home | history

Gulf War One

Iraq was hurting economically at the close of its war with Iran in 1988, and Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, wanted more wealth from oil. He accused Kuwait of sucking up too much crude oil from the oil fields that straddled their two countries. He accused Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states of catering to the wishes of the Western powers by conspiring to keep the price for crude oil low, hurting Iraqi sales. He demanded compensation for these "crimes" by canceling the 30 billion dollar debt that Iraq owned the Kuwaitis, and he sent 100,000 troops to Kuwait's border. Kuwait had been ruled by Britain to 1961. Iraq back then had also claimed Kuwait to be a part of Iraq and had demanded its annexation. Now, in 1990, President Hussein renewed that claim.

Saddam deployed tens of thousands of Iraqi troops deployed to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border on July 24, 1990. The following day he met with a US diplomat, April Glaspie, who told him that she understood that Iraq needed funds and said "that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts.

In the early morning hours on August 2nd, Iraqi tanks started rolling into Kuwait. That morning at the White House, President George H W Bush was asked whether he was going to authorize the dispatch of US troops to the Gulf. He replied that he was "not contemplating such action." That same day in New York, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 660, demanding an immediate and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal. Later that day, Bush met Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a conference in Aspen, Colorado. She called Saddam a brutal dictator and spoke of the need to defend Saudi Arabia as a priority. If Saddam took Saudi Arabia, she said, he would have 65 percent of the world's oil reserves. "He could blackmail us all," she added. (In other words, Saddam would have too much leverage over the price of oil.) She said that "aggressors should never be appeased," that we had learned that in the 1930s. "We have to move to stop the aggression," she said, and we have to "stop it quickly." If we let it succeed, she added, "no small country can ever feel safe again [and] the law of the jungle would take over from the rule of law."

On August 3rd, the Bush administration announced that it was committing Naval Forces to the Gulf region. On August he met with the press and, referring to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, announced that "This will not stand."

Bush spoke by phone with Jordan's King Hussein, who told him that he was opposed to any US action against Iraq and spoke of Saddam's promise to withdraw from Kuwait soon. (The king of Jordan had much to worry about. Sixty percent of his subjects were Palestinians and they were siding with Saddam, with many willing to fight side by side with the Iraqis.) Bush spoke by phone also with Egypt's President Mubarak who advised him to stay calm and give an Arab solution a chance. Bush told Mubarak "fine" but that Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait must involve restoration of the "lawful government of Kuwait."

Iraq and Kuwait bordered Saudi Arabia (to their south). By August 6, the US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and others were in Saudi Arabia talking with King Faud, and Faud agreed to the stationing of US and western military forces on Saudi soil – something never before done. On August 7, President Bush began what was called Operation Desert Shield. Bush ordered fourteen aircraft and supporting personnel to Saudi Arabia. And to the press, Bush announced that the move was wholly defensive, that he was sending troops to the Persian Gulf "to assist the Saudi Arabian government in the defense of its homeland." Saddam Hussein complained to a US diplomat in Baghdad that he had no intentions against Saudi Arabia, that the Americans were using a fictitious threat to Saudi Arabia as a pretext to put their soldiers into the Gulf region.

On August 8, Saddam announced his victory regarding Kuwait. He said that the Iraqis and Kuwaitis were now "one people, one state that will be the pride of the Arabs." Crowds danced in the streets and guns were fired in celebration. For weeks thereafter the US was increasing its troop strength in the Persian Gulf area, while President Bush was talking about "giving peace a chance" and hoping that Saddam would realize that he would be forced out of Kuwait one way or another and that he should leave Kuwait voluntarily. Some were hoping that sanctions would work, but Margaret Thatcher thought they were dreaming. On 6 September she said she was convinced that the only way Saddam would leave Kuwait was by being thrown out. Saddam broadcast sent a message to the American people on September 25, saying that if Bush launched a war against his country, for Americans it would be a repeat of their experience in Vietnam. Shortly after the mid-term elections in early November, Bush announced that he was increasing US forces in Saudi Arabia to 400,000.

(Many Muslims saw presence of US military forces in Saudi Arabia as an abomination. It angered Osama bin Laden, and it was to be the stated the motive behind the 11 September attacks in 2001).

On November 27, the US Senate Armed Services Committee opened hearings on the Persian Gulf crisis. The former Secretary of Defense and architect of US involvement in Vietnam, Robert McNamara, demonstrated his change of heart before the committee. "The point is that it is going to be bloody. There are going to be thousands and thousands and thousands of casualties" — a repeat of Hussein's warning. McNamara favored sanctions against Hussein, as did retired Admiral Crowe, who said he was opposed to Hussein having more patience than the United States. The conservative arms advisor to former President Reagan, Paul Nitze, also preferred sanctions, saying that he thought that we could outlast Hussein. Members of the UN Security Council proved tougher. The resolution that Thatcher feared would be too slow in coming from the United Nations arrived on November 29. On that day the Security Council authorized "all necessary means," including military force, against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1991. It was the first such resolution since UN sponsorship of the Korean War in 1950.

Then Saddam's regime announced that it was "ready for the decisive showdown." The January 15 deadline was approaching, and Iraqis were holding evacuation drills and stockpiling oil supplies. On 30 December, Iraq's information minister said that Bush "must have been drunk" when he suggested Iraq might withdraw from Kuwait, and added: "We will show the world America is a paper tiger." The following day, Saddam's regime began drafting 17-year-olds. On 3 January 1991, Congress returned from holiday recess, and some Democrats plunged into acrimonious opposition to Bush's policy regarding Iraq. Debates continued in the coming days, and, across the US, hundreds of thousands demonstrated for peace and against war.

