The Gulf War was a conflict between Iraq and a coalition force of 34 nations led by the United States. The war started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The result of the war was a decisive victory for the coalition forces, which drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait with minimal coalition deaths. The main battles were aerial and ground combat within Iraq, Kuwait, and bordering areas of Saudi Arabia. The war did not expand outside of the immediate Iraq/Kuwait/Saudi border region, although Iraq fired missiles on Israeli cities.
Other common names for the conflict include: the Persian Gulf War, War in the Gulf, Iraq-Kuwait Conflict, UN-Iraq conflict, Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert Sabre, and 1990 Gulf War (for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), 1991 Gulf War (1990-1991), and Gulf War Sr.
In the 1960s, the United Kingdom deployed troops to Kuwait to deter an Iraqi invasion.
Following the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iraq was extremely indebted to several Arab countries, including a $14 billion debt to Kuwait (Hiro, 1992). Iraq hoped to repay its debts by raising the price of oil through OPEC oil production cuts, but instead, Kuwait increased production, lowering prices, in an attempt to leverage a better resolution of their border dispute. In addition, Iraq charged that Kuwait had taken advantage of the Iran-Iraq War to drill for oil and build military outposts on Iraqi soil near Kuwait. Furthermore, Iraq charged that it had performed a collective service for all Arabs by acting as a buffer against Iran and that therefore Kuwait and Saudi Arabia should negotiate or cancel Iraq's war debts.
During the war, Iraq enjoyed good relations with the United States: the United States tilted towards supporting Iraq, despite (or perhaps because of) earlier Soviet influence in Iraq, and supplied it with weapons and economic aid (with the only aberration being the Iran-Contra affair, where some American officials secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran). Following the war, there were moves within the United States Congress to isolate Iraq diplomatically and economically over concerns about human rights violations. These moves were disowned by high-ranking US senators like Robert Dole, who told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that "Congress does not represent U.S. President George H. W. Bush or the government" and that Bush would veto any move toward sanctions against Iraq. (From the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, as published in Sifry et al, 1991.)
In late July, 1990, as negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait stalled, Iraq amassed troops on Kuwait's borders and summoned American ambassador April Glaspie for an unanticipated meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In that meeting, Saddam outlined his grievances against Kuwait, while promising that he would not invade Kuwait before one more round of negotiations. Although Glaspie expressed concern over the troop buildup, some people perceived her answers as giving tacit approval for an invasion, by saying that the US "[has] no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait" (from the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, as published in Sifry). To emphasize this point, she also said at the meeting, "James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction." Although ambassador Glaspie shortly after left the foreign service, US sources say that she had handled everything "by the book" and had not signaled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein any approval for defying the Arab League's Jeddah crisis squad which conducted the negotiations. However, Saddam's expectations may have been preoccupied by the perception that the US just at this time was approving the reunification of Germany, another act that he considered to be nothing more than the nullification of an artificial, internal border.
In November 1989, CIA director William Webster met with the Kuwaiti head of security, Brigadier Fahd Ahmed Al-Fahd. Subsequent to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq claimed to have found a memorandum pertaining to this conversation. The Washington Post reported that Kuwaiti's foreign minister fainted when confronted with this document at an Arab summit in August. Later, Iraq cited this memorandum as evidence of a CIA-Kuwaiti plot to destabilize Iraq economically and politically. The CIA and Kuwait have described the meeting as routine and the memorandum as a forgery. The document reads in part:
We agreed with the American side that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq in order to put pressure on that country's government to delineate our common border. The Central Intelligence Agency gave us its view of appropriate means of pressure, saying that broad cooperation should be initiated between us on condition that such activities be coordinated at a high level.
William Blum argues in his book, Killing Hope, that Iraq was right about the CIA-Kuwait plot. The plot, Blum argues, was in response to increasing Iraqi warnings about American hegemony in the Gulf region, as well as to help stanch expected cuts in defense spending and boost President Bush's domestic popularity. Though the CIA dismissed the document as a fabrication, there are other indications that the document was real. For example, when confronted by the Iraqi foreign minister with the document at an Arab summit in 1990, the Kuwaiti foreign minister was startled enough that he fainted.
Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait with armor and infantry, occupying strategic posts throughout the country, including the Emir's palace, on August 2, 1990. The Kuwaiti Army was quickly overwhelmed, though they bought enough time for the Kuwaiti Air Force to flee to Saudi Arabia. Troops looted medical and food supplies, detained thousands of civilians, and took over the media. Iraq detained thousands of Western visitors as hostages, and later attempted to use them as bargaining chips. Iraq initially established a puppet "liberated" Kuwaiti government
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush quickly announced that the US would launch a "wholly defensive" mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia - Operation Desert Shield [PRES], and US troops moved into Saudi Arabia on August 7. On August 8, Iraq declared parts of Kuwait to be extensions of the Iraqi province of Basra and the rest to be the 19th province of Iraq.
There is no evidence that Iraq ever intended to invade Saudi Arabia, as even General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr, the allied commander during the conflict, admitted. Iraq claimed all throughout that its only intent was to reclaim its "province" Kuwait. The Department of Defense claimed to have satellite photos of a large troop buildup in Kuwait along the Saudi border, but never made them public for security reasons. Other satellite photos purchased from Soviet satellite sources apparently showed no such buildup.
The United States navy mobilised two naval battle groups, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Independence, to the area [NAVY], where they were ready by August 8. Military buildup continued from there, eventually reaching 500,000 troops. The consensus among military analysts is that until October, the American military forces in the area would have been insufficient to stop an invasion of Saudi Arabia had Iraq attempted one.
A long series of UN Security Council and Arab League resolutions were passed regarding the conflict. One of the most important was Resolution 678, passed on November 29, giving Iraq a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991, and authorizing "all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660", a diplomatic formulation authorizing the use of force.
The United States went through a number of different public justifications for their involvement in the conflict. The first reasons given were the importance of oil to the American economy and the United States' longstanding friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia [PRES]. However, some Americans were dissatisfied with these explanations and "No Blood For Oil" became a rallying cry for domestic peace activists, though opposition never reached the size of opposition to the Vietnam War and demonstrations in the United States were often overwhelmed by people protesting the protesters. Later justifications for the war included Iraq's history of human rights abuses under President Saddam Hussein, the potential that Iraq may develop nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, and that "naked aggression [against Kuwait] will not stand."
Shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the organization Citizens for a Free Kuwait was formed in the US. It hired the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton for about $11 million, money from the Kuwaiti government. This firm went on to manufacture a fake campaign, which described Iraqi soldiers pulling babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and letting them die on the floor. A video news release was widely distributed by US TV networks; false supporting testimony was given before Congress and before the UN Security Council. The fifteen-year-old girl testifying before Congress was later revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States; the supposed surgeon testifying at the UN was in fact a dentist who later admitted to having lied. [MCA] (For more, see Nurse Nayirah.)
Various peace proposals were floated, but none were agreed to. The United States insisted that the only acceptable terms for peace were Iraq's full, unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq insisted that withdrawal from Kuwait must be "linked" to a simultaneous withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and Israeli troops from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon.
On January 16, 1991, one day after the deadline set in Resolution 678, the coalition launched a massive air campaign codenamed Operation Desert Storm: more than 1,000 sorties per day. Weapons used included smart bombs, cluster bombs, daisy cutters, and cruise missiles (see below). Iraq responded by launching 8 Scud missiles into Israel the next day. Air superiority in the theatre was quickly achieved; coalition air forces flew sorties largely unchallenged.
