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Gulf War 1991 - Kuwait and Iraq

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  • The Gulf War (also: Persian Gulf War, War in the Gulf, Iraq-Kuwait Conflict, UN-Iraq conflict, and Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert Saber) (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) 

    The Onset 

    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. 

    Air Campaign 

    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. 

    Ground Campaign 

    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, 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, 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] 

    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 Saudi-Arabia. 

    Media Campaign 

    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 December 1998. 

    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 inside Iraq. 

    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 important. 

    Important Individuals 

    United States: President George Bush, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Secretary of State James Baker, General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney

    Iraq: President Saddam Hussein, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz


    Three Kings

    See also: Iraq -- History -- Military history -- War

    Related Legislation 

    • 1991 - Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution PL 102-1

    Relationship to The Arab-Israeli military struggle:

    Related articles


    Further Reading: 


    This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, which means that you can copy and modify it as long as the entire work (including additions) remains under this license. See for details. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Gulf_War

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