The Gulf War
(also: Persian Gulf
, War in the Gulf
, Iraq-Kuwait Conflict
, and Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert
) (1990- 1991) was a conflict between Iraq and a coalition force
of 34 nations led by the United States. The result was a decisive victory
of the coalition forces, which were able to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait
fairly quickly and with minimal coalition deaths. The main battles were
aerial and ground combat within Iraq, Kuwait, and bordering areas of Saudi
Arabia. During the conflict, Iraq fired missiles into Israeli territory.
Prior to World War I, under the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, Kuwait
was considered to be an autonomous caza within Ottoman Iraq. Following
the war, Kuwait fell under British rule and later became an independent
monarchy. Iraqi officials did not accept the legitimacy of Kuwaiti independence.
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 abberation 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] 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.)
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
and had not signalled 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.
Some people, like the scholar William Blum, allege that the United States
gave secret encouragement to Kuwait to be provocative in their territorial
claims and promised to defend Kuwait from the expected Iraqi reaction.
This, his argument goes, was in response to increasing Iraqi warnings about
American hegemony in the Gulf region. Also, it helped to stanch expected
cuts in defense spending and boost President George Bush's domestic popularity.
(Blum, Ch. 52)
Subsequent to the invasion the Iraqis claimed to have found a memorandum
pertaining to a conversation between CIA director William Webster and the
Kuwaiti head of security, which read 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."
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. (Ibid)
Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait with armor and infantry, occupying strategic
posts throughout the country, including the Emir's palace, on August 2,
1990. 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, but quickly dissolved
this and declared parts of Kuwait to be extensions of the Iraqi province
of Basra and the rest to be the 19th province of Iraq.
Within hours of the initial invasion, the UN Security Council passed
Resolution 660, condemning the invasion and demanding a withdrawal of Iraqi
troops. On August 6, the Security Council passed Resolution 661, placing
economic sanctions on Iraq and, on November 11, Resolution 678, giving
Iraq a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991, and authorizing "all necessary
means to uphold and implement Resolution 660".
President of the United States George Bush quickly announced that the
US would launch a "wholly defensive" mission to prevent Iraq from invading
Saudi Arabia - Operation Desert Shield [PRES]. There is no evidence that
Iraq ever intended to invade Saudi Arabia, as even General Norman Schwarzkopf,
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 navy mobilised two naval battle groups, USS 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.
The United States, especially Secretary of State James Baker, assembled
a coalition of forces to join it in opposing Iraq, consisting of soldiers
from 34 countries: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh,
Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary,
Honduras, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, The Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Oman,
Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Korea,
Spain, Syria, Turkey, The United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and
the United States itself. US troops represented 74% of 660,000 troops in
the theater of war. Many of the coalition forces were reluctant to join;
some felt that the war was an internal Arab affair; others feared increasing
American influence in Kuwait. In the end, many nations were persuaded by
offers of economic aid or debt forgiveness. (Blum)
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]
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 12, 1991 the United States Congress authorized the use of
military force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
On January 16, 1991, one day after the deadline set in Resolution 678,
the coalition launched a massive air campaign: more than 1,000 sorties
per day, 10 times as many as the allies used in World War II. (Bolkom,
Ch. 8) 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 previously industrialized
country. At the end of the war, electricity production was at 4% of it's
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 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
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, and made provisional plans for extracting revenge
by destroying the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, drowning Baghdad
in water. [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,
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.
On March 10, 1991 Operation Phase Echo began to move 540,000 American
troops out of the Persian Gulf.
Gulf War casualty numbers are controversial. Coalition military deaths
seem to be around 378, with US forces suffering 148 battle-related and
145 non-battle-related deaths (included in the 378). The largest single
loss of Coalition forces happened on February 25, 1991 when an Iraqi Scud
missile hit an American military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia killing
28 US Marines. The number of coalition wounded seems to have been less
than 1,000. Iraqi casualty numbers are highly disputed. Some claim as low
as 1,500 military killed, some 200,000. Many scholars believe a number
around 25,000 to 75,000. The number of military wounded is equally unknown.
71,000 Iraqis were taken as prisoners of war by US troops. Estimates of
Iraqi civilian death range from 100 to 35,000.
The cost of the war to the United States was calculated by Congress to
be $61.1 billion; two-thirds of that amount was paid by Kuwait, Japan and
The US policy regarding media freedom was much more restrictive than in
previous conflicts. Most of the press information came from briefings organized
by the military. Only selected journalists were allowed to visit the front
lines or conduct interviews with soldiers. Those visits were always conducted
in the presence of officers, and were subject to both prior approval by
the military, and censorship afterward. This was ostensibly to protect
sensitive information from being revealed to Iraq, but often in practice
it was used to protect politically embarrassing information from being
revealed. This policy was heavily influenced by the military's experience
with the Vietnam War, which it believed it had lost due to public opposition
within the United States.
At the same time, the coverage of this war was new in its instantaneousness.
