From Bush to Blix: what happened to the key figures in the Iraq war?
George W Bush
US president who ordered invasion of Iraq has turned to painting
The 43rd US president, who ordered the invasion of Iraq, has not had anything to say about the decision on the 20th anniversary. Now 76, Bush and his wife, Laura, have moved from their ranch in Crawford, Texas, to a suburb of Dallas near Southern Methodist University, where a George W Bush Institute has been established.
He appears to lead a life of contentment, painting, playing golf, watching baseball, hosting barbecues, and making occasional paid speeches.
The last time he talked about Iraq in public it was by mistake, in a speech last year in Dallas, where he railed against the “decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” Whoops! “I mean Ukraine.”
At the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum near his house, the “don’t mention the war” vibe is conspicuous. According to the New York Times, which visited recently, the word “Iraq” does not appear on the leaflet handed to visitors.
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The library’s website phrases it: “In 2002 and early 2003, the United States began exerting pressure on Iraq to follow through on its commitments to improve human rights, release prisoners, break ties with terrorists, and destroy weapons of mass destruction.” Without mentioning the absence of WMD, it simply adds: “On March 19, 2003, the efforts culminated in military operations to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”
In his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, Bush wrote: “No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”
However, he insisted he had made the right decision and there was nothing to apologise for.
Some have seen signs of remorse in his series of portraits of wounded war veterans, published as a book in 2017, but no one close to him has heard him express any sense of responsibility or seek atonement.
“I think part of having a fulfilling life is to be challenged. I’m challenged on the golf course, I’m challenged to stay fit, and I’m challenged by my paintings,” Bush told USA Today. “I am happy.”
Warmongering vice-president remains unrepentant – and a devotee of fly fishing
Dick Cheney, often described as the most powerful vice-president in US history, was a driving force behind the rush to war with Iraq, personally visiting CIA headquarters on several occasions to cajole the analysts to come up with the intelligence needed to justify invasion.
Like his former boss, he remains unrepentant, insisting that invasion was “the right thing to do” and that enhanced interrogation techniques of terror suspects, which the US later admitted was torture, were justified because “we needed the ability to say more than just ‘please, please, pretty please’”.
Now 82, he spends most of his time in his home state of Wyoming and is a devotee of fly-fishing, befitting a man whose Secret Service code-name was Angler.
A chain-smoker, he has suffered from serious heart problems in later life. In 2010 he was fitted with an external pump which did his heart’s work for him, so that for two years, until he got a heart transplant, he lived without a pulse.
He backed Donald Trump in 2016 but later regretted it, especially after his congresswoman daughter, Liz Cheney, challenged the former president over the January 6 insurrection. He recorded a video last year in her support, in which he called Trump a “coward” and a “threat to our republic”. He has little influence in today’s Republican party, however, and Liz Cheney was ousted from her Wyoming seat last year by a Trump-backed candidate.
Hawkish deputy defence secretary became president of World Bank and resigned over a scandal
Bush’s first defence secretary, the irascible and overbearing Donald Rumsfeld, died in 2021 but his former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who began pushing for an Iraq invasion soon after the 9/11 attacks, is still alive and makes occasional appearances at the American Enterprise Institute thinktank in Washington, a few blocks from the White House.
He is also the chairman of the US-Taiwan Business Council and in February this year flew to Taipei to accept the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon.
After leaving the Pentagon in 2005, Wolfowitz was given the job of president of the World Bank, an appointment greeted by widespread outrage. His opponents were vindicated two years later, when he was forced to resign over a scandal, in which he was found to have used his position to help get his girlfriend, a World Bank staffer, get a big pay raise.
Wolfowitz has continued to argue that the invasion was justified, insisting that, although Saddam Hussein was found not to have weapons of mass destruction or significant links to al-Qaida, he might have gone on to do so, if not for the invasion.
“We would very likely either have had to go through this whole scenario all over but probably with higher costs for having delayed,” he told the Sunday Times.
National security adviser who warned of ‘mushroom cloud’ has returned to academia
As national security adviser, Rice’s principal job was to find foreign policy consensus among Bush’s team, but she was also a strident advocate for invasion, even if there was less than certainty about the WMD evidence. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she said, notoriously, at the time. She also wrote an editorial for the New York Times titled Why We Know Iraq is Lying.
Rice went on to become secretary of state in Bush’s second term, trying to deal with the consequences of occupation. She later admitted it had not occurred to her that Iraqis would come to view the US and its coalition as occupiers.
After the Bush presidency, Rice returned to her academic home at Stanford University as a political science professor and now runs the university’s Hoover Institution thinktank. There was some sporadic speculation that she might become a running mate to a Republican presidential candidate, such as John McCain, or run for California governorship, but she always insisted she had no intention of seeking elective office.
She has maintained her interest in music - her alternative career would have been as a concert pianist - and American football. In 2014, she claimed to watch “14 or 15 games every week live on TV on Saturdays and recorded games on Sundays”.
She has continued to stand by the decision to invade, arguing that the evidence that Iraq had WMD was overwhelming at the time.
“It is hard for many people now, knowing what subsequently occurred, to appreciate how compelling the overall intelligence case against Saddam appeared to be,” Rice wrote in her 2011 memoir, No Higher Honor.
Her role has caused some limited turbulence in her career. She withdrew as a speaker at a Rutgers University graduation ceremony in 2014 after protests by students and staff, but the pressure has eased. She appeared on the CBS flagship talk show Face the Nation last month, to talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the word Iraq was not mentioned.
