Persian Gulf War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kuwait’s sovereignty and Western interests were threatened by Iraqi invasion; allied forces, led by the United States, pushed back the invasion and restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. The peace settlement limited Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and called for U.N. inspections to verify that such weapons were dismantled. No-fly zones were established in Iraq to protect Kurdish and Shiite populations, requiring an open-ended U.S. military presence in the region.

Summary of Event

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 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), thereby increasing supplies and depressing prices. The Iraqi government had pressed Kuwait unsuccessfully for the latter to make available to Iraq two islands, Warbah and Būbiyān, strategically located across from Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only outlet on the Persian Gulf proper. Persian Gulf War (1991) Operation Desert Storm [kw]Persian Gulf War (Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991) [kw]Gulf War, Persian (Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991) [kw]War, Persian Gulf (Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991) Persian Gulf War (1991) Operation Desert Storm [g]Middle East;Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991: Persian Gulf War[07980] [g]Kuwait;Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991: Persian Gulf War[07980] [g]Iraq;Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991: Persian Gulf War[07980] [g]Saudi Arabia;Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991: Persian Gulf War[07980] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 17-Feb. 28, 1991: Persian Gulf War[07980] Hussein, Saddam Aziz, Tariq Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Persian Gulf War Baker, James Glaspie, April Pérez de Cuéllar, Javier Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah

Most important, 1990 was a time of acute financial hardship for Iraq because of the great indebtedness the nation had incurred during 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 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, Hussein 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 through 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 Hussein seemed to be determined to invade Kuwait. The invasion began at 2:00 a.m. on August 2, 1990. Token resistance by the tiny Kuwaiti army and the escape of most members of Kuwait’s ruling family to Saudi Arabia followed within hours. Kuwait was occupied by Iraq and was soon declared to be Iraq’s nineteenth province.

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 U.N. 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 United Nations, including a ban on Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil (Resolution 661). United Nations;Iraqi invasion of Kuwait

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Despite Hussein’s reassurances to Joseph Wilson, Wilson, Joseph the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Baghdad, President George H. W. 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 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 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. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of the United Nations was also unsuccessful in a visit to Hussein on January 13.

The events surrounding the Persian Gulf War are 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.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf visits American troops at the front during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

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 (Cable News Network) broadcast the events of the air war 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, the terms of which the Iraqis accepted unconditionally.

Significance

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 Baՙth Party Baՙth Party[Bath Party] regime to remain in power and the Iraqi army to suppress the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that took place soon after the cease-fire. President 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 allowed 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 Hussein had taken from the earlier tilt toward Iraq of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and the ambivalent words of Ambassador April Glaspie. U.N. agencies were saddled with additional responsibilities and outlays in their several missions, especially in caring for many internal and external refugees.

As for the overall significance of the Persian Gulf War, there was no consensus either on whether the event was the defining moment of President Bush’s “New World Order” to uphold international law or whether it simply reflected 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.

Iraq’s failure 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 in 2003. At that time, 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) quickly toppled Hussein’s regime, and a troubled occupation ensued. Despite the disruptions of a determined insurgency, 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. Persian Gulf War (1991) Operation Desert Storm

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Ramsey. The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992. Former U.S. attorney general and peace activist presents a spirited indictment of the U.S. role in military operations in the Persian Gulf and in “corrupting” the United Nations to maintain the trade embargo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heikal, Mohammed Hassanein. Illusions of Triumph: An Arab View of the Gulf War. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Interesting account by Egypt’s top political observer. Argues that Iraq is only a small part of much deeper Arab problems, many of them of Western origin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilsman, Roger. George Bush vs. Saddam Hussein: Military Success! Political Failure? Novato, Calif.: Lyford Books, 1992. Columbia University foreign policy expert critiques what he considers to be the U.S. president’s predilection to resort too readily to military force.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiro, Dilip. Desert Shield to Desert Storm: The Second Gulf War. New York: Routledge, 1992. Comprehensive, well-researched discussion of the Persian Gulf War. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khadduri, Majid, and Edmund Ghareeb. War in the Gulf, 1990-91: The Iraq-Kuwait Conflict and Its Implications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Provides in-depth historical context for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, discusses the diplomatic efforts that preceded Operation Desert Storm, and examines the aftermath of the war. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marr, Phebe. 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">Moore, Molly. A Woman at War: Storming Kuwait with the U.S. Marines. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. The senior military corespondent of The Washington Post describes the war and what it meant for a woman to cover it in a conservative Muslim environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. News & World Report. Triumph Without Victory: The Unreported History of the Persian Gulf War. New York: Times Books, 1992. Includes the texts of all U.N. resolutions from August 2, 1990, through August 15, 1991, as well as the joint congressional resolution of January 12, 1992, authorizing the U.S. president to help implement the U.N. resolutions.

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