1991: Gulf War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In August, 1990, a number of factors contributed to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade and annex neighboring Kuwait. Since Kuwait’s independence, in June, 1961, Iraqi leaders had questioned the legitimacy of Kuwait’s sovereignty and the border demarcating the two countries. An important oil field straddled the ill-defined frontier, and Kuwait had been tapping it. Iraq also charged Kuwait with exceeding its oil quota set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), thereby increasing supplies and depressing prices. Iraq had pressed Kuwait unsuccessfully for the latter to make available to Baghdad two islands, Warba and Babiyan, strategically located across from Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only outlet on the Persian Gulf proper.

In August, 1990, a number of factors contributed to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade and annex neighboring Kuwait. Since Kuwait’s independence, in June, 1961, Iraqi leaders had questioned the legitimacy of Kuwait’s sovereignty and the border demarcating the two countries. An important oil field straddled the ill-defined frontier, and Kuwait had been tapping it. Iraq also charged Kuwait with exceeding its oil quota set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), thereby increasing supplies and depressing prices. Iraq had pressed Kuwait unsuccessfully for the latter to make available to Baghdad two islands, Warba and Babiyan, strategically located across from Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only outlet on the Persian Gulf proper.

Iraq’s Goals

Most important, 1990 was a time of acute financial hardship for Iraq because of the great indebtedness it had incurred following its murderous eight-year war with Iran, which had concluded in 1988. Iraq had to rebuild its devastated economy, especially its crucial oil industry.

Several factors led Saddam Hussein to decide that this was a good time to force Iraq’s creditors, especially Kuwait, to relinquish their claims on their wartime “loans”: Iranian-Iraqi relations were improving; Iraqi economic problems were becoming more pressing; he had misread the degree of U.S.-Soviet cooperation possible in the post-Cold War era; and he apparently misinterpreted U.S. ambassador April Glaspie’s statement to him on July 25, 1990, that the Bush administration was neutral in matters of inter-Arab disputes “like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Hussein also hoped to punish those who had brought down the price of oil by overproduction or had committed other “offenses.”

Various meetings of leaders and conferences involving Iraq, Kuwait, and others were fruitless, partly because Kuwait refused to give ground on substantive issues and partly because Saddam Hussein seemed to be determined to invade Kuwait. The invasion occurred at 2:00 a.m. on August 2, 1990. Token resistance by the tiny Kuwaiti army and the escape of most members of the extended al-Sabah ruling family to Saudi Arabia followed within hours. Kuwait was occupied by Iraq and soon declared to be its nineteenth province.

The World Response

Saddam Hussein proved to be wrong in his estimate of the response of the international community, which insisted that his invasion of the neighboring country be rolled back. The United States, the Soviet Union, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 660 called for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. Four days later, on August 6, the Security Council imposed mandatory trade sanctions by members of the international organization, including a ban on Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil (Resolution 661).

Gulf War, 1991

Despite Saddam Hussein’s reassurances to Joseph Wilson, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, President George Bush ordered the Eighty-second Airborne Division to protect neighboring Saudi Arabia in case Iraq was contemplating monopolizing the bulk of Middle Eastern oil production. Spearheading the emerging international response, Operation Desert Shield became the largest deployment of U.S. troops overseas since the Vietnam War. Iraq’s formal annexation of Kuwait brought several Arab and other Muslim countries to side with the U.N.-sponsored, U.S.-led coalition. Westerners in Iraq and Kuwait were moved as human shields to sites that could become potential coalition targets in Iraq.

On November 29, the U.N. Security Council, acknowledging that its Resolution 660 of August 2 ordering Iraq to evacuate Kuwait had not been followed, mandated that all necessary means be used to expel Iraq after January 15, 1991 (Resolution 678). One last meeting between U.S. secretary of state James Baker and Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva on January 9, 1991, proved unsuccessful, as Aziz refused to accept Baker’s renewed call for Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. The same was true of U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s visit to Saddam Hussein on January 13.

The War

The Persian Gulf War is usually broken down into four stages. Operation Desert Shield covered the period from the invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, to the unleashing of the U.S.-led U.N. coalition’s air war on January 17, 1991. The next phase, Operation Desert Storm, had two components: the air war through February 23 and the ground war from February 24 through February 28. The aftermath following the cease-fire saw the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait; the redrawing of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border by a U.N. commission; the creation of U.N.-sponsored safe zones and no-fly zones in Iraq to protect Kurds and other minorities; U.N. inspection of Iraqi facilities to monitor and force the destruction of any nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons; and the continued imposition of U.N. trade sanctions on Iraq.

The military operations involved more than three-quarters of a million troops on the coalition side (some 541,000 from the United States and about 254,000 from a number of the twenty-nine other countries participating in Desert Storm at its peak) facing some one million Iraqis. The Iraqi numerical advantage was not translated into battlefield successes; the technological edge of the coalition greatly offset other factors. As news reporters from CNN broadcast the events of the airwar live, a world audience watched and wondered whether the high-tech advantage of the coalition forces had spawned a new type of “bloodless” war. Such expectations proved illusory: The disproportionate Iraqi casualties not only testified to this fact but also raised the question of a just war among some observers. On March 3, senior military representatives from both sides met to finalize the cease-fire, whose terms the Iraqis accepted unconditionally.

Antiaircraft fire illuminates the sky over Baghdad during the early hours of January 18, 1991, as U.S. warplanes bombard Iraq’s capital city. (AP/Wide World Photos)

In the aftermath, a protracted controversy continued over the Bush administration’s decision to halt the ground war after a hundred hours, allowing Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime to remain in power and the Iraqi army to suppress the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings soon after the cease-fire. President George Bush was aware that any longer-term entanglement might antagonize his constituency back home, as presidential elections were already on the horizon. He was unable to capitalize on his spectacular victory and soaring postwar popularity in the polls, however, because by November, 1992, economic problems had become the electorate’s primary concern.

Questions also were raised as to whether enough time had been given for the economic embargo to take effect before Operation Desert Storm was initiated. A debate regarding the high cost in Iraqi civilian suffering and lives that the U.N. embargo was exacting also continued. Despite the suspected contraband with its next-door neighbors Jordan and Iran, Iraq, deprived of its major export and foreign currency earner, oil, was becoming impoverished and unable to provide for the needs of the masses. Controversy also continued regarding the degree of encouragement that the earlier tilt toward Iraq of the Reagan and Bush administrations and the ambivalent words of Ambassador April Glaspie had given to Saddam Hussein. United Nations agencies were saddled with additional responsibilities and outlays in their several missions, especially the caring for many internal and external refugees.

As Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait, they set fire to most of the oil fields, causing millions of dollars in damages and creating a massive ecological disaster in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Department of Defense)

As for the overall significance of the Persian Gulf War, there was no consensus on whether it was either the defining moment of President Bush’s “New World Order” to uphold international law or the event simply reflecting oil politics as usual, packaged to appear as a stand for what was right with a few Arab members in the coalition providing an appropriate cover.

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