Republican sent to run Iraq later worked as a ski instructor
Paul “Jerry” Bremer was the Republican official sent to run Iraq as viceroy, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, between the invasion and the installation of an Iraqi government just over a year later, despite never having visited the country and speaking no Arabic.
His temporary reign is associated principally with two major decisions that many analysts believe accelerated the slide into anarchy: the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the “de-Baathification” of the government, a purge of members of Saddam’s party.
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Bremer has pointed out that those decisions were taken in Washington, where he later claimed: “There’s a lot of very convenient memory loss going on.”
In retirement, Bremer lives in Vermont, where, like Bush, he has taken up painting, though Bremer mostly paints rustic scenes. As recently as 2018, he also worked as a ski instructor at Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort.
Britain’s ex-PM remains unapologetic on the world stage and built a property empire
While most of the former US leadership from the Bush era have remained silent during the 20th anniversary, the former British prime minister, who enthusiastically went to war alongside Bush, has been giving interviews defending the decision, and particularly rejecting parallels with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“At least you could say we were removing a despot and trying to introduce democracy,” Blair told a group of European news agencies. Putin mentioned the Iraq invasion when he announced his special military operation in Ukraine in February last year, but Blair denied he and Bush had blazed a trail for the Russian attack, arguing: “If he didn’t use that excuse, he’d use another excuse.”
He has also argued that not going along with the invasion would have fatally damaged Britain’s special relationship with the US.
While Bush withdrew to Texas after his term was over, Blair remained unapologetically on the world stage, becoming a special envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East, with headquarters in a Jerusalem hotel. After leaving that role in 2015, he set up the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which has been his platform for remaining engaged in world and British politics.
He and his wife, Cherie, meanwhile accumulated a property empire, mostly in Manchester and London, valued at £27m in 2017.
Lieutenant colonel, who rallied troops on the eve of battle, founded a security company
Lt Col Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment made a speech to his troops on the eve of battle in March 2003 that became famous for its Shakespearean resonance.
“We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country,” Collins said. He added that Saddam’s forces “should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction”.
Collins founded a security company called New Century Consulting in 2006, which provides training and advice for security services around the world. It was the subject of scrutiny in 2015 after being accused of over-charging as a subcontractor in the training Afghan security forces, including putting in bills for luxury cars including Porsches, Alfa Romeos, a Bentley, and an Aston Martin.
The company denied any wrongdoing. Collins said he did not know what had happened to the investigation, which was focused on a primary US contractor that no longer exists. NCC is still working for the US defence department, he pointed out.
As for his views on the Iraq war 20 years on, Collins told the Guardian: “Iraq is striving to re-establish itself as a stable independent nation free from foreign interference. I don’t think our intervention in 2003 helped them in that, with hindsight. We must be generous towards them as they seek a better future.”
UN weapons inspector who found no weapons was targeted by CIA
Blix had been Sweden’s foreign minister and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency before he was given the job of running the UN inspections for Iraq from 2000 to 2003.
After 700 inspections, he reported to the UN Security Council in February 2003 his team had not found any WMD and “only a small number of empty chemical munitions”. As a result of his failure to find what the Bush administration wanted him to find, he was the target of a CIA investigation, and he has said he suspected his home and office were bugged. The spies found nothing negative on him.
Now 94, Blix lives in Stockholm, and his last significant job was chairing a panel of advisers to the United Arab Emirates nuclear energy programme.
In an interview this month, Blix said: “One of the lessons of the Iraq war is the need for attachment to facts.” The invasion had also shown that foreign intervention usually does not work out well, he said, adding: “Anarchy can be worse than terror.”
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf
Minister for information dubbed ‘Comical Ali’ became a TV pundit
Al-Sahaf became notorious as Saddam’s information minister and spokesman at the time of the invasion, with a penchant for denying the obvious, claiming despite the sound of approaching gunfire that US forces were being held at bay outside Baghdad by victorious Iraqi troops, and that American soldiers were killing themselves “by the hundreds”. In his last appearance as minister, on 8 April, he insisted the Americans “are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks”.
The British press dubbed him “Baghdad Bob” and “Comical Ali”.
Al-Sahaf said he had surrendered to coalition forces and had been interrogated but then released. He moved to the UAE after the war, and eventually landed a job as a television pundit. Now 85, he was last reported to be still living in the Emirates.
Journalist imprisoned for throwing a shoe at Bush in 2008 later ran for parliament
Zaidi was an Iraqi journalist when he became famous overnight for throwing a shoe at George Bush during the president’s visit to Baghdad in 2008, shouting: “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog.”
He said later: “The criminal murderer is standing here expecting us to throw flowers at him; this was my flower to the occupier.”
He was imprisoned for nine months and claims he was beaten with iron bars, whipped and electrocuted. After his release in 2009, he wrote in the Guardian: “I am free. But my country is still a prisoner of war.”
He went into exile in Switzerland and Lebanon and announced the formation of a humanitarian foundation to make use of his sudden fame. He returned home in 2018 to run for parliamenton an anti-corruption manifesto, blaming the US and Iran for meddling in the country’s politics, but failed to win a seat.
“Every day, every anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I ask myself why?” he told the Independent this week. “I feel sad and angry. Why did George W Bush destroy my country?” he asked.
On the question of whether he would throw his shoe at Bush again if given another opportunity, Zaidi replied: “He doesn’t even deserve my shoe.”