Why did the US government topple Saddam Hussain in 2003, rather than in the 90s?

Why did they wait 13 years?

  • 1
    Can you please explain how this isn’t “Questions asking for the internal motivations of people, how specific individuals would behave in hypothetical situations or predictions for future events are off-topic, because answers would be based on speculation and their correctness could not be verified with sources available to the public.” (Which is a close reason) Commented Apr 28, 2021 at 19:58
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    @EkadhSingh there is likely ample contemporary analysis of why Saddam wasn't actively deposed in 1991. Might be somewhat difficult to unearth, with time-limited Google searches becoming increasingly unreliable, but it need not degenerate pure opinions. Commented Apr 28, 2021 at 20:20
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    See also: Why didn't America finish Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War? on History.SE.
    – CDJB
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 16:23

2 Answers 2


Recorded history is somewhat murky (until the files of the H.W. Bush presidency are unsealed) but there's some evidence the US gov't at the time tried to do it by inciting uprisings. In particular, Bush gave some speeches inciting them, e.g.

on March 1, a day after the end of the Gulf War:

In my own view...the Iraqi people should put [Saddam] aside [...]

On the other hand:

In 1996, Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in his book My American Journey that, while Bush's rhetoric "may have given encouragement to the rebels", "our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States."


Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, told ABC's Peter Jennings "I frankly wished [the uprisings] hadn't happened ... we certainly would have preferred a coup."

So it looks like the US establishment as a whole (at the time) would have preferred a[nother] Baathist in power in Iraq, just one more oriented/focused against Iran.

As the uprisings were put down, H.W. Bush then declared that:

I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.


I'll take a stab at this, from memory:

  • The coalition was brought together to eject Iraq from Kuwait. Broadening its goal to remove Saddam after the fact would have "bait and switch". And would have sat badly with some of the Arab participants, like Syria, which were essentially dictatorships themselves.

  • There was, unlike in 2003 with the more cavalier attitude of the Bush Jr administration, concern that a regional power vacuum would develop and/or that a post-Saddam Iraq would be unpredictable.

  • Having lost a good proportion of his most loyal troops (the Republican Guards), recently had to exit the ruinous Iran-Iraq War, which he had initiated, and facing rebellions in the North (Kurds) and South (Marsh Arabs) it was felt that Saddam's days were numbered in any case and the Iraqi people would themselves remove him. The no-fly zones were intended to assist this process.

It came IIRC somewhat as a surprise that this did not happen and that he stayed in power.

  • Also the 9/11 attacks were useful to convince the American public (there were claims that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda, which were generally dismissed around but played a lot in the USA). And maybe after the fall of the Communist bloc the USA thought that they had no rival left ("The end of history") and could get whatever they wanted through indirect control.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 28, 2021 at 20:34
  • Addtionally, also from memory: Your first bullet point also applies to various European countries, and I think also more international (China, Russia, Japan). Almost everyone supported ejecting Iraq from Kuwait. Toppling Hussain on the other hand was not nearly as widely supported because why would one topple this specific dictator but not any of the dozens of other dictators in the world.
    – quarague
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 7:41

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