American Misconceptions about the War on Iraq

Most Americans have major misconceptions about the war. A questionnaire, readings & activities help students explore the facts.

To the Teacher:

What misconceptions did Americans have about the war on Iraq and why? According to polls concluded in the fall of 2003, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that clear evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link had been found. Many believed that Iraq used weapons of mass destruction during the March-April portion of the war and that world public opinion approved of the U.S. attack. The readings and activities below provide the basis for a discussion of these issues.

Student Questionnaire

You might begin a class exploration of the reasons for Iraq War by asking students to complete a questionnaire. The questionnaire below is based on a survey conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks to determine American perceptions. (For more information on this and other PIPA polls, go to

You might first ask students to complete the survey. Then, after students have read the two readings below and taken part in some of the classroom activities, conduct a class-wide discussion of students' initial responses to the questionnaire.

Check the response that you believe to be most nearly correct.

1. What is the relationship between Iraq, Al Qaeda, and 9/11?

a. Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11 attacks.
b. Iraq gave substantial support to Al Qaeda, but was not involved in the September 11 attacks.
c. A few Al Qaeda individuals visited Iraq or had contact with Iraq officials.
d. There was no connection at all.

2. Has the U.S. found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization?

a. The U.S. has found evidence.
b. The U.S. has not found evidence.

3. Since the war with Iraq ended, has the U.S. found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

a. The U.S. has found such weapons.
b. The U.S. has not found such weapons.

4. Did Iraq use chemical or biological weapons in the war that officially ended in April?

a. Iraq did use chemical and biological weapons.
b. Iraq did not use chemical and biological weapons.

5. How do you think the people of the world feel about the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq?

a. The majority of people favor the U.S. having gone to war.
b. Views are evenly balanced.
c. The majority of people oppose the U.S. having gone to war.

6. Where do you tend to get most of your news?

a. Newspapers and magazines
b. TV and radio
c. Internet
d. Family and friends

7. Which network, if any, is your prime source of news?

a. Fox
b. CNN
c. NBC
d. ABC
e. CBS
f. PBS-NPR (National Public Radio)

To the Teacher:

The following are the results of the polls conducted by PIPA from January through September, 2003, with a total of 8634 randomly chosen adult respondents.

1. What is the relationship between Iraq, Al Qaeda, and 9/11?
a. 22% b. 35% c. 30% d. 7%

2. 45-52% believe U.S. has found evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda .

3. 24% believe U.S. has found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

4. 22% believe Iraq did use chemical or biological weapons in the war with the U.S.

5. How do you think the people of the world feel about the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq?
a. 25% b. 31% c. 41%

6. Where do you tend to get most of your news?
a. 19% b. 80% c. not included d. not included

7. Which network, if any, is your prime source of news?
Two or more networks: 30%
a. 18% b. 16% c. 14% d. 11% e. 9% f. 3%

The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll reports that:

1. "Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions."

2. "While it would seem that misperceptions are derived from a failure to pay attention to the news, overall, those who pay greater attention to the news are no less likely to have misperceptions. Among those who primarily watch Fox, those who pay more attention are more likely to have misperceptions. Only those who mostly get their news from print media and to some extent those who primarily watch CNN, have fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention."

3. "Supporters of the President are more likely to have misperceptions. Republicans are also more likely, but this appears to be a function of support for the President. Misperceptions are not only the result of political bias; a significant number of people who oppose the president have misperceptions and within the groups that support or oppose the President, misperceptions vary sharply according to news source."

4. Support for the war on Iraq was favored by 23% of those who had no misperceptions, 53% of those who had one misperception, 78% of those who had two misperceptions, and 86% of those who had three misperceptions. The three misperceptions are that: a)" Iraq was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks and that evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda have been found"; b) "weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the war and that Iraq actually used weapons of mass destruction during the war"; and c) "world public opinion has approved of the U.S. going to war with Iraq." The poll also found that "While in most cases only a minority has any particular misperception, a large majority has at least one key misperception."