Many American journalists remained stationed in the Iraqi capital Baghdad
throughout the war, and footage of incoming missiles was carried almost
immediately on the nightly television news and the cable news channels
such as CNN.
Following the uprisings in the North and South, no-fly zones were established
to help protect the Shiite and Kurdish minorities in South and North Iraq,
respectively. These no-fly zones have been monitored, mainly by the US
and the UK. Combined, they have flown more sorties over Iraq in the eleven
years following the war than were flown during the war. These sorties have
dropped some amount of bombs nearly every other day. However, the greatest
amount of bombs were dropped in two sustained bombing campaigns: Desert
Strike, which lasted a few weeks in September 1996, and Desert Fox, in
A United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons was established,
to monitor Iraq's compliance with restrictions on weapons of mass destruction
and ballistic missiles. Iraq accepted some and refused other weapons inspections.
In 1997, they expelled all US members of the inspection team, alleging
that the United States was using the inspections as a front for espionage,
which the U.S. later admitted was true. The team returned for an even more
turbulent time period between 1997 and 1999, when it was replaced by a
new team which began inspections in 2002. For more on these inspections,
see Iraq disarmament crisis.
Prior to 1997, the team found some evidence of biological weapons programs
at one site, and non-compliance at many other sites. One member of the
weapons inspection team, Scott Ritter, a US Marine, resigned in 1998, alleging
that the United States was blocking investigations because they did not
want a full-scale confrontation with Iraq. He also alleged that the CIA
was using the weapons inspection teams as a cover for covert operations
Economic sanctions were kept in place following the war. Iraq was allowed
to import certain products under the oil-for-food program. A 1998 UNICEF
report found that the sanctions resulted in an increase in 90,000 deaths
per year [IAC].
Many returning coalition soldiers reported illnesses following their
particiption in the Gulf War, a phenomenon known as Gulf war syndrome.
There has been widespread speculation and disagreement about the causes
(and existence) of this syndrome. Some factors considered as possibly causal
include exposure to depleted uranium, oil fires, or the anthrax vaccine.
Palestinian support for Iraq caused some discontent among its Arab supporters
and this had the effect of causing the Palestinian's to begin secret negotiations
with Israel which led to the Oslo Accords. The People's Republic of China
was surprised by the swiftness of the Coalition victory and this led to
the start of a high technology change in the People's Liberation Army.
The continued sanctions on Iraq and the continued American military presence
in Saudi Arabia have caused discontent within the Arab world, and were
used as the justification for the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack.
Iraq and especially Saddam Hussein have also been considered as targets
for the United States' War on Terrorism.
Precision guided munitions (PGMs, also "smart bombs"), such as the United
States Air Force guided missile AGM-130, were heralded as key in allowing
military strikes to be made with the minimum of civilian casualties. Specific
buildings in downtown Baghdad could be bombed whilst journalists in their
hotels watched cruise missiles fly by. PGMs amounted to approximately 7.4%
of all bombs dropped by the coalition. Other bombs included Cluster bombs,
which break up into clusters of bomblets, and Daisy cutters, 15,000-pound
bombs which can "[disintegrate] everything within hundreds of yards". (Walker)
Scud is a low technology rocket bomb that Iraq used, launching them
into both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some bombs caused extensive casualties,
others caused little damage. Concerns were raised of possible chemical
or biological warheads on these rockets, but if they existed they were
not used. Coalition efforts to eliminate Scud launchers or to knock down
Scuds in flight with the Patriot missile defense were far less effective
than military leaders claimed at the time.
Global Positioning System units were key in enabling coalition units
to navigate across the desert undetected by enemy troops. Airborne Warning
and Control System (AWACS) and satellite communication systems were also
United States: President George Bush, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Secretary
of State James Baker, General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Richard
Iraq: President Saddam Hussein, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz
See also: Iraq -- History -- Military history -- War
1991 - Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution
Relationship to The Arab-Israeli military struggle:
Arbuthnot, Felicity. Allies
Deliberately Poisoned Iraq Public Water Supply In Gulf War, Sunday
Herald (Scotland), September 17, 2000
Atkinson, Rick & Devroy, Ann U.S.
Claims Iraqi Nuclear Reactors Hit Hard, Washington Post, Jan 12,
Blum, William (1995). Killing
Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Monroe,
Maine, USA: Common Courage Press. ISBN
Bolkom, Christoper & Pike, Jonathan. Attack
Aircraft Proliferation: Areas for Concern
Forbes, Daniel. Gulf
War crimes?, Salon Magazine, May 15, 2000.
Hiro, Dilip (1992). Desert
Shield to Desert Storm: The Second Gulf War, Routledge.
Little, Allan Iraq
coming in from the cold? BBC, December 1, 1997
Sifry, Micah & Cerf, Christopher (Ed.) (1991). The Gulf War Reader
Walker, Paul & Stambler, Eric (1991) ...and
the dirty little weapons, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol
47, Number 4