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View series: The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century

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War in Iraq 1980-2003

This map is part of a series of 18 animated maps showing the history of The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century.

Created by the British in 1922, Iraq is a fragile state made up of several small minorities and three large communities: Shiite Arabs, Sunnite Arabs, and Kurds.

In 1979, the Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran was a major threat to Iraqi national unity.

The new Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, established a particularly severe form of dictatorship and launched an attack on Iran in September 1980. Following Iran’s counter-attack, the war turned into a long war of attrition with heavy casualties. The Irangate scandal demonstrated how the sale of arms by third party countries kept the war going.

In 1987, Iraq began an economic war against the petrol-rich states in the Gulf, which gradually spread to other countries.

The following year, the loss of Al-Faw persuaded Iran to accept a cease-fire. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to massacre Kurds who had rebelled during the conflict.

Iraq remains the most important military power in the region, but it is heavily indebted, particularly to the Gulf States. Claiming Iraq’s historical interest in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein invaded the Emirate on 1 August 1990, thus provoking the imposition of an unprecedented international regime of sanctions and embargo.   

With the threat of a belligerent Iraq, the United States obtained Saudi Arabia’s agreement to a deployment of US military forces in its territory. After obtaining UN approval, the Americans began the first Gulf War early in 1991 with a relentless series of air raids carried out principally by its own air force but with support from France and Great Britain. In response, Iraq launched missiles against Israel and the Gulf States before being quickly pushed out of Kuwait. But Saddam Hussein remained in power and rebellions by Shiites and Kurds were crushed without any intervention from the coalition forces.

Nevertheless the UN decided to safeguard the autonomy of the Kurdish community. Two no-fly zones were set up to protect the threatened population, while a Commission on Iraq disarmament began its investigations. In 1996, following a long-awaited agreement with Baghdad, the sanctions and embargo regime was renegotiated to include the "Oil for Food" programme. American and British military forces remained in the Gulf, as they were needed to sanction any violations of the UN regime by Iraq.

Following the September11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the Americans accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction and threatening world peace, despite the absence of proof.

In March 2003, without first obtaining approval from the UN, the Americans and the British launched a decisive offensive against Iraq. The second Gulf War, and the arrival of American troops in Baghdad on 9 April, put an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime.  

Keeping coalition forces in the country has been justified by the need to establish peace and security, but it may be difficult to maintain political balance between the various communities in the future.