-year war with Iran, primarily out of fear of the spread of fundamentalist Islam in the region and seeing Saddam and Iraq as the moderate alternative. However during the course of the war, Saddam authorised the use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces as well as elements of Iraq’s Kurdish population, resulting in the West withdrawing its support near the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. The war left Iraq economically destitute, eventually leading to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 under the pretext that Kuwait was undermining OPEC oil production quotas and hence indirectly harming the Iraqi economy.

In response, the United States led a United Nations (UN)-sanctioned international coalition under the codename Operation Desert Storm that pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. After the war, the UN Security Council issued resolutions that demanded Iraq give up any ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction and their associated material. Saddam’s refusal to fully comply with these resolutions resulted in economic sanctions being upheld against Iraq throughout the 1990s.

Drift to War

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 by American and NATO forces, the Bush Administration began to consider the possibility that the Saddam Hussein regime had been supporting international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and continuing to secretly develop weapons of mass destruction. This perception was reinforced by a failure in US intelligence estimates on Iraqi weapon programs. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, the United States campaigned for international support from both its allies and the UN Security Council in regards to supporting an armed intervention in Iraq, culminating with then Secretary of State Colin Powell appearing at the Security Council on 5 February 2003. In the end, the Security Council did not sanction the subsequent invasion of Iraq by American, British, Australian and other Coalition forces that began on 20 March 2003.

Invasion of Iraq

The invasion of Iraq was declared officially over on 1 May 2003 when President Bush announced an end to major combat operations. Overall, Coalition forces moved swiftly, taking control of Baghdad by mid-April and occupying a majority of the country by May. However, as the occupation settled in, significant numbers of Coalition troops were withdrawn shortly after the conclusion of the invasion, many of which had not seen combat. This proved to be short-sighted, as in May 2003 insurgent and irregular attacks began increasing against occupying Coalition forces throughout the country, particularly in the ‘Sunni-Triangle’. This would be the beginning of a wide-spread insurgent and sectarian conflict that would last until the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 and the end of the war.

Political Reconstruction

In terms of the political reconstruction of Iraq post-invasion, Coalition authorities were ill-prepared, but proceeded to hold democratic elections to establish a provisional government as soon as possible. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was established as a Coalition-run transitional government on 21 April 2003, with its first order mandating the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society. Its second order was the disbandment of the Iraqi Army, which proved highly destabilising to Iraqi security, and would to a large degree help fuel insurgency in the following years. The CPA was eventually disbanded in 2004 and power was transitioned to the Iraq Interim Government. The first elections to draft a new constitution were held in January 2005.

Civil War and the Surge

The 2004 – 2011 period of the Iraq War was characterised by anti-government insurgent attacks against Iraqi security and Coalition forces, a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a militias and a decent into a de facto civil war. In 2004 the insurgency expanded throughout Iraq, symbolised by the First and Second Battles of Fallujah and later by Coalition efforts to seal Iraq’s borders with Syria in 2005. Additionally, throughout this period al-Qaeda forces within Iraq conducted a series of bombings and assassinations on sectarian targets with the intention of forcing Iraq into a religious civil war. In response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration decided to ‘surge’ troops into the country in an effort to stabilise it. The United States deployed an additional 20,000 troops and extended the tour of duty of many others. Also, overall command of Coalition forces was transferred to General David Petraeus who instigated a new counterinsurgency strategy which focused on population-centric tactics. By the end of 2007 after a period of substantial fighting, rates of sectarian violence and attacks against Coalition forces began to drop. While the surge contributed to the drop in violence, other factors were also in play such as the ‘Awakening’ movements and the negotiation of ceasefires with some militant and insurgent groups. The more stable security situation in late 2007 set the scene for Coalition forces to begin transitioning to training Iraqi security forces in earnest and the eventual drawdown in 2011.

Australia’s Role

Australia’s military role in the Iraq war was varied, with elements from all three services involved in diverse roles throughout the conflict. The first Australian military units in Iraq were sections of 1st Squadron of the Special Air Service who entered Iraq on 18 March 2003. These SAS troops were successful in securing several launch sites for Scud missiles as well as the capture of Al Asad airbase, west of Baghdad. Additionally, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) were also involved in the initial invasion. The RAAF provided fourteen F/A-18 Hornet aircraft that flew escort and ground-attack supporting missions to Australian and Coalition forces, as well as two P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft for surveillance and transportation roles. The operations conducted by the RAN during the Iraq War stemmed from earlier blockade efforts under the multinational Maritime Interception Force. Australia’s contribution to this force increased to three ships during the War, in which they took part in boarding operations and fire-support missions near the Iraqi coast. The majority of these forces were withdrawn after the end of major combat operations in Iraq in mid-2003.  

In 2005 Australia contributed its first troops to the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq. The first units were deployed to protect military engineers from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in Al Muthanna Province. Australian Defence Forces also helped in training local Iraqi security personnel. This task force was disbanded in mid-2006 and Australian units were relocated to Tallil Airbase in Dhi Qar Governorate where they were relabelled Overwatch Battle Group (West). The battle group undertook training, patrolling and support missions until it was withdrawn by then Prime Minister Rudd in June 2008.

Drawdown and Withdrawal

In 2008 the Bush Administration signed the U.S.-Iraq Status of Force Agreement which stated that by the end of 2011 all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Iraq. Beginning in 2009, U.S. and Coalition forces began their slow withdrawal from the country while training Iraqi security forces. The last combat forces left the country in mid-2010 while approximately 50,000 troops remained until the end of 2011 in an advisory and training capacity under Operation New Dawn. With the collapse of talks in regards to a new Status of Force Agreement, the last American soldiers crossed into Kuwait from Iraq on 21 October 2011, effectively ending the Iraq War that began in 2003.

What the Lowy Institute does

The Lowy Institute has conducted research into Australia’s military role in Iraq, the long-term consequences of the war for the wider region, and implications for Australian and US foreign policy. This research has been largely conducted by the West Asia and International Security Programs. West Asia Program Director Anthony Bubalo, Military Fellow James Brown and Nonresident Fellow Dr Rodger Shanahan have been leading commentators on the continuing consequences of the Iraq War for Middle East security. Regular commentary and opinion on the conduct of the War in Iraq and particularly reflections on its 10th anniversary have also been held on the Institute’s blog, The Interpreter. Additionally, the Hon. John Howard OM AC delivered an address at the Lowy Institute on the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq in April 2013, reflecting on Australia’s role in the war and what the war has meant for the future of Iraq and the broader Middle East. A majority of the Institute’s current work on the region concerns the Arab uprisings, geopolitical change and trends in fundamental Islam.