Persian Gulf War, conflict beginning in August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. The conflict culminated in fighting in January and February 1991 between Iraq and an international coalition of forces led by the United States. By the end of the war, the coalition had driven the Iraqis from Kuwait.
Part II: Causes of the War
The Iraqi-Kuwaiti border had been the focus of tension in the past. Kuwait was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire from the 18th century until 1899 when it asked for, and received, British protection in return for autonomy in local affairs. In 1961 Britain granted Kuwait independence, and Iraq revived an old claim that Kuwait had been governed as part of an Ottoman province in southern Iraq and was therefore rightfully Iraq’s. Iraq’s claim had little historical basis, however, and after intense global pressure Iraq recognized Kuwait in 1963. Nonetheless, there were occasional clashes along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, and relations between the two countries were sometimes tense.
Relations between the two countries improved during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when Kuwait assisted Iraq with loans and diplomatic backing. After the war ended in 1988, the Iraqi government launched a costly program of reconstruction. By 1990 Iraq had fallen $80 billion in debt and demanded that Kuwait forgive its share of the debt and help with other payments. At the same time, Iraq claimed that Kuwait was pumping oil from a field that straddled the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border and was not sharing the revenue. Iraq also accused Kuwait of producing more oil than allowed under quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), thereby depressing the price of oil, Iraq’s main export.
Iraq’s complaints against Kuwait grew increasingly harsh, but they were mostly about money and did not suggest that Iraq was about to revive its land claim to Kuwait. When Iraqi forces began to mobilize near the Kuwaiti border in the summer of 1990, several Arab states tried to mediate the dispute. Kuwait, seeking to avoid looking like a puppet of outside powers, did not call on the United States or other non-Arab powers for support. For their part, the U.S. and other Western governments generally expected that at worst Iraq would seize some border area to intimidate Kuwait, so they avoided being pulled into the dispute. Arab mediators convinced Iraq and Kuwait to negotiate their differences in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on August 1, 1990, but that session resulted only in charges and counter charges. A second session was scheduled to take place in Baghdd, the Iraqi capital, but Iraq invaded Kuwait the next day, leading some observers to suspect that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had planned the invasion all along.
Part III: Iraq Invades
The Iraqi attack began shortly after midnight on August 2. About 150,000 Iraqi troops, many of them veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, easily overwhelmed the unprepared and inexperienced Kuwaiti forces, which numbered about 20,000. By dawn Iraq had assumed control of Kuwait city, the capital, and was soon in complete control of the country. Hussein’s political strategy was less clear than his military strategy. The Iraqis initially posed as liberators, hoping to appeal to Kuwaiti democrats who opposed the ruling Sabah monarchy. When this claim attracted neither Kuwaiti nor international support, it was dropped. In place of the Sabahs, most of whom fled during the invasion, Iraq installed a puppet government.
The United Nations Security Council and the Arab League immediately condemned the Iraqi invasion. Four days later, the Security Council imposed an economic embargo on Iraq that prohibited nearly all trade with Iraq. Iraq responded to the sanctions by annexing Kuwait on August 8, prompting the exiled Sabah family to call for a stronger international response. In October, Kuwait’s rulers met with their democratic opponents in Jiddah, with the hope of uniting during the occupation. The Sabah family promised the democrats that if returned to Kuwait, they would restore constitutional rule and parliament (both of which had been suspended in 1986). In return, the democrats pledged to support the government in exile. The unified leadership proved useful in winning international support for an eviction of Iraq. Fewer than half of all Kuwaitis stayed in Kuwait through the occupation; of those who stayed, some formed resistance organizations but with little effect.
Any armed attempt to roll back the Iraqi invasion depended on Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with both Iraq and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia had neither the power nor the inclination to fight Iraq alone; if the Saudi government invited foreign troops into the country to attack Iraq, however, it risked appearing to be under their influence. Saudi rulers did eventually open the country to foreign forces, in large part because they were alarmed by Iraq’s aggressive diplomacy and because U.S. intelligence reports claimed that Iraqi forces were well positioned for a strike against Saudi Arabia. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Syria, and the smaller states along the Persian Gulf, feared that even if Iraq’s conquests stopped at Kuwait, Iraq could still intimidate the rest of the region. Western powers supported a rollback of Iraqi forces because they were afraid Iraq could now dominate international oil supplies. Finally, other members of the United Nations (UN) did not want to allow one UN member state to eliminate another.
