Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On August 2, 1990, Iraq, motivated by a variety of factors, invaded its southern neighbor, Kuwait, thereby initiating a brutal occupation of that country and setting the stage for the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Summary of Event

During the early morning hours of August 2, 1990, Iraqi armed forces suddenly invaded neighboring Kuwait, resulting in the looting of that small country and the brutalization of the Kuwaiti people. This act of aggression was the result both of trends that had been developing in the upper Persian Gulf region for several years and of specific problems that, when combined, led to an escalation of Iraqi-Kuwaiti tensions and, ultimately, invasion. Iraq;invasion of Kuwait Kuwait;Iraqi invasion Persian Gulf War (1991);prewar period [kw]Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait (Aug. 2, 1990) [kw]Invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi (Aug. 2, 1990) [kw]Kuwait, Iraqi Invasion of (Aug. 2, 1990) Iraq;invasion of Kuwait Kuwait;Iraqi invasion Persian Gulf War (1991);prewar period [g]Middle East;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] [g]Iraq;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] [g]Kuwait;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 2, 1990: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait[07860] Hussein, Saddam Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Persian Gulf War Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah

In the broadest sense, three closely interconnected factors contributed to an increasingly explosive situation in the Persian Gulf region. First, throughout the 1980’s, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had systematically and often brutally eliminated all sources of rival political power in Iraq while simultaneously concentrating all power and authority around himself. For example, during the late 1980’s, Hussein crushed the Kurdish minority within Iraq, allegedly using chemical weapons Chemical weapons Weapons;chemical to suppress the Kurds and sending more than sixty thousand refugees into Iran and Turkey. Furthermore, the Iraqi authorities forcibly resettled more than half a million Kurds away from the border to secure the frontier areas. Meanwhile, throughout the 1980’s, Hussein effectively excluded independent elements of the ruling Baՙth Party Baՙth Party[Bath Party] from power and increasingly surrounded himself with associates who were disinclined to provide him with independent advice. This served to isolate the Iraqi president, a trend that was particularly dangerous in view of his lack of personal experience with the Western powers and limited experience even within the Arab world.

Second, in the aftermath of the Iraqi victory over Iran in the lengthy Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War] Iraq emerged as the dominant indigenous military power in the Persian Gulf region. At the conclusion of that war, Iraq’s military consisted of more than one million men, including the sizable and well-equipped Republican Guard. Republican Guard In addition, during the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iraqis had invested heavily in defense industries, particularly in chemical weapons production and the development of missile technology. Following the cessation of hostilities with Iran, the Iraqi authorities continued to emphasize the expansion of Iraq’s high-tech armaments industry. In short, as Baghdad entered the 1990’s, Iraq’s military, backed by the Iraqi defense industrial establishment, placed Saddam Hussein in a strong position to influence Persian Gulf affairs along desired lines.

Third, against the backdrop of his monopolistic consolidation of political power domestically and Iraq’s postwar military dominance in the Persian Gulf region, Hussein increasingly aspired to leadership of the entire Arab world. The Iraqi president apparently believed that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the growing internal political, ethnic, and economic chaos within the Soviet Union, combined with other changes in the international power configuration, created an opportunity in which an Iraqi-led coalition of revolutionary Arab states could assert itself and emerge as a more powerful, perhaps regionally dominant, actor in the international arena.

As part of his effort to assert his leadership within the Arab world, Hussein directed his rhetoric against Israel, the traditional adversary of the Arabs. On April 2, 1990, he articulated a new deterrence policy for Iraq under the terms of which, should Israel attack Iraq, as it had in 1981 when the Israelis destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor, Osirak nuclear reactor Iraq would respond with a chemical attack on Israel. Later, the Iraqi president said that Iraq would extend this deterrent umbrella to any Arab state desiring Iraqi assistance. Simultaneously, Hussein attempted to consolidate additional support for his effort to assert leadership throughout the Arab world by promising Iraqi support for the Palestinian cause. Hussein’s bold new military deterrence doctrine directed toward Israel, combined with his encouragement of the Palestinians and other, similar measures designed to appeal to the Arab masses, allowed the Iraqi president to reap a swell of popular support throughout the entire Arab world.

Notwithstanding Iraq’s regional military power, along with Hussein’s effective concentration of political power within Iraq and his growing prestige as a pan-Arab leader in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq was confronted by a series of serious problems that threatened to jeopardize Hussein’s ambitions for himself and Iraq. The central problem was financial: Iraq emerged from its war with Iran with an estimated debt of eighty billion dollars, thirty to thirty-five billion dollars of which consisted of short-term loans owed to the Western powers, with the remainder owed to the oil-producing Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The debt problem was further compounded by Iraq’s postwar policy of continued heavy investment in its high-tech defense industry as well as highly ambitious reconstruction projects in war-damaged areas of Iraq and the importation of consumer goods and food from abroad, all requiring additional hard currency. Finally, Iraq’s already high demand for foreign exchange was further amplified by its annual debt service requirements of six to seven billion dollars.

