U.S. Army Says It Did Not Win Iraq War, 'Iran Appears to Be the Only Victor'

The United States Army has released a bleak assessment of its 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent attempts to defeat a Sunni Muslim insurgency until a 2011 withdrawal, claiming that neighboring Iran was the only true winner of the operation.

"The U.S. Army in the Iraq War" was released Thursday in two volumes entitled "Invasion and Insurgency—Civil War, 2003-2006" and "Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011." The study was originally commissioned by Army General Ray Odierno in 2013 and—having relied on some "30,000 hours of hand-picked declassified documents, hundreds of hours of interviews of original interviews and thousands of hours of previously available interviews"—it claims to be "the U.S. Government's longest and most detailed study of the Iraq conflict thus far."

As the document notes, the decision to attack was a "preemptive" response to accusations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and offered tacit support to the Al-Qaeda militant group that conducted the 9/11 attacks of 2001. These charges later proved to be false, and the Army has now admitted that Hussein's fall managed to empower a mutual foe of both the Iraqi leader and the U.S.

"In terms of geostrategic consequences, the war produced profound consequences," the document read. "At the time of this project's completion in 2018, an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor. Iraq, the traditional regional counterbalance for Iran, is at best emasculated, and at worst has key elements of its government acting as proxies for Iranian interests."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim (R) receives Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) in Baghdad during an official visit on January 13. The two majority-Shiite Muslim neighbors share a tumultuous history of relations, which were greatly helped by the U.S.-led ousting of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003. SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

In Feburary 1979, the revolutionary Shiite Muslim Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and Arab Baathist leader Hussein seized leadership of Iraq in July of that same year. The two quickly went to war, with the U.S. quietly backing both sides. A ceasefire ended the conflict in 1988, but a cash-strapped Iraq went on to invade Kuwait two years later, prompting a U.S. intervention that, though limited in nature, would pave the way for the full-scale invasion in 2003, a move that would lead to an all-out war costing the lives of thousands of U.S. troops and up to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The report found that, following the incursion led by U.S. forces, "Coalition warfare was largely unsuccessful for several reasons," including differences in stabilization strategies that ultimately could not be reconciled. The document also examined the overall unpreparedness of the U.S. Army to sustain a lengthy, intensive counterinsurgency campaign, linking it to outmoded approaches to nation-building that failed to apply in Iraq's sectarian environment, which later allowed Iran to dominate local politics via its connections to Shiite Muslim and Kurdish movements banned under Hussein's rule.

The Pentagon's missteps left Iraq unstable for years to come. While the U.S.-led victory against Hussein's government came swiftly after the initial 2003 invasion, a Sunni Muslim insurgency led initially by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and later by its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq, devastated the country, targeting local and U.S.-led coalition forces, as well as members of the country's Shiite Muslim majority. Faced with a second insurgency led by Iran-backed Shiite Muslim groups and declining public support, the U.S. withdrew altogether in 2011. The U.S. would return three years later to battle the jihadi group's latest incarnation, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which had taken up to half of Iraq and Syria by 2014.

Also rising to defeat ISIS was a collective of militias that formed the majority-Shiite Muslim Popular Mobilization Forces. These fighters, some of which fought U.S. troops prior to 2011, helped Iraqi troops also backed by the U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish forces to eradicate ISIS. As of last year, the Popular Mobilization Forces have been officially inducted into the Iraqi armed forces, cementing their position in Iraqi society. Tehran's influence today extends across the region, through Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon, leaving Washington nervous about the future of its ability to project power throughout the Middle East.

President Donald Trump, who has expressed opposition to the Iraq War and his predecessor's support for Syrian insurgents, has cast Iran as the main enemy of his administration. Still, he has also ordered U.S. troops to exit from Syria as the battle against ISIS reaches its final stage, rather than expand the mission there to include expelling suspected Iran-backed forces and overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally who also opposed Hussein.

A U.S. Marine illuminates a building using an infrared laser only visible using night vision goggles while on a search operation for insurgents in the early hours of February 1, 2007 in Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province. The war killed thousands of U.S. troops along with up to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. John Moore/Getty Images

Iran and Syria had been opposed to a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, which continues to work with all three countries in an effort to ensure that ISIS does not return after its defeat there in late 2017. Despite U.S. efforts to curb Iranian influence in Iraq, the two Shiite Muslim neighbors came together earlier this month in a bid to expand ties just one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stopped there as part of his "counter-Iran revolution" tour.

This trip and a surprise Christmas weekend visit by Trump have stoked local opposition to the extended U.S. presence in Iraq, whose leadership is now under more pressure to come up with a timeline for an exit of foreign troops. With the 16th anniversary of the U.S. invasion nearing, elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces groups and a number of leading Iraqi political powers have grown weary of the Pentagon's presence.

At home, however, the U.S. public appeared to hold more ambivalent sentiments about the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In a poll conducted just ahead of the 15th anniversary of the war, the Pew Research Center found that a close margin of 48 percent of respondents felt the use of military force was the "wrong decision," while 43 percent believed the move was justified.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in February 1979.