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Colin Powell, top diplomat who argued for US invasion of Iraq, dies at 84

Powell would later call his now-infamous UN Security Council speech, which sought to build international consensus for the Iraq war in February 2003, a "blot" on his record.
Former Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) onstage at A Capitol Fourth concert at the U.S. Capitol, West Lawn, on July 4, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Colin Powell, the retired four-star Army general who oversaw US operations during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and whose United Nations speech in 2003 helped sell the American-led invasion of Iraq, died on Monday from COVID-19, his family said. The 84-year-old was fully vaccinated. 

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the Powell family said in a Facebook statement Monday morning. 

His family thanked the staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where Powell had been receiving treatment. A spokesperson for Powell told ABC News that the former general suffered from multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that compromises the immune system.

During his decades-long career in public service, Powell held high-ranking positions under three Republican presidents, including as national security adviser during the Reagan administration.  

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed him as the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was chairman when Bush launched Operation Desert Storm, a six-week bombing campaign that successfully expelled Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. 

“I was able to guarantee President Bush that we would succeed because the Iraqi army was sitting there in Kuwait like a golf ball on top of a tee waiting to be hit,” Powell reflected in a 2016 interview with CBS. 

In 1993, Powell retired from the Army after 35 years of service. He went on to serve as secretary of state under then-President George W. Bush. His appointment in 2000, which was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, made Powell the highest-ranking Black government official in history. 

In a statement Monday, Bush said he was “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death and described him as a “great public servant.”

“He was highly respected at home and abroad,” he said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend.”

As the nation’s chief diplomat, Powell helped shape international opinion in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, despite his personal reluctance. During a UN Security Council speech in February 2003, Powell presented evidence supporting the Bush administration’s case that Iraq had developed biological weapons and had the ability to manufacture more. 

’’Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-Sept. 11 world,’’ Powell told the 15-member council. 

Much of the intelligence cited by Powell in the 76-minute speech turned out to be faulty. He resigned in 2004 and would later call the UN address a “blot” on his record. 

"When I presented it to the UN, I had every assurance from the intelligence community that the information I had was correct," Powell wrote in his 2012 memoir. "Turned out not to be."

Powell was born in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants. After graduating from the City University of New York, he joined the Army and served in South Vietnam in the 1960s. He is a two-time recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

A moderate Republican, Powell endorsed Democrats for president starting with Barack Obama in 2008. Following the US Capitol insurrection in January 2021, Powell announced he no longer considered himself a Republican.

Powell is survived by his wife, Alma Vivian Powell, and their three children.

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