Iraq Three Years Later: The Path to War

Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images i i

A boy uses the cannon of a destroyed Iraqi army tank as a swing on March 18, 2006, near Basra. Defeating the Iraqi military turned out to be easier than bringing peace and stability back to the country after the invasion. Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

A boy uses the cannon of a destroyed Iraqi army tank as a swing on March 18, 2006, near Basra. Defeating the Iraqi military turned out to be easier than bringing peace and stability back to the country after the invasion.

Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

This week marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Mike Shuster tracks the events leading up to the U.S.-led invasion. These include Bush administration claims — since discredited — of ongoing Iraqi nuclear weapons development and links with al Qaeda.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq.

INSKEEP: President Bush spoke yesterday at the White House, three years after the start of the U.S. invasion.

President BUSH: And a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.

INSKEEP: Today, the President delivers his speech describing progress in Iraq. The anniversary comes as a former Iraqi prime minister says his country is already in a civil war. And for some, this is an occasion to remember how the war began.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports on what we heard then and what we know now.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

We now know from a wide variety of sources that President Bush instructed General Tommy Franks to begin planning for a possible invasion of Iraq as early as December 2001, less that four months after the 9/11 attacks. The President began laying the political foundation for the war in his State of the Union address in January 2002, where he famously grouped together North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

President BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an access of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.

SHUSTER: Over the next half year, the Pentagon refined and then refined again plans to invade Iraq. But there were only occasional public hints that Iraq could become a target. In the spring, the President laid out his doctrine of preemptive war at a speech at West Point. Then in August, almost out of the blue, Vice President Cheney appeared before Korean War veterans to make a claim about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies and against us.

SHUSTER: From that moment on, this theme would be repeated over and over again, in speeches, in interviews and on television by many in the Administration, among them, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor, by Cheney and by the President himself.

Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Former National Security Advisor): We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

Vice President CHENEY: We know he's been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

President BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

SHUSTER: By September 2002, it looked as if the Bush Administration had already made the decision to go to war, without seeking authorization from Congress or from the United Nations. But some in the Administration, most notably Secretary of State Colin Powell, argued that the U.S. had to make the case to both Congress and the U.N. if there was any chance of gaining domestic and international legitimacy for the attempt to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. The campaign for war began in earnest when the President appeared before the U.N. General Assembly.

President BUSH: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger. To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence. To assume this regime's good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble.

SHUSTER: Soon after that, on October 7th in Cincinnati, President Bush began to sound the second key note in the campaign for war, that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were working together. The speech was broadcast live in primetime.

President BUSH: We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.

SHUSTER: The President made link between Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and the desire of terrorists to use them against America.

President BUSH: We know that Iraq and al-Qaida have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al-Qaida leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Qaida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year.

SHUSTER: This theme too was repeated over and over again by officials, including Rice.

Secretary of State RICE: We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of al-Qaida, going back for actually quite a long time. We know too that several of the detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al-Qaida in chemical weapons development.

SHUSTER: We know now the source for these assertions was one top al-Qaida detainee. Eventually, the U.S. intelligence community concluded these claims were false, but not before others in the Administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had repeated them.

Defense Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD: We do have solid evidence of the presence of Iraq of al-Qaida members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have what we consider to be a very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade, and of possible chemical and biological agent training.

SHUSTER: At the time, the doubts among intelligence analysts were not widely known, and the Administration's campaign was strong enough to convince Congress to adopt the authorization for the use of force against Iraq on October 11th.

The next month, the UN Security council, in a decision that some hoped would head off war, authorized the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. Weapons inspectors had been absent from Iraq for five years, but Baghdad immediately opened its doors. Within weeks, inspectors were fanning out in Iraq, looking for evidence of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. They couldn't find them; but that didn't stop President Bush from making new claims in his January State of the Union Speech.

President BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities.

SHUSTER: But the weapons inspectors tried to explain them. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad al-Baradei, told the Security Council the claim about uranium from Africa was based on forged documents, and that his inspectors were convinced the aluminum tubes were part of a rocket program, not meant for enrichment of uranium. Eventually, al-Baradei's analysis would prove true, but the Bush Administration and most of the American press and public ignored him.

In February, Security of State Colin Powell made his famous presentation before the Security Council, divulging what he said was incontrovertible intelligence in the form of satellite photos, communications intercepts and human sources that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction it intended to share with terrorists.

General COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State): My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

SHUSTER: The intelligence was anything but solid, and eventually it would be determined that almost none of the assertions Powell made were based on fact. The Administration had also repeatedly made another claim about war with Iraq, that Iraqis would welcome invading U.S. troops and practically shower them with flowers.

Three days before the invasion began, NBC's Tim Russert asked Cheney what would happen if Iraqi viewed American troops as conquerors.

Vice President CHENEY: I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.

SHUSTER: Throughout these months, the U.S. steadily increased the number of its troops in the Persian Gulf as the invasion force was assembled. Millions of people across the world took to the streets in demonstrations against the war, but the U.S. was not deterred.

It took three weeks to reach Baghdad. The Administration was jubilant, and on May 1st, President Bush landed his own jet fighter on the carrier, Abraham Lincoln. Speaking to American service men and women against a banner that read Mission Accomplished, the President hailed the American victory.

President BUSH: Your courage, your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other, made this day possible. Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free.

SHUSTER: Within a matter of weeks, though, it would become obvious that the mission had not been accomplished, as the Iraqi insurgency erupted. And over the following two years, numerous investigations and commissions, including one authorized by the President himself, would conclude that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that there was no operational relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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