On this day in 2003, President George W. Bush addresses the nation via live television and announces that Operation Iraqi Freedom has begun. Bush authorized the mission to rid Iraq of tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein and eliminate Hussein's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Operation Iraqi Freedom illustrated the Bush administration's pledge to use unilateral, pre-emptive strikes if necessary against nations believed dangerous to American national security.
On September 11, 2001, militant Islamic fundamentalist terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Immediately, U.S. intelligence agencies stepped up investigations into Iraq's possible connection to the terrorist organization al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the attacks. In a January 2002 speech, Bush identified Iraq as one of several "rogue nations" that financed or trained terrorists. In addition, the Bush administration pointed to now-disputed intelligence that seemed to indicate that Iraq was negotiating with Niger to purchase vast quantities of uranium yellowcake (a product associated with the productionof uranium ore) with the intent of creating WMD.
Between 2002 and early 2003, United Nations weapons inspectors tried to ascertain if Hussein had violated U.N. resolutions against manufacturing biological and chemical weapons; Hussein stalled in complying with the inspections. After unsuccessful attempts to enlist the support of key U.N. security-council nations including France and Germany, Bush then announced that the U.S. was prepared to launch military action against Iraq alone; at first, only Britain agreed to join in the attack. On March 15, Bush gave Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war, an order they defied. The U.N. inspectors evacuated Iraq on March 17 with incomplete reports on Iraq's WMD capabilities. After gathering the support of a small contingent of international supporters, including Belgium and Spain, Bush gave the green light to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19.
In his speech to the nation that evening, Bush told Americans that Iraq was the next target in an ongoing worldwide battle against terrorism that had begun with America's attack on Afghanistan's Taliban government in September 2001. The president warned that "helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment" and appeared to acknowledge the substantial domestic opposition to the war by stating he "reluctantly" authorized military force, but reaffirmed his adminstration's refusal to "live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."
Bush received harsh criticism for the war. Critics claimed his administration primarily sought control of Iraq's vast oil resources, or that the war was in retaliation for an attempt on former President George H.W. Bush's life, ordered by Hussein, in 1990. Revelations that intelligence regarding the Iraq/Niger yellowcake deal was faulty bolstered anti-war sentiment. Bush denied accusations that his administration manipulated intelligence to justify a war and insisted the paramount goal of the war was to rid Iraq of Hussein, stabilize the Middle East and bring democracy to Iraq. U.S. forces successfully captured Hussein, who had gone into hiding shortly after the start of war, on December 15, 2003.
Although Bush announced "mission accomplished" and the end of combat operations on May 1, 2003, Iraq continued to experience ongoing deadly attacks by insurgents while U.S. and coalition troops and civilian contractors attempted to establish an Iraqi army and police force and establish a freely elected government. In the first four years of the war, American casualities stood at more than 3,000 with more than 23,000 wounded, while Iraqi civilian casualties were estimated at more than 50,000.