Other polls have found the following:

  • An August 2003 Washington Post poll found that 32% thought it very likely and 37% somewhat likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.
  • A September 2003 CNN/USA poll found that 42% thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.
  • An August 2003 Harris poll found that 27% thought the U.S. had found Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
  • A January 2003 Gallup International poll of people in 38 countries found that not one showed majority support for unilateral U.S. action in Iraq.

Student Reading 1:

What U.S. leaders said about the threat of Iraq


January 28, 2003, the President's State of the Union message to Congress and the nation:
"Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own....The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa....Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide."

February 6, 2003, President Bush radio address:
"Saddam Hussein has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990's. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document-forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. And an Al Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times in the late 1990's for help in acquiring poisons and gases. We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior Al Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad."

March 3, 2003, the President's letter to Congress explaining why war on Iraq was necessary:
War is required because of Saddam Hussein's connection to "...the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

March 6, 2003, the President's news conference on Iraq:
"He [Saddam Hussein] provides funding and training and safe haven to terrorists, terrorists who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries. Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people and to all free people....The attacks of September 11, 2001 showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction....He [Saddam Hussein] is a murderer. He has trained and financed Al-Qaeda type organizations before, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations."

March 17, 2003, the President's speech to the nation on Iraq:
"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised....The danger is clear. Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other."

March 20, 2003, the President's report to Congress on why the nation must go to war with Iraq:
"Iraq both poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region and remains in material and unacceptable breach of its international obligations by, among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations."


May 1, 2003, the President's remarks on the end of major combat in Iraq:
"The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th, 2001, and still goes on....The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding."

May 30, 2003, during a visit to Poland:
"We have found weapons of mass destruction."

July 14, 2003, the President's Oval Office remarks:
"The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.."

September 17, 2003, the President's answer to a reporter's question:
"No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th....There's no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties."


September 25, 2002, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice:
"There clearly are contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq."

February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell's remarks to the United Nations Security Council:
"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence....Saddam Hussein already possess two out of three key components needed to build a nuclear bomb....we have amassed much intelligence indicating that Iraq is continuing to make...[biological] weapons....Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents....And we have sources who tell us that he recently has authorized his field commanders to use them....[There] is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder....We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction. He's determined to make more.... should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time and a place and in a manner of his choosing....?"

March 16, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC's "Meet the Press":
"And we believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

March 30, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on "ABC This Week" [during the war]:
"We know where they [weapons of mass destruction] are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad..."


On October 10-11, 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives (by a 296-133 margin) and the Senate (by a 77-23 margin) approved this resolution:
"Whereas Iraq both poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States [and is] continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations....Whereas members of Al Qaeda, an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States, its citizens and interests, including the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq....The president is authorized to use the armed forces of the United (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

To summarize, statements by President Bush, his top advisors, and the congressional resolution offer three reasons why it was essential for the U.S. to make war on Iraq and remove its leader Saddam Hussein.

1. Iraq has a stockpile of biological and chemical weapons, is creating more of these weapons of mass destruction and is in the process of developing nuclear weapons.

2. Iraq aids and harbors terrorists, including members of the Al Qaeda network responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and could provide them with weapons of mass destruction or help them build their own.

3. Iraq is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and other nations.

Activities: Student Reading 1

1. After they've finished reading Reading I, ask students to re-read closely the comments of top U.S. officials and the Congressional resolution about the threat Iraq posed to our country. During this re-reading have students underline those passages they have questions about. Perhaps the passage is unclear in some way, conflicts with other information the student has, or lacks detail. When they have finished re-reading, ask students to write one good question, preferably a question they cannot answer.

"Good," in this context, means a question which, if answered well, would help the student to a clearer, more comprehensive understanding of any threat Iraq posed to the U.S.

