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20 years ago, San Diego-based units were among first in Iraq

Twenty years ago Monday the first U.S. troops rolled into Iraq and Navy ships off the coast launched sorties and guided missiles. The war would be declared a victory just weeks later before fighting intensified amidst a robust insurgency.

Violence would reign in Iraq for more than a decade.

The Iraq invasion strategy — dubbed "Shock and Awe" by the George W. Bush Administration war planners — was led by many San Diego-based military units. More than 20,000 Marines and sailors under the command of the Camp Pendleton based I Marine Expeditionary Force and its infantry element, the 1st Marine Division, rolled into Iraq over the Kuwaiti border on March 20, 2003.


The Marines released a video Monday recognizing those forces.

San Diego-based warships, including the aircraft carrier Constellation, launched air strikes and guided missiles into the country.

All combined, coalition forces in the region numbered more than 466,000 troops, according to an April 2003 U.S. Air Force report.

The report illustrates the scope of the invasion in detail. More than 1,800 coalition aircraft flew more than 41,000 sorties into Iraq from March 20 to April 30. Thirty percent of the U.S. military's total active duty personnel were involved.

In just 26 days the coalition had achieved its tactical objective. The Iraqi army was defeated and Saddam Hussein deposed. However, the dissolution of the army and Hussein's political party sewed the seeds of an insurgency that would turn violent over the next decade.


The Bush administration and Pentagon leaders spent the months leading up to the invasion sounding the alarm on Iraq's military capabilities and its willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. Some tried to tie Hussein's regime to the attacks of 9/11.

Greg Daddis, is the director of the Center for War and Society and USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University. Daddis, a graduate of West Point, served in Iraq the first time the U.S. went to war in the country, during the Gulf War in 1991.

The U.S. and its allies went into Iraq under a number of false assumptions, he said.

"(We assumed) we would bring democracy to Iraq," Daddis said. "That we would transform Iraqi society and politics (and) that the war would be easy — it would be over quickly. We assumed it would be Desert Storm part two and clearly those assumptions did not play out."

Almost 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq and estimates of Iraqi deaths, including civilians, range from 150,000 to more than 500,000.

For Daddis, the main lesson of the Iraq War is that there are limits to what the U.S. can accomplish with military force overseas.

"As we move forward as a nation, I think we have to have these uncomfortable conversations and more honest conversations about our faith in war and the limits of what we can achieve when we go to war,” Daddis said. "I think (that's) what we should be reflecting upon as we're looking back on this 20th anniversary so we don't make the same mistakes in the future."