Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes

The 1998 attacks on Iraq by the United States caused further damage to the country’s infrastructure, hardened Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s resolve not to give in to the United States, and set the stage for even greater enmity between the two governments.

Summary of Event

The U.S.-led attack on Iraq known as Operation Desert Storm Operation Desert Storm
Persian Gulf War (1991) ended on February 28, 1991, and on April 3, 1991, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein agreed to a permanent cease-fire in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. The U.N. resolution required Iraq to submit to a series of inspections that would be conducted by the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq United Nations;Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) under the direction of Swedish diplomat and disarmament expert Rolf Ekéus. Ekéus, Rolf The commission’s work was to ensure the destruction of Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Operation Desert Fox
Iraq;disarmament crisis (1998)
[kw]Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes (Dec. 16-19, 1998)
[kw]Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes, Iraq (Dec. 16-19, 1998)
[kw]Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes, Iraq Disarmament (Dec. 16-19, 1998)
[kw]Air Strikes, Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in (Dec. 16-19, 1998)
Operation Desert Fox
Iraq;disarmament crisis (1998)
[g]Middle East;Dec. 16-19, 1998: Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes[10270]
[g]Iraq;Dec. 16-19, 1998: Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes[10270]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 16-19, 1998: Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes[10270]
[c]United Nations;Dec. 16-19, 1998: Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes[10270]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 16-19, 1998: Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes[10270]
Butler, Richard
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;Iraq disarmament crisis
Hussein, Saddam
Ritter, Scott

Over the course of the next eight years, Iraq begrudgingly destroyed much of its arsenal while the U.N. Security Council enforced sanctions against the country. The sanctions were enforced primarily by the United States and Great Britain and, according to many reports, destroyed the livelihoods of millions of Iraqis. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that up to 500,000 Iraqi children died from the lack of medicines and other health care supplies denied entry into Iraq because of the possibility that they could also be used to build banned weapons. As part of their enforcement program, the United States and Great Britain conducted overflights of the northern and southern parts of the country. They also occasionally bombed sites they considered dangerous; the attacks occasionally killed civilians. The Iraqi government responded to the air attacks by stating that they would fire at those airplanes. In 1997, Ekéus left his leadership post and was replaced by Australian diplomat Richard Butler.

In December, 1998, the United States attacked Iraq for three days and nights with air raids and missiles. This series of attacks, known as Operation Desert Fox, was the culmination of a game of brinkmanship between the U.S. and Iraqi governments around the issue of the U.N. arms inspections. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein believed that some of the U.S. inspectors on the U.N. inspections teams were spies and were providing the information they gained from their inspections to U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Consequently, Hussein refused to allow the inspectors free rein in his country.

On August 5, 1998, the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council and the Baՙth Party Command said that they would end cooperation with UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until the U.N. Security Council agreed to lift the oil embargo that Iraq had been under since before the 1991 Gulf War began. This demand was supported by Security Council members China and Russia. Other Iraqi demands were that the Security Council reorganize the commission and move it to either Geneva or Vienna. In the interim, Iraq would, on its own terms, permit monitoring under Resolution 715. On October 31, after a series of feints and threats from both sides, Iraq announced that it would cease all forms of interaction with UNSCOM and its chairman and that it would halt all of UNSCOM’s activities inside Iraq, including the monitoring of suspected weapons sites. The Security Council responded with a unanimous condemnation. As later events revealed, the Iraqis were correct in their accusations concerning the presence of U.S. spies in the UNSCOM weapons inspection teams. In fact, it is assumed that many of the targets hit by the U.S. military in the December attacks were sites revealed by the U.S. spies on the inspection teams to the Pentagon.

The Pentagon released these photographs of the military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad before (left) and after (right) the 1998 U.S. air strike.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

After the October 31 refusal by Iraq to cooperate with UNSCOM, events began to move rather quickly toward some kind of military confrontation. On November 5, the Security Council passed Resolution 1205, which universally condemned Iraq’s actions and demanded that Iraq rescind immediately and unconditionally its decisions of August 5 and October 31. Iraq rejected the resolution and the executive chairman of UNSCOM decided to remove all UNSCOM personnel from Iraq. The following day the order was carried out. On November 13, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan Annan, Kofi wrote a letter to Iraqi leaders asking that the government reconsider and cooperate with UNSCOM. The deputy prime minister of Iraq responded by promising full cooperation with UNSCOM and the IAEA.