2. Divide the class into groups of four. Within each group, each student will read their question to others in the group. The group will then consider the following about each question:

a. Is the question answerable? Is it clear? If not, how might it be made clearer?

b. Is there any word or phrase in the question that must be defined before it can be answered satisfactorily? If so, the questioner should explain as precisely as possible what he or she means by the word or phrase.

c. Does the question call for a factual answer? Where might any facts come from?

d. Does the question include any unreasonable assumption? If so, how might the question be reworded?

e. Does the question call for an opinion? Whose opinion? Why?

After students have discussed their answers, ask them to select the question they regard as the best in their group. Like "good," "best," in this context, means a question, which if answered well, would help students to a clearer, more comprehensive understanding of any threat Iraq posed to the U.S.

3. Ask each of the students whose questions were chosen to read it to the class. Record each question, without comment, on the chalkboard. When all of the questions have been recorded, repeat questions a) through e) above to make sure that everyone is clear about what the questions on the chalkboard are asking and how they might be answered.

4. Have the class study Student Reading 2 for possible answers to the questions on the chalkboard.

Student Reading 2:

Questions and Answers about Iraq's Threat to the U.S.

1. Was Iraq directly involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

President Bush's answer to this question on September 17, 2003 was "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September 11." However, in the President's letter to congress six months earlier on March 20, 2003, he said there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and "the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2003."

According to a New York Times report in February 2002, the CIA found "no evidence that Iraq has engaged in terrorist operations against the United States in nearly a decade, and the agency is also convinced that President Saddam Hussein has not provided chemical or biological weapons to Al Qaeda or related terrorist groups."

2. Is there evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization believed responsible for the 9/11 attacks?

The President's repeated statements, Secretary Powell's UN address and the House-Senate resolution giving the President the go-ahead for war on Iraq all assert Iraq-Al Qaeda connections.

Secretary of State Powell offered the most detailed argument for these links in comments about Musaab al-Zarqawi, "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants." According to the secretary, "al-Zarqawi established a poison and terrorist training center camp in northeastern Iraq and while in Baghdad for medical treatment set up with other Al Qaeda members a network to "coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq...."

During this time northeastern Iraq was policed by U.S. and British jets. (This part of Iraq is controlled by Kurds, who were opposed to Saddam Hussein's rule.) Kurdish officials friendly to the U.S. responded to the Secretary Powell's assertions by stating that they had not heard of the poison lab he alleged was in their region. They also said that the photograph of the village Powell showed at the UN was not controlled, as he had said, by Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group accused of terrorist activities, but by a more moderate Islamic group.

The other reports of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda do not provide specific evidence. According to one former official with the National Security Council the supposed Iraq-Al Qaeda link was "a classic case of rumint, rumor-intelligence plugged into various speeches and accepted as gospel." (The New Republic, 6/30/03) ["Rumint" is a slang word for rumor-intelligence.]

3. Did Iraq use weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical or nuclear weapons) during the war?

No American official has ever claimed that Iraq used such weapons.

4. Has the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since the war ended?

Searches over 15 months by the U.S. Iraq Survey Group, led first by presidential appointee David Kay and then by Charles Duelfer, found no weapons of mass destruction. The final Duelfer report declared that Iraq had 'essentially destroyed its illegal weapons ability by the end of 1991, having destroyed its chemical stockpiles and ended its nuclear program. It eliminated its last biological weapons plant in 1996.

5. Has world opinion favored the U.S. war on Iraq?

A Gallup International poll in January 2003 asked adults in 38 countries the following question:

"Are you in favor of military action against Iraq?
a. under no circumstances
b. only if sanctioned by the United Nations
c. unilaterally by America and its allies"

In no country did a majority support c, American unilateral action.

A Gallup International poll in April-May 2003 asked, "Now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has been destroyed, do you think that military action by the U.S. and its allies was justified or not justified?" In 27 of 43 countries polled the majority said military action was not justified; in seven countries the majority said that it was; in nine countries responses were mixed.

6. Was Iraq seeking uranium from Africa as part of an effort to create nuclear weapons?

After Vice President Cheney learned that Britain had documents reportedly showing that Iraq was seeking uranium from the African nation of Niger, he gave this information to the CIA. The CIA then asked Joseph Wilson, a diplomat who had been an ambassador to three African countries, to investigate. In February 2002 Wilson reported to the CIA and the State Department that the documents were forgeries. On March 7, 2002, Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei of The International Atomic Energy Agency told the United Nations Security Council that his agency had reached the same conclusion. He also reported that there was no evidence that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

7. Did Saddam Hussein refuse to let UN inspectors enter Iraq?

No. Late in 2002 UN inspectors launched a series of inspections to search for any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. They did not find any but were still searching when the U.S. announced an imminent attack on Iraq. Then the UN inspectors left the country.

Activities: Student Reading 2

1. Discuss with the class which, if any, of its questions have been answered by the second reading.

2. Do students have any questions about this reading? If so, write them on the chalkboard and subject them to the same analytical questions noted above.

3. What questions from each of the readings remain unanswered? Discuss how each might each be answered. In the process, consider possible sources of information, where they might be located, and issues of reliability.

4. Assign individuals and/or small groups to answer each question and to report findings to the class for discussion.

The Questionnaire

1. Provide the class with a summary report of the PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll results and a summary of student responses to the questionnaire.

2. Discuss each item on the questionnaire.

  • How many students would now change their response to a particular question? Why?
  • Is there a class consensus on an answer to a question? If not, why not?
  • What are student reactions to the PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll results on each question?
  • How do they account for answers that they view as clearly incorrect?
  • What relationship, if any, is there between student perceptions about why the U.S. went to war against Iraq and their sources of news? Such a question offers the opportunity for a discussion of various sources of news and their strengths and limitations.

Two Approaches to Discussing Why the U.S. Warred on Iraq

1. Discuss the three basic reasons provided by U.S. leaders for going to war against Iraq and summarized at the end of Student Reading 1. As students look back on them now, do they think all of these reasons were valid? One or two? None? Why or why not?

2. Conduct a moving opinion poll. Moving opinion polls are a way to get students up and moving as they place themselves along a STRONGLY AGREE—STRONGLY DISAGREE continuum according to their opinions about specific statements. An important aspect of the poll is to demonstrate to students that people can disagree without fighting—in fact they can listen to one another respectfully and perhaps even rethink their own opinions after hearing the views of others.

Create a space in the room from one end to the other end that is long enough and wide enough to accommodate the whole class. Make two large signs and post them on opposite sides of the room: One says STRONGLY AGREE, the other says STRONGLY DISAGREE.

Explain to students: "You will be participating in a moving opinion poll. Each time you hear a statement, move to the place along the imaginary line that most closely reflects your opinion. If you strongly agree, move all the way to one side of the room; if you strongly disagree, move all the way to the opposite side of the room. You can also place yourself anywhere in the middle, especially if you have mixed feelings about the question.

"After everyone is placed along the imaginary line, I will ask people to explain briefly why they are standing where they are. This is not a time to debate or grill each other. Rather, this is a way to check out what people are thinking and get a sense of the different ways people view an issue."

Begin the activity with statements that indicate non-controversial preferences, like, "Coke is the best soft drink" or "Skiing is the best winter sport." Then introduce statements on the Iraq issue such as the following:

  • The U.S. went to war with Iraq because that country was a direct threat to the U.S.
  • Iraq had weapons of mass destruction like biological and chemical weapons and might have given them to terrorists to use against the U.S.
  • We know that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.
  • Most people in the world opposed the U.S. war on Iraq.
  • The U.S. warred on Iraq because it had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction it might have used on us.
  • Terrorist attacks on U.S. ships like the Cole and embassies in Africa had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein.
  • The U.S. government had no proof that Iraq was planning an attack on our country.
  • The U.S. will eventually find stockpiles of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: