NATO and the 2003 campaign against Iraq

  • Last updated: 19 May. 2022 13:02

The March 2003 campaign against Iraq was conducted by a coalition of forces from different countries, some of which were NATO member countries and some were not. NATO as an organization had no role in the decision to undertake the campaign or to conduct it.


  • NATO as an organisation had no role in the 2003 campaign since opinions among members were divided, as they were in the United Nations.
  • Iraq was suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction and was requested to comply with its disarmament obligations.
  • The US-led coalition, Operation Iraqi Freedom, ousted the Saddam Hussein regime.
  • Prior to the campaign and at the request of Turkey, NATO undertook precautionary defensive measures by deploying for instance surveillance aircraft and missile defences on Turkish territory.
  • NATO also supported Poland – a participant in the US-led Multinational Stabilization Force set up after the campaign – with for instance communications and logistics.


With tensions escalating prior to events, in February 2003 Turkey requested NATO assistance under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Alliance undertook a number of precautionary defensive measures to ensure Turkey's security in the event of a potential threat to its territory or population as a consequence of the crisis.

On 21 May 2003, the Alliance also agreed to support one of its members – Poland - in its leadership of a sector in the US-led Multinational Stabilization Force in Iraq.

  • NATO assistance in the field

    NATO assistance in the field

    NATO's assistance to Turkey and support to Poland were responses to requests made by the two countries. It reflects the Alliance's commitment to the security of its member states and policy of making its assets and experience available wherever and whenever they are needed, in accordance with NATO’s founding treaty.

    Support to Turkey

    Following a request by Turkey, NATO deployed surveillance aircraft and missile defences on Turkish territory from 20 February to 16 April 2003. The first NATO defensive assets arrived in Turkey the day after the decision was made and the last elements effectively left the country on 3 May.

    Operation Display Deterrence
    • NATO’s Integrated Air Defence System in Turkey was put on full alert and augmented with equipment and personnel from other NATO commands and countries;
    • Four NATO Airborne Early Warning and Command Systems aircraft (AWACS) were deployed from their home base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, to the Forward Operating Base in Konya, Turkey. The first two were deployed on 26 February and the two others on 18 March. Their mission was to monitor Turkish airspace and provide early warning for defensive purposes. The aircraft flew close to 100 missions and more than 950 hours;
    • Three Dutch ground-based air defence PATRIOT batteries were deployed to South-eastern Turkey on 1 March, followed by two US batteries. Their main task was to protect Turkish territory from possible attacks with tactical ballistic missiles;
    • Preparations were made to augment Turkey’s air defence assets with additional aircraft from other NATO countries;
    • Equipment and material for protection from the effects of chemical and biological attack was offered by several NATO countries.
    Civil emergency planning

    In addition, on 3 March 2003, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) received a request for assistance from Turkey for capabilities that might be needed by medical teams, civil protection teams and airport personnel to deal with the consequences of possible chemical or biological attacks against the civilian population.

    Command of the operation

    The deployment of Operation Display Deterrence was authorized by NATO's Defence Planning Committee on 19 February 2003 and began the next day. The operation was conducted under the overall command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and run by what was then NATO's regional headquarters Southern Europe (AFSOUTH).

    Support to Poland

    The US-led Multinational Force (MNF), known by the name of Operation Iraqi Freedom, ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime. Following the end of the March campaign, the Polish government requested NATO support in the context of its planned leadership of one of the sectors in the MNF.

    The North Atlantic Council agreed to this request on 21 May and tasked NATO’s military authorities to provide advice on what type of support could be given. On 2 June, following a review of this advice, the Council agreed to aid Poland in a variety of supporting roles, including force generation, communications, logistics and movements. However, NATO did not have any permanent presence in Iraq.

    Poland formally assumed command of the Multinational Division (MND) Central South in Iraq on 3 September 2003. It withdrew from the coalition in October 2008.

  • The evolution of NATO’s involvement

    The decisions to assist Turkey and support Poland were the culmination of formal and informal consultations on a possible NATO role in Iraq, which began in 2002.

    UNSCR 1441

    Iraq was suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction. On 8 November 2002, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 1441 to offer Iraq a final chance to comply with its disarmament obligations that had been repeatedly stated in previous UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR).

    In a special declaration issued at the Prague Summit on 21-22 November, NATO heads of state and government pledged support for the implementation of this resolution.

    In December, the United States proposed six measures, which NATO could take in the event of a possible military campaign against Iraq, should its government fail to comply with UNSCR 1441. These ranged from the protection of US military assets in Europe from possible terrorist attacks to defensive assistance to Turkey in the event of a threat from Iraq.

    Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, refused to comply and therefore raised suspicions among Security Council members. This prompted some to support immediate military action and others to insist that the weapon inspectors be given more time to conduct their work. The division in the UN was also reflected at NATO since there was no consensus among Alliance members either as to whether military action should be taken against Iraq.

    The request from Turkey

    Invocation of Article 4

    Early February 2003, the United States put forward to the North Atlantic Council a proposal to task the Alliance’s military authorities to begin planning deterrent and defensive measures in relation to a possible threat to Turkey. No consensus was reached on this since members disagreed on the need for and timing of such measures.

    In the morning of 10 February 2003, Turkey formally invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, asking for consultations in the North Atlantic Council on defensive assistance from NATO in the event of a threat to its population or territory resulting from armed conflict in neighbouring Iraq.


    The request by Turkey was debated over several days, but no agreement was reached. Whereas there was no disagreement among NATO countries about their commitment to defend Turkey, there was a disagreement on whether deterrent and defensive measures should be initiated and, if so, at what point? Three member countries - Belgium, France and Germany - felt that any early moves by NATO to deploy defensive measures to Turkey could influence the ongoing debate at the United Nations Security Council in regard to Iraq and the effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

    Reaching consensus

    On 16 February, with the cohesion of the Alliance under strain in the face of continued disagreement among the member countries, Lord Robertson, the Secretary General of NATO acting in his capacity as Chairman, concluded that no further progress on this matter could be made within the Council.

    On the same day, with the concurrence of all member countries, the matter was taken up by the Defence Planning Committee. Composed of all member countries but France, which did not participate in NATO's integrated military structure at the time, the Committee was able to reach agreement on the next steps. It decided that NATO military authorities should provide military advice on the feasibility, implications and timelines of three possible defensive measures to assist Turkey. The Committee then reviewed this advice and on 19 February it authorized the military authorities to implement, as a matter of urgency, defensive measures to assist Turkey under the name of Operation Display Deterrence.

  • The decision-making bodies

    The decision to provide support to Turkey was made by the Defence Planning Committee. Alliance support for Poland’s role in the multinational stabilization force was agreed on in the North Atlantic Council.