The goal was to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, which was believed to possess weapons of mass destruction.
Weeks later, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" from aboard the Everett-based USS Abraham Lincoln.
The U.S. would remain a powerful presence in Iraq until its withdrawal
in December 2011.
Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the conflict, which lasted eight years, eight months, three weeks and four days.
Of those, 286 servicemen and women from Washington were killed.
But behind the statistics are people who have stories to tell.
Stories of identity, family and the search for home.
Stories of small-town dreams, honoring friends, and recovery.
Stories of freedom, duty and lost children.
Stories of gratitude, struggle and building new lives.
These are stories of some who have been touched by a war that may have ended years ago, though its effects will never be forgotten.
Hadil Al-Tamimi and Zahraa Al-Salman: Born refuges, they made America home
Two giggly college students, wearing colorful hijabs, sit side-by-side and carefully spell out their names. Hadil Al-Tamimi and Zahraa Al-Salman are both 20-year-old Shia Muslims.
Al-Tamimi says they used to hate each other when they were girls, but now they're best friends.
They came from similar backgrounds. Their families both fled Hussein's regime during the first Gulf War, and they were both born in the same year at the same Saudi refugee camp, Rafha.
They traveled across the world, and now their families live in Everett, only minutes apart. Today, both women are American citizens.
At Everett Community College, Al-Tamimi is studying to become a nurse and Al-Salman is studying to become a pediatrician.
Although neither lived in Iraq during Hussein's reign, both have family there. And since his fall --which Al-Tamimi celebrated with her family on Colby Avenue
-- they've visited their families in Iraq.
Al-Salman explains that after Hussein's execution on Dec. 30, 2006, Iraqi refugees began to feel safe enough to return to their homeland, if not to stay, then just to visit.
"Everyone started going back to Iraq for the first time," she says.
Al-Tamimi remembers her 2009 trip. She visited places such as Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. During her visit she experienced a country wracked by anti-American sentiment.
"I couldn't tell anyone I was from America, or speak English," she recalls. Her family warned her that Americans could be kidnapped or even killed.
Al-Tamimi is used to the Catch-22 faced by many Americans of Middle Eastern descent.
"Here, we're too Middle Eastern, but when we go back
to Iraq we're too American," she says, "So you don't really fit in 100 percent in either country."
She recalls an experience she had shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when she was walking home from elementary school.
"I remember this perfectly … five guys pulled up in a black two-door car, they called me a terrorist and told me to go back to my country," Al-Tamimi says. "Ever since then I've felt that I'm not fully wanted. So whenever people ask if I'm American, it's a yes, but not a strong yes."
Al-Salman nods in agreement.
Al-Salman returned from Iraq after living there for two years. She was in an airport waiting for a connection on Sept. 11, 2012.
"I didn't realize until they announced it (over an intercom) that there was going to be a moment of silence for those fallen."
Once the moment of silence was finished, an older couple in front of her turned around, saw her hajib, and glared at her, she says.
On a recent afternoon, the women began to reminisce about their experiences in Iraq.
"Baghdad is probably the best-looking place," says Al-Salman.
"Yeah the best place … even though every building had a hole on the side from a bomb," says Al-Tamimi.
Al-Salman objects. "No, when I went everything was nice, it's nice."
She goes on to say that the streets of Baghdad aren't covered with as much garbage as they used to be, that the government has begun planting flowers in some courtyards, and that there are even music and dance academies.
Al-Tamimi says that under Hussein's rule, the streets were kept clean and orderly.
They explain that many Iraqis are split on whether or not the country was better with Hussein or without him.
The women agree that Hussein was an evil tyrant. Under him, Iraqis felt like prisoners in their own country, subjected to hunger, torture and murderous state police squads.
But the women believe that his regime brought a degree
of stability to the country, as dictators tend to do. With stability came a measure of predictability.
And in Iraq, the ability to predict danger, then avoid it, could be the difference between life or death. That predictability ensured a small degree of safety.
That type of safety disintegrated during the occupation. Threats came from bombs, or being caught in crossfire while walking down the street.
"A lot of people in Iraq say that they were better off with Saddam Hussein because with him it wasn't as dangerous for people to go out, and they knew their limits," Al-Tamimi says.
"The people, before, had something to follow, they had places to go and things to do," Al-Salman says. "But now, everything is messed up."
They explain that unemployment
and poverty are some of the worst problems in Iraq today. That's why Al-Tamimi wants to return to Iraq someday to open a series of clinics, schools and orphanages. And Al-Tamimi expects Al-Salman to return with her.
There is one small problem: Al-Salman never wants to live in Iraq again.
Al- Tamimi swears she will drag Al-Salman back if it comes down to it, and once Al-Salman completes her schooling to become a pediatrician, she can work at one of Al-Tamimi's clinics in Iraq.
"Yeah, right," Al-Salman yells. "Hadil, I will never ever …"
Al-Salman has made her choice. America is her home.
Al-Tamimi says that within her family the big debate is not if they will return to Iraq, but when.
Al-Tamimi warmly recounts visiting her family in Iraq. She misses spending the days going from house to house, meeting family for the first time. Walking along the yellow, sandy streets, bare of the seemingly endless expanse of concrete Americans are accustomed to. She misses the gilded mosques covered in Islamic calligraphy, the fresh bread, the people, the sun.
Al-Tamimi says she will return because "the only time I've ever felt my heart be at peace was when I was in Iraq."
To read the rest of the stories click the link in the title.