Among the demonstrators were university students – many of them the sons and daughters of Vietnam-era protesters. Among them were those who were confusing the US war in Vietnam and its circumstances with a different kind of war that was coming against Saddam Hussein. Demonstrators chanted "Hell no, we won't go. We won't fight for Texaco." There was the claim that it was "all about oil." One sign carried by a middle-aged woman read, "No blood for oil. Bush, send your sons, not ours." Bush was accused of gunboat diplomacy. Some in the US took the position that they should let the Arabs settle their own disputes and if Hussein became the dominant power in the Middle East so be it.

On 11 January, Saddam Hussein assured his nation that victory would be theirs. The US, he said, relied too much on technology and that it "can never win the battle." Saddam saw the US as hung-up on Vietnam and now unwilling to shed the blood of its youth. On 12 January the US Congress authorized Bush's offensive against Iraq. The vote in the Senate was 52-47. The House of Representatives voted 250-183.

The Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev tried to broker a peaceful settlement. On 16 January, one day after the deadline for Hussein had passed, Pope Jean Paul telephoned Bush and asked that he postpone his offensive. Bush refused. In the early morning of 17 January 1991, Iraqi time, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein declared that the "Mother of All Battles" had begun. It was a coalition effort. The great majority of the coalition's military forces were from the US, with Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Egypt as leading contributors. The war began with an aerial and naval bombardment that was to last five weeks. Supply storage and equipment rather than Iraqi soldiers were targeted. Iraqi forces fired Scud missiles toward Saudi Arabia and Israel, with little accuracy pretended. And Saddam struck back at the allies by dumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off the Kuwaiti shore in the Persian Gulf.

On 13 February the US bombed a military installation that, unknown to the Allies, was being used as a bomb shelter for civilians. More than 200 Iraqi civilians were killed. Iraq charged that the US had intentionally attacked an air raid shelter. Many Iraqis accepted their government's claim, seeing the attack as nothing more than bloodlust by the Satanic US military.

On 24 February the US ground assault began. Iraq's frontline units melted away and Iraqi troops surrendered in droves. The Iraqis began setting fire to more oil facilities in Kuwait, and on the 25th the Iraqis fired a Scud missile into Saudi Arabia that struck the US barracks in Dhahran, killing twenty-eight. On 26th, Baghdad radio announced that Iraqi forces had "performed their Jihad duty of refusing to comply with the logic of evil, imposition and aggression," and the broadcast announced that Iraq would comply with United Nations resolutions — a reference perhaps to the UN demand that Iraq withdraw its troops from Kuwait. Also on the 26th, many Iraqi tanks were being destroyed in tank battles, and Iraqi were rushing out of Kuwait City, northward toward Iraq on what would be called the Highway of Death. Allied planes utterly destroyed the column of tanks, trucks, armored fighting vehicles looted cars and stolen goods on that highway. No one was seen as having survived.

On the morning of 27 February in Iraq, fighting was still taking place, while US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, saw the liberation of Kuwait as having been achieved. Of the "Highway of Death" he was to say that "You don't do unnecessary killing if it can be avoided. At some point you decide you've accomplished your objectives and you stop." President Bush, too, had been moved by the sight of the Highway of Death. He decided that the war should be ended. Saudi Arabia and Egypt wanted a quick end to the war. King Faud of Saudi Arabia was unconcerned about the welfare of the Shiite minority living in the south of Iraq and close to his border. King Faud, President Mubarak of Egypt wanted an Iraq as big as it was before the Gulf War began, and they wanted an Iraq ruled by a Sunni Muslim, and if this were Saddam Hussein so be it.

Bush declared a ceasefire on February 28. The peace terms that Saddam accepted in association with the United Nations held that Iraq would recognize Kuwait’s sovereignty and get rid of all its weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons).

Margaret Thatcher, no longer Prime Minister of Britain, spoke of her surprise at the war being ended with Saddam in power. She was to say that when "dealing with a dictator, he has got not only to be defeated, well and truly, but he has got to be seen to be defeated." She added that "Half measures never work, you've either got to do the job properly and show the world you're serious so they better not let it happen again." Her successor, John Major, supported Bush's manner of ending the war, and he was to continue defending it in the years ahead.

President Bush on February 15 via Voice of America Radio had asked the Iraqi people "to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." He made a similar appeal on March 1. Many of Iraq's soldiers were Shi'a conscripts. There were uprisings against Saddam by Shi'a and by Kurds, and exiled Iraqi dissidents joined the rebellion. Saddam's government lost control of 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, while people of Baghdad remained largely passive. Regime loyalists with tanks that had survived the war went on an offensive to reclaim the cities. And the regime also had helicopters including armed gunships. And there are reports of Saddam's forces using the nerve agent sarin, as well as non-lethal CS gas. The Kurds were terrified that chemical weapons would be used against them again, as Saddam had in 1988.

Many Iraqi and American critics accused President Bush and his administration of encouraging and abandoning the rebellion. In 1996, Colin Powell would admit in his book My American Journey would write that while Bush's rhetoric,

may have given encouragement to the rebels, But our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States.

The US Commander, Norman Schwarzkopf, expressed regret for negotiating a ceasefire agreement that allowed Iraq use of its helicopters, but he also described a move to support the uprisings would have empowered Iran.

The war had ended with the United Nations demanding Saddam Hussein's compliance with United Nations resolutions. The United States, Britain and France were to cite UN Security Council Resolution 688 in proclaiming no-fly zones to protect to prevent bombing and chemical attacks against the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and Shi'a Muslims in the south. Peace, it seemed to many, depended on cooperation by Saddam Hussein.


Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.