Military History Iraq Wars, 1980s-Present
Thomas G. Mahnken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0137


Scholars will likely debate the topic of Iraq’s wars that began in 1980 for years to come. Some will choose to view the wars as discrete events: the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Iraq War. Others will argue no doubt that the period should be seen as one of continuity—the wars of Saddam Hussein. Saddam went to war with Iran in 1980, and the outcome of that war, particularly Iraq’s indebtedness to its Arab neighbors, helped set the conditions that led Saddam to invade Kuwait in 1990. That action, in turn, led to the establishment of a broad-based coalition to oppose Iraq, which ended in war. The 1991 Gulf War was a decisive battlefield victory for the US-led coalition, but, in the end, the allied nations failed to compel Saddam to acknowledge defeat; indeed, he was convinced that he won the conflict. As a result of Saddam’s unwillingness to comply with a series of United Nations resolutions, the US-led coalition implemented a containment strategy against Iraq between 1991 and 2003. Saddam’s continuing intransigence, combined with the widely held perception that containment had failed to halt Saddam’s quest for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, led the United States and several allies to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam in 2003. That campaign, in turn, was followed by a large-scale insurgency that lasted for years, the final settlement of which must remain a topic for future historians. Scholars today can finally begin to evaluate the Iraqi side of the wars of this period given that the archives of Iraqi records are now available at Stanford University and the University of Colorado. The largest and most comprehensive records collection is the Conflict Records Research Center, which is currently housed at the US National Defense University. As discussed below, the availability of Iraqi state records is already revising in a fundamental way our understanding of this topic.

Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988

Iraq’s war with Iran was protracted and bloody. It featured not only trench warfare and human-wave attacks, but also ballistic missile campaigns against the capital cities of both belligerents and the use of chemical weapons by both sides. Even though Iraq eventually prevailed, it paid a high price for its victory. Moreover, the experience of the war shaped its perceptions both of its neighbors and of the United States. Karsh 2002 provides an overview of the war. Woods, et al. 2011b provides Saddam Hussein’s perspective of the origins and conduct of the war. Woods, et al. 2011a discusses the war as seen through the eyes of the Iraqi military. The Iranian side of the war remains under-studied. Takeyh 2010 discusses the Iranian leadership’s miscalculations. Chemical weapons were used by both belligerents against both combatants and civilians during the Iran-Iraq War. Hiltermann 2007 explores Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds. The US role in the conflict also remains a topic of interest among scholars. Gibson 2010 argues that the United States was a de facto ally of Iraq in the conflict. In contrast, Brands 2011 draws upon Iraqi state records to explore Saddam’s suspicion of the United States during the conflict. Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) 2004 contains oral histories of former American policymakers together with a collection of declassified American documents on the war.

  • Brands, Hal. “Inside the Iraqi State Records: Saddam Hussein, ‘Irangate,’ and the United States.” Journal of Strategic Studies 24.1 (February 2011): 95–118.

    DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2011.541767

    The author uses records of Saddam Hussein’s regime to challenge the widely held view that Iraq was a quasi-ally of the United States during the Iran-Iraq War. Shows that Saddam Hussein was deeply suspicious of the United States, and, indeed, he believed Washington was with conspiring with Tehran and Tel Aviv against Baghdad.

  • Gibson, Bryan. Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence, and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988. New York: Praeger, 2010.

    Utilizes newly available primary materials to analyze American policy toward the war and argues that, by the end of the war, the United States was a de facto ally of Iraq.

  • Hiltermann, Joost. A Poisonous Affair. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Discusses Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. Shows how Iraq developed and used an increasingly sophisticated chemical arsenal against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish villagers, culminating in the gassing of the Kurdish village of Halabja.

  • Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988. London: Osprey, 2002.

    Provides a concise overview of the conflict. Assesses the causes of the Iran-Iraq War, discusses the objectives of the two belligerents, and examines the extent to which they matched their objectives with a strategy to achieve them. Assesses the war’s military lessons regarding such key areas as strategy, tactics, escalation, and, in particular, the use of nonconventional weapons.

  • Takeyh, Ray. “The Iran-Iraq War: A Reassessment.” Middle East Journal 64.3 (Summer 2010): 365–383.

    DOI: 10.3751/64.3.12

    Discusses the mistakes and miscalculations that the Iranian government made that ensured a stalemated conflict. Argues that Tehran subordinated strategy to ideology, and misplaced hopes that Iraq’s population would welcome Iranians as liberators contributed to prolonging a devastating war. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • The 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War: A CWIHP Critical Oral History Conference.

    Contains oral histories of scholars and former government officials regarding the origins, conduct, and impact of the Iran-Iraq War as well as two collections of American, Bulgarian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Iranian, and Russian sources on the conflict.

  • Woods, Kevin M., Williamson Murray, Elizabeth A. Nathan, Laila Sabara, and Ana M. Venegas. Saddam’s Generals. D-4121. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2011a.

    Based on an extensive set of interviews of former Iraqi military leaders, analyzes Iraqi military performance during the Iran-Iraq War.

  • Woods, Kevin, David D. Palkki, and Mark E. Stout, eds. The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978–2001. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011b.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139061506

    Presents annotated transcripts of Iraqi audio recordings of meetings between Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. Provides evidence of how Saddam reacted to the pressures of his wars, how he managed the Iraqi government, and how he reacted to foreign pressure and overtures.

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