The air campaign targeted military targets like the Iraqi Republican Guard in Kuwait, air defense systems, Scud missile launchers, air forces and airfields, weapons research facilities, and naval forces. In addition, it targeted facilities useful for both the military and civilians: electricity production facilities, telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution, railroads and bridges. [RCCPGW] Two live nuclear reactors were bombed (see Washington Post article by Atkinson & Devroy), in violation of the recently passed UN Resolution 45/52 banning such attacks. Electrical power facilities were destroyed across the country. At the end of the war, electricity production was at 4% of its pre-war levels; months later, it was still only at 20-25%. (Bolkom) Bombs destroyed the utility of all major dams, most major pumping stations, and many sewage treatment plants. Sewage flowed directly into the Tigris River, from which civilians drew drinking water, resulting in widespread disease (Arbuthnot, Felicity). Documents released by The Pentagon indicate that "increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease" were anticipated and perhaps intended. (See the leaked memo: Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities). In most cases, the Allies avoided hitting civilian-only facilities. However, on February 13, 1991 two laser-guided "smart bombs" destroyed an air raid shelter in Baghdad killing hundreds of Iraqis. U.S. officials claimed that the bunker was a military communications center, but Western reporters have been unable to find evidence for this. (See Is Iraq coming in from the cold? by Allan Little, linked below. This strike is also discussed in Killing Hope.)
Iraq launched missile attacks on coalition bases in Saudi Arabia and on Israel, in the hopes of drawing Israel into the war and drawing other Arab states out of it. This strategy proved ineffective. Israel did not join the coalition, and all Arab states stayed in the coalition except Jordan, which remained officially neutral throughout. On January 29, Iraq attacked and occupied the abandoned Saudi city of Khafji with tanks and infantry. However, the Iraqis were driven back by Saudi forces over the following two days.
On February 22, 1991, Iraq agreed to a Soviet-proposed cease-fire agreement. The agreement called for Iraq to withdraw troops to pre-invasion positions within three weeks following a total cease-fire, and called for monitoring of the cease-fire and withdrawal to be overseen by the UN Security Council. The US rejected the proposal but said that retreating Iraqi forces would not be attacked, and gave twenty-four hours for Iraq to begin withdrawing forces.
On February 24, the US began Operation Desert Sabre, the ground portion of its campaign. US forces pulled plows along Iraqi trenches, burying their occupants alive. Soon after, a convoy of Marines penetrated deep into Iraqi territory, collecting thousands of deserting Iraqi troops, weakened and demoralised by the extensive air campaign. The US anticipated that Iraq might use chemical weapons; General Colin Powell later suggested that a US response to such an act might have been to destroy dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, drowning Baghdad in water, though this was never fully developed as a plan. [PBS]
Iraq did not use chemical weapons, and the allied advance was much swifter than US generals expected. On February 26, Iraqi troops began retreating out of Kuwait, setting fire to Kuwaiti oil fields as they left. A long convoy of retreating Iraqi troops--along with Iraqi and Palestinian civilians--formed along the main Iraq-Kuwait highway. This convoy was bombed so extensively by the Allies that it came to be known as the Highway of Death. One hundred hours after the ground campaign started, President Bush declared a ceasefire and on February 27 declared that Kuwait had been liberated. Journalist Seymour Hersh has charged that, two days after the ceasefire was declared, American troops led by Barry McCaffrey engaged in a systematic massacre of retreating Iraqi troops, in addition to some civilians. McCaffrey has denied the charges and an army investigation has cleared him. (Forbes, Daniel)
A peace conference was held in allied-occupied Iraq. At the conference, Iraq negotiated use of armed helicopters on their side of the temporary border. Soon after, these helicopters, and much of the Iraqi armed forces, were refocused toward fighting against a Shiite uprising in the south. In the North, Kurdish leaders took heart in American statements that they would support a people's uprising, and began fighting, in the hopes of triggering a coup. However, when no American support was forthcoming, Iraqi generals remained loyal and brutally crushed the Kurdish troops. Millions of Kurds fled across the mountains to Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. These incidents would later result in no-fly zones in both the North and the South (see below). In Kuwait, the Emir was restored and pro-democracy forces were attacked along with suspected Iraqi collaborators, especially Palestinians. Eventually, over 400,000 people were expelled from the country. [PBS]