On November 15, the president of the U.N. Security Council publicly took note of Iraq’s statement of November 14 that it would cooperate fully with UNSCOM and the IAEA and insisted that the United Nations’ confidence in Iraq’s intentions needed to be established through Iraq’s unconditional and sustained cooperation with the Special Commission and the IAEA in exercising the full range of their activities. Following this apparent agreement, UNSCOM began submitting a series of weekly reports on its activities. The reports covered inspections during that period and provided summaries of correspondence exchanged with Iraq regarding a number of points previously raised concerning Iraq’s weapons. UNSCOM also asked Iraq to provide new information on its biological weapons program. The final report concerning Iraq’s cooperation with UNSCOM was submitted on December 15. The executive chairman concluded that Iraq did not provide the full cooperation it had promised on November 14. The following day, all UNSCOM personnel were withdrawn from Iraq on the instructions of U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration. It was commonly believed at the time and for years afterward that the Iraqi government had expelled the teams, although Richard Butler has stated that this was not the case.

Attacks by U.S. and U.K. air forces began on the evening of December 16. The attacks destroyed some sites where weapons were believed to be stored, along with several other government and military sites in Iraq. In addition, some civilian areas were also destroyed. The number of Iraqi dead and wounded was believed to be about 150, including twenty-five civilian deaths and sixty-two wounded. In the months that followed, the Security Council began discussing some informal proposals put forth by Russia, France, and Canada that ultimately resulted in the demobilization of UNSCOM and its replacement by a three-panel system of inspections operated under the auspices of the United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

In terms of the targets hit, the attacks were only moderately successful. On December 18, the Pentagon was able to confirm that only eighteen of the eighty-nine intended targets had been severely damaged or destroyed. Destroyed targets included military command centers, missile factories, television and radio transmitters, and a Basra oil refinery.

Scott Ritter, who was a member of the UNSCOM team from 1991 to 1998, became a critic of the process after his resignation on August 26, 1998. He testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services that the reason he resigned from UNSCOM was because he did not think the United States and UNSCOM were fulfilling their mission. He later wrote that the United States misused the arms inspections teams by planting Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spies on the teams. He felt that this nullified the effectiveness of the teams. In addition, The Washington Post reported that Richard Butler knew of and approved an electronic eavesdropping operation secretly conducted by U.S. intelligence that monitored Iraqi military communications.


The December, 1998, attacks were undertaken at a time when President Clinton was under fire in the United States over his relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Critics claimed that the attacks were driven by the administration’s effort to distract attention from the scandal. The president was impeached on December 19, the last day of the military campaign.

The air strikes by the United States and Great Britain against Iraq did little to enhance the weapons inspections regime already in place in Iraq. The attacks diminished the chances of a unified effort by the U.N. Security Council, pushing France, Russia, and China further away from military action while placing the United States and Great Britain in a situation that left little room for any other approach. Moreover, the 1998 attacks convinced those in the U.S. government intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein that a full-scale invasion would be necessary. Operation Desert Fox
Iraq;disarmament crisis (1998)

Further Reading

  • Byman, Daniel. Confronting Iraq: U.S. Policy and the Use of Force Since the Gulf War. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2000. Analyzes attempts to coerce Iraq since 1991 and argues that military force and other forms of pressure were effective.
  • Cockburn, Andrew, and Patrick Cockburn. Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Two veteran reporters present a history of the rise of Saddam Hussein, his connections with U.S. intelligence agencies, and the failure of U.S. and U.K. sanctions against his government.
  • Ritter, Scott. Endgame: Solving the Iraq Crisis. Darby, Pa.: Diane, 2004. Former Marine and member of the U.N. weapons inspections teams in Iraq provides his own perspective on the history of the U.N. weapons inspection regime.

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