Beginning a week after the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait and continuing for several months, a large international force gathered in Saudi Arabia. The United States sent more than 400,000 troops, and more than 200,000 additional troops came from Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, Kuwait, Egypt, Syria, Senegal, Niger, Morocco, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. Other countries contributed ships, air forces, and medical units, including Canada, Italy, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, and South Korea. Still other countries made other contributions: Turkey allowed air bases on its territory to be used by coalition planes, and Japan and Germany gave financial support. The initial goal of the force was to prevent further Iraqi action, but most countries were aware the force might ultimately be used to drive Iraq from Kuwait.
The Iraqis tried to deter and split the growing international coalition through several means. They made it clear that their adversaries would pay heavily if war broke out, and they hinted they would use chemical weapons and missile attacks on cities, as they had against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq also detained citizens of coalition countries who had been in Kuwait at the time of the invasion and said they would be held in militarily sensitive areas—in effect using them as human shields to deter coalition attacks. Iraq eventually released the last of the foreigners in December 1990 under pressure from several Arab nations. In an effort to weaken Arab support within the coalition, Iraq tried to link its occupation of Kuwait to the larger Arab-Israeli conflict in the region. The Iraqis argued that since the UN had not forced Israel to leave Arab territories it occupied during and after the Six-Day War of 1967, it should not force Iraq to leave Kuwait. The Iraqis further implied they might leave Kuwait if Israel withdrew from the Occupied Territories. Several Arab countries responded positively to Iraq’s statements; however, most of these were states such as Jordan and Yemen, which were not part of the coalition. Only in Morocco and Syria did government support for coalition involvement weaken as a result of Iraq’s initiative.
The coalition’s greatest military concern during the closing months of 1990 was that Iraqi forces would attack before coalition forces were fully in place, but no such attack took place. The coalition was also troubled that Iraq might partially withdraw from Kuwait, which could split the coalition between nations eager to avoid fighting and nations wanting to push for full withdrawal. The United States in particular feared that signs of progress might lessen the resolve of some coalition partners and so discouraged attempts to mediate the crisis. Iraq’s uncompromising stand helped build support among coalition members for the American hard line.
On November 29, with coalition forces massing in Saudi Arabia and Iraq showing no signs of retreat, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to allow member states to “use all necessary means” to force Iraq from Kuwait if Iraq remained in the country after January 15, 1991. The Iraqis rejected the ultimatum. Soon after the vote, the United States agreed to a direct meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraq’s foreign minister. The two sides met on January 9. Neither offered to compromise. The United States underscored the ultimatum, and the Iraqis refused to comply with it, even threatening to attack Israel. For the United States, the meeting was its way of showing the conflict could not be resolved through negotiation.
A large minority of the U.S. population opposed military action. Opponents were concerned that the armed forces would suffer large casualties and argued that the only reason for the invasion was to guarantee a cheap supply of oil. Many such opponents thought economic sanctions would eventually force Iraq to leave Kuwait. President George Bush maintained that larger political principles were involved and that economic sanctions would not work. He also argued that the UN resolution gave him the authority to use military force. Other Americans believed the president did not have the constitutional authority to order an attack without a congressional declaration of war. On January 12, 1991, the U.S. Congress narrowly passed a resolution authorizing the president to use force, nullifying the domestic debate.
Part IV: The Coalition Attacks by Air
When the UN deadline of January 15 passed without an Iraqi withdrawal, a vast majority of coalition members joined in the decision to attack Iraq. A few members, such as Morocco, elected not to take part in the military strikes. In the early morning of January 17, 1991, coalition forces began a massive air attack on Iraqi targets.
The air assault had three goals: to attack Iraqi air defenses, to disrupt command and control, and to weaken ground forces in and around Kuwait. The coalition made swift progress against Iraq’s air defenses, giving the coalition almost uncontested control of the skies over Iraq and Kuwait. The second task, disrupting command and control, was larger and more difficult. It required attacks on the Iraqi electrical system, communications centers, roads and bridges, