Photos: Iraq war’s 20th anniversary — the advance from Kuwait to the occupation of Baghdad

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Serried ranks of Marines, their rifles pointed down into the sand, kneel and pray. All but the Marine in front are wearing helmets, and his hair is shaved into a tonsure..
Marines kneel and pray as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment prepares to leave Camp Shoup, north of Kuwait City near the Iraqi border, on March 20, 2003, to start their advance into southern Iraq. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Then-President George W. Bush and his British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair, signed off on a war based on the myth that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, harbored weapons of mass destruction.

In less than a month, Hussein's government would be overthrown and the country would be plunged into a state of chaos that has lasted decades. Between 2003 and 2019, an estimated 275,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by direct violence stemming from the invasion.

On March 17, 2003, Bush ordered Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq within 48 hours, or the country would be invaded. Two days later, on March 19, Bush declared war with Iraq, stating that it would be a “broad and concerted campaign.”

A U.S. military convoy of trucks and jeeps snakes through the desert.
A long U.S. military convoy moves through southern Iraq on 21 March, 2003. (Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images)

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” began with an aerial bombardment, in a bid to topple the Iraqi leadership and allow for a ground invasion. The next day, 150,000 troops from the U.S.-led coalition, composed of American, British, Australian and Polish soldiers, marched over the border from Kuwait into Iraq.

The same day, Hussein called on the people of Iraq to take action against the “criminal junior Bush.”

“His criminal act comes from — and the act of those who helped him, and his followers,” Hussein said in a public address. “This is added to the series of their shameful crimes against Iraq and humanity.”

Troops of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division 3-7 infantry gather on top of their vehicles during a pause.
U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division 3-7 infantry squads take a brief break as they proceed into Iraqi territory March 21, 2003. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

The battle of Nasiriyah began on March 23, as U.S.-led forces pushed towards Baghdad, and it continued until April 2, when the Iraqi resistance was defeated.

By April 9, coalition troops had successfully occupied Baghdad, forcing Hussein into hiding. Images of American soldiers toppling Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square were broadcast around the world. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the scene at the time as “breathtaking.”

One year later, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would call the war in Iraq “illegal,” stating that the invasion was not sanctioned by the Security Council.

“From our point of view and from the charter point of view, it was illegal,” Annan told the BBC at the time. The war in Iraq would continue for another seven years.

On to Baghdad

About five U.S. soldiers gather around a row of more than a dozen Iraqi soldiers standing with their hands in the air.
U.S. soldiers keep their rifles ready as they prepare to search surrendered Iraqi soldiers near the southern border city of Safwan on March 21, 2003. (Laurent Rebours/AP)
Maj. Bull Gurfein rips a poster from a wall showing the face of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Marine Maj. Bull Gurfein pulls down a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on March 21, 2003 in Safwan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Seven evenly spaced blazes are reflected in the waters of the Tigris during the night-time bombing of Baghdad.
The bombing of Baghdad on March 21, 2003. (Mike Moore /Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Two British Royal Marines crouch on an embankment in the desert as a rocket whizzes by.
A British Royal Marine from 42 Commando fires a Milan wire-guided missile at an Iraqi position on the al-Faw peninsula in southern Iraq on March 21, 2003. (Jon Mills/Pool via AP)
Soldiers of Britain's 3 Army Air Corps crouch in a sandstorm in the desert, with a helicopter flying overhead.
Soldiers attached to Britain's 3 Army Air Corps patrol the desert around the oil fields of north Rumaila during a sandstorm, March 25, 2003. (Ian Jones/Pool via Reuters)
Sgt. Robert Dominguez, a massive blaze behind him, stands with his rifle at the ready and looks at the photographer.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Dominguez, of Mathis, Texas, stands guard next to a burning oil well at the Rumaila oil fields near the Kuwaiti border on March 27, 2003 in Rumaila, Iraq. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A member of a British tank crew, helmet off, leans against an oil pipeline with his gear arrayed around him.
British tank crews wait on the front line at Basra, Iraq, on March 27, 2003. (Dan Chung/Pool via AP)
Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett sits on the ground, wearing blue rubber gloves and cradling a young girl wearing pink pajamas on his lap.
U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds an Iraqi child in central Iraq on March 29, 2003. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
A U.S. Army soldier walks across the desert toward a burning oil well in the distance.
A U.S. Army soldier walks toward a burning oil well in Iraq's vast southern Rumaila oilfields, March 30, 2003. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
An Iraqi woman wearing a black head covering that swathes her body carries her young child, with curlicues of black smoke rising across the dirt road behind her.
An Iraqi woman carries her young child on the outskirts of Basra as she flees with others from the southern Iraqi town on March 30, 2003. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)
Three comrades surround Sgt. Chad Touchett, center, and two other soldiers who have made themselves at home on upholstered formal armchairs and settees on a marble floor littered with chunks of plaster.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chad Touchett, center, relaxes with comrades from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, after a search of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad damaged by a shelling on April 7, 2003. (John Moore/AP)
An Iraqi man, bottom right, watches Cpl. Edward Chin, on a ladder, cover the face of a statue of Saddam Hussein with an American flag, as another soldier holds a rope attached to the statue..
An Iraqi man, bottom right, watches Cpl. Edward Chin of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment, cover the face of a statue of Saddam Hussein with an American flag before toppling the statue in downtown Baghdad on April 9, 2003. (Jerome Delay/AP)
A U.S. soldier watches in surprise as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, attached by a noose around the neck, falls at a right angle to its plinth.
A U.S. soldier watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Youths had placed a noose around the statue's neck and attached the rope to a U.S. armored recovery vehicle. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
A U.S. Marine reaches above a blackboard to take down a picture of Saddam Hussein.
A U.S. Marine pulls down a framed picture of Saddam Hussein at a school April 16, 2003 in al-Kut, Iraq. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)