Iraq hoped to meet its financial needs by increasing oil revenues. This hope was predicated on predictions of oil price increases. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, when the price of oil declined from twenty dollars to fourteen dollars per barrel during a six-month period between January and June, 1990, they faced a serious short-term financial shortfall. Many Iraqis blamed the Western powers, arguing that the decline in oil prices was part of a larger Western conspiracy in which the West had manipulated the oil market so as to create financial hardship for Iraq and thereby force Hussein’s government to abandon its regional policies and ambitions.

Hussein also accused Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates of “cheating” on OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) production quotas, thereby further contributing to the decline in oil prices. Tensions between Iraq and Kuwait were further exacerbated by Kuwait’s refusal to forgive the debt owed to it by Iraq. In short, rather than recognizing the underlying sources of Iraq’s financial instability and adopting effective measures to reorder spending priorities and place Iraq on a sound financial footing, Hussein instead blamed the Western powers, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates for Iraq’s financial problems.

In addition to its financial differences with Kuwait, Iraq also had a series of territorial disputes with its southern neighbor. Prior to relinquishing claim to all of Kuwaiti territory in 1963, Iraq had made periodic attempts to assert full Iraqi control over the entirety of Kuwait. After 1963, although Iraqi claims against Kuwaiti territory became more limited in scope, such claims remained a topic of contention between the two states. One dimension of the dispute centered on the Khawr Abd Allah estuary, which constitutes the maritime portion of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border and leads to the Iraqi naval base and port at Umm Qasr. Kuwait applied the midchannel doctrine to divide the estuary, whereas Iraq claimed the entire waterway. Moreover, Iraq sought to obtain control of Būbiyān and Warbah islands from Kuwait, as these islands effectively controlled the estuary’s entrance. Kuwait, of course, rejected Iraq’s claims, but the Iraqis thought it was vital for Iraq’s national security and the success of their political, economic, and military ambitions to obtain full Iraqi control over this important outlet to the Persian Gulf.

In addition to the Khawr Abd Allah waterway dispute, the Iraqis claimed ownership of the entire Rumaila oil field, Rumaila oil field which lay on both Iraqi and Kuwaiti territory. In addition, Iraq accused Kuwait of pumping from the Rumaila field and selling the oil at considerable profit during the Iran-Iraq War. Hussein’s government demanded that the border be revised in accord with Iraq’s claims to the entire Rumaila field and that Kuwait pay Iraq two billion dollars for the oil allegedly pumped earlier from the disputed field. Kuwait also rejected these claims, thereby leading to further estrangement between the Kuwaiti and Iraqi governments.

Finally, in the broadest sense, the Iraqi authorities capitalized on popular Arab resentment of the wealthy, conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf. In this sense, Saddam Hussein was able to frame Iraq’s financial and territorial disputes with Kuwait within the larger ideological rivalry between revolutionary pan-Arabism and the conservative monarchies of the Arab world.

Although relations between Iraq and Kuwait had been deteriorating for some time, tensions between the two states began to rise dramatically in late May, 1990. In mid-July, Hussein threatened action if key differences between Iraq and Kuwait were not resolved to his satisfaction. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces concentrated along the Kuwaiti border. Then, suddenly, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Within hours, the entire country was overrun by Iraqi troops. Most of Kuwait’s ruling family escaped to Saudi Arabia. Initially, the Iraqis claimed that the Kuwaiti opposition had invited Iraq into Kuwait, but their inability to produce a cooperative Kuwaiti provisional government ultimately led the Iraqi authorities to reassert their old claim to the whole of Kuwait and simply to annex the entire country. The northern portion of Kuwait was attached to Basra, and the remainder of Kuwait was declared the nineteenth Iraqi province.


The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had enormous impacts on the Persian Gulf region and the entire Middle East in addition to the effects on Kuwait itself. First, with respect to Kuwait, following the invasion, the Iraqis looted the entire country of any movable items: furniture, autos, Kuwait’s gold reserves, industrial equipment, and even treasures from the Kuwaiti museum. Moreover, approximately half of Kuwait’s citizenry, along with substantial numbers of Asian and Palestinian workers employed in Kuwait, fled the country. With respect to those who remained, the Iraqis ruthlessly crushed indigenous resistance. Many brutal incidents took place—personal arrests, torture, and executions—and many among Kuwait’s male population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were taken back to Iraq to be held hostage by the Iraqi authorities.

Meanwhile, the international community reacted to the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. Immediately following the invasion, U.S. president George H. W. Bush ordered an economic embargo of Iraq. The Western European states and Japan also embargoed the Iraqis and, on August 6, 1990, the United Nations United Nations;Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Security Council ordered a global economic embargo against the Baghdad regime. The following day, President Bush ordered the deployment of U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia, thereby commencing Operation Desert Shield. Operation Desert Shield The military deployment was immediately broadened to include representation from a number of Arab powers and members of the international community.

On August 8, Iraqi closed its borders to foreign nationals inside Iraq and Kuwait, thereby preventing thousands of foreigners from leaving either country. On August 25, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of military force to enforce the embargo against Iraq, and on August 28, the Iraqi government allowed foreign women and children to depart Iraq and Kuwait, but it continued to hold foreign men as hostages.

Throughout the autumn, the crisis mounted as the United States and its Desert Shield coalition partners poured troops and military equipment into Saudi Arabia. On November 29, 1990, the U.N. Security Council established January 15, 1991, as the deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and threatened use of military force to drive the Iraqis out if the deadline was not met. Efforts by President Bush to secure an eleventh-hour negotiated withdrawal and Iraq’s December 6, 1990, decision to release the foreign nationals it had been holding since early August failed to secure a peaceful settlement of the crisis. On January 12, 1991, the U.S. Congress authorized President Bush to use military force to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait, thus clearing the way for the commencement of hostilities following the expiration of the January 15 withdrawal deadline.

On January 17, 1991, at 12:50 a.m. (4:50 p.m., January 16, 1991, eastern standard time), with Iraq still in possession of Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm Operation Desert Storm began. Over the next five and one-half weeks, Iraqi military targets were pounded by U.S. and coalition airpower. On February 23, the United States and the other members of the coalition launched ground operations against the Iraqi military forces. Saddam Hussein ordered the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait on February 25, and, late the following day, the Kuwaiti resistance declared that it was in control of Kuwait City. On February 27, 1991, President Bush announced the liberation of Kuwait and the defeat of the Iraqi armed forces. He further announced that offensive operations by the United States and its coalition partners would be suspended at midnight.

The war had devastating impacts on Kuwait, Iraq, and the entire region. Extensive damage was done within Kuwait as the result of air and ground operations during the conflict, and the retreating Iraqi forces set fire to Kuwaiti oil wells and also released a significant quantity of oil into the Persian Gulf, thereby creating environmentally disastrous air and water pollution. The oil fires burned for nine months before they were fully extinguished. Moreover, in their haste to withdraw, the Iraqis left within Kuwait a massive number of mines and other explosives that would require years to disarm. In addition, missiles fired by Iraq during the war caused damage in neighboring countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia and in nonbelligerent Israel. Finally, in the aftermath of the war, the weakened but still powerful government of Saddam Hussein brutally crushed Kurdish and other opposition elements that emerged in the wake of Iraq’s defeat.

The bitter legacy of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the human rights violations that characterized Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and Saddam Hussein’s policies toward particular populations within Iraq, and the continued existence of the regime that perpetrated all these horrors left much unfinished business after the Persian Gulf War. The failure of Iraq to live up to numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions in subsequent years continued to generate controversy and ultimately produced a second confrontation with Iraq involving a coalition of more than forty countries, led by U.S. president George W. Bush Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;Iraq War (beg. 2003) in 2003, that finally toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, a troubled and controversial occupation of Iraq ensued, as elements of Hussein’s former supporters continued a bloody insurgency. Nevertheless, in a country that had known only brutal dictatorship for nearly three previous decades, sovereignty was passed to an interim government after one year of occupation, and a new constitution and democratically elected government were fashioned and installed by 2006. Iraq;invasion of Kuwait Kuwait;Iraqi invasion Persian Gulf War (1991);prewar period

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hassan, Hamdi A. The Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait: Religion, Identity, and Otherness in the Analysis of War and Conflict. Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 1999. Presents a well-balanced analysis of why Iraq invaded Kuwait. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lenczowski, George. The Middle East in World Affairs. 4th ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. One of the best single sources available concerning the foreign policies of the indigenous and external powers in the Middle East from World War I to the late 1970’s. Chapter 7, focusing on Iraqi foreign policy, and chapter 16, assessing the policies of the smaller states of the Persian Gulf, provide important background for understanding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makiya, Kanan. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Examines Saddam Hussein’s motives for invading Kuwait and discusses how the Arab Baՙth Socialist Party changed Iraq from 1968 onward. Includes chronology and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marr, Phebe. “Iraq’s Uncertain Future.” Current History 90 (January, 1991): 1-4, 39-42. Offers one of the best analyses available of the causes of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Provides a valuable framework for analysis of the Gulf War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Modern History of Iraq. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Comprehensive history of Iraq provides valuable context for events involving that nation in the late twentieth century. Includes tables, glossary, descriptive list of political personalities, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musallam, Musallam Ali. The Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait: Saddam Hussein, His State, and International Power Politics. New York: British Academic Press, 1996. Presents analysis of the roots of the Persian Gulf War and an examination of Saddam Hussein’s life. Includes bibliography and index.

Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq

Iran-Iraq War

Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor

Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds

Persian Gulf War

Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells

Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes

Categories: History