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Iraq: the ongoing legacy of an illegal war

Executive Summary: The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq promised to end Saddam Hussein’s rule and destroy Iraqi WMD. However, flawed evidence and illusory claims resulted in loss of public support and a wave of sectarian violence. More than one million military personnel served in Iraq, with over 4,700 US and allied troop deaths and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. The legacy of explosive weapon use in the country continues, with 52,106 civilians reported killed and injured between 2012 and 2022. Improvised explosive devices were the most injurious weapons, causing 79% of civilian harm. AOAV calls for an end to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
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In March 2003, escalating tensions between Iraq, the United States, and the United Kingdom resulted in the ill-fated invasion of Iraq by US-led coalition forces. The Bush administration, alongside Tony Blair’s government in the UK, promised to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and end Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule.

When it came to light that the evidence on which the claim of Iraqi WMD was based – and on which the whole invasion hinged – was flawed, and the subsequent invasion showed that they were, in fact, illusory, the war lost the support of a previously sympathetic public. Furthermore, Saddam’s capture and death devolved into a fractious war between US-led forces on the one hand, and organised resistance and terrorist elements on the other, unleashing a wave of sectarian violence.

In the years since the invasion, more than one million airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines have served in Iraq. There have been over 4,700 US and allied troop deaths, and more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed. The last US soldiers left Iraq in December 2011, nine long years after the initial invasion.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, AOAV looks back at the war’s continuing legacy on civilian harm from explosive weapon use in the country. 

Between 2012 and 2022, AOAV recorded 272,856 civilian casualties of explosive weapon use across 132 countries worldwide. In that time, Iraq was the second worst affected country for civilian casualties of such violence, after Syria. 52,106 civilians were reported killed and injured across 4,627 incidents of explosive weapon use in Iraq – 19% of the global civilian harm from explosive weapon use between 2012 and 2022.

Figure 1: five most impacted countries for civilian casualties of explosive violence, 2012-2022

In the years since the last coalition boots left Iraqi ground, the country has consistently been among the five worst affected countries for civilian harm from explosive weapons. In 2012, Iraq was second to Syria, while in 2013 and 2014 Iraq was the country with the highest levels of civilian harm from explosive weapons use globally. The following year, 2015, Iraq experienced the third highest levels of civilian harm from such weapons, and in 2016 and 2017, the country was the second most affected for civilian casualties of explosive violence. Of note, recorded civilian harm from explosive weapons in Iraq decreased across the next few years: in 2018 the country experienced the fourth highest level; in 2019 it was eighth; in 2020 it was ninth; in 2021 it was fifth; and in 2022 it was seventh.

Figure 2: civilian casualties of explosive violence in Iraq, 2012-2022

Overall, recorded incidents of explosive weapon use in Iraq have been decreasing since 2017, although civilian casualties of such attacks spiked in 2022. Of the civilians reported killed and injured in Iraq between 2012 and 2022, 32% (16,736) were harmed by non-state actors, and civilians accounted for 80% of the total 21,039 recorded casualties of non-state actors’ use of explosive weapons in Iraq in that time. The Islamic State was by far the most injurious known perpetrator active in Iraq between 2012 and 2022, with 69% (11,645) of civilian casualties of non-state actors attributed to the group – or 22% of total civilians killed and injured in Iraq between 2012 and 2022.

State actors caused 14% (7,070) of civilian harm in Iraq between 2012 and 2022, with civilians accounting for 44% of all 16,206 civilians killed and injured by state users of explosive weapons in that time. International coalition forces were the most prolific state users of explosive weapons in the country, accounting for 34% (338) of recorded incidents of state-perpetrated explosive weapon use, but Iraq was the most injurious, killing and injuring 26% (1,834) of civilians harmed in explosive attacks by state actors. International coalition forces harmed 1,639 casualties reported as civilians in Iraq between 2012 and 2022.

Figure 3: perpetrators of explosive violence in Iraq, 2012-2022

Improvised explosive devices has been the most injurious explosive weapon in Iraq since 2011 by far, killing and injuring a total of 41,176 civilians between 2012 and 2022 – 79% of the overall civilian harm from explosive violence in the country in that time. Air-launched weapons caused 12% (6,038) of civilian harm, and ground-launched weapons caused 8% (3,967).

Car bombs caused the majority of civilian casualties in Iraq between 2012 and 2022, with 42% (22,279) of total civilian harm in the country attributed to these explosives. Non-specific IEDs caused 14,460 civilian casualties, while roadside bombs killed and injured 2,411 civilians, and combined IEDs harmed 2,026.

Suicide bombings in Iraq accounted for 10% (481) of recorded incidents of explosive violence since 2011, but they caused 27% (14,127) of total civilian harm from explosive weapon use in the country. Suicide bombings consequently killed and injured an average of 29.4 civilians per attack in Iraq between 2012 and 2022.

It is overwhelmingly clear the impact of the Iraq War continues to be strongly felt by civilians in the years since coalition forces left the country, with their legacy of insurgents, armed groups, and state-perpetrated attacks living on. Far from stabilising Iraq, the invasion brought with it terror and trauma that linger to this day. 


AOAV’s casualty figures represent the lowest of estimations in terms of the number of people killed and injured by explosive weapon use. In an effort to quantify the explicit harm caused by specific explosive weapons, AOAV solely records incident-specific casualty figures, as reported in English-language media.


AOAV condemns the use of violence against civilians and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. All actors should stop using explosive weapons with wide-area effects where there is likely to be a high concentration of civilians.