Following its defeat in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraq agreed to United Nations-supervised destruction of its facilities for developing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. However, Iraq repeatedly failed to cooperate fully with the UN inspectors. Finally, in 1998, Saddam Hussein expelled them, accusing them of espionage.

In a speech at the UN on September 12, 2002, President Bush argued that military action by the international community was necessary to force Iraq to comply with the UN inspections. Two months later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which required Iraq to allow full, unrestricted weapons inspections immediately. President Hussein, abiding by the resolution, allowed weapons inspectors to reenter Iraq and resume their work. The governments of the United States and Great Britain, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the inspection program and tried presenting evidence that Iraq was still failing to comply with it.

On February 24, UN Security Council members Russia, France, and Germany proposed a detailed plan for extending and strengthening the Iraqi weapons inspections program short of using armed force, but the United States rejected the plan as unworkable. Ten days later the United States, Great Britain, and Spain brought before the UN Security Council a draft resolution to make a final determination that Iraq had not complied with Resolution 1441 and therefore authorize the use of force against Iraq. After Germany, France, and Russia announced that they would not vote for such a resolution, it was withdrawn March 17.

On the same day, President Bush delivered an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons to surrender political authority and leave the country within 48 hours. By this time, six United States carrier battle groups had been deployed within striking distance of Iraq, and the United States and its coalition partners had amassed 170,000 troops on Iraq's southern border. Tommy Franks, a United States Army general, headed the U.S.-led forces during the initial combat phase of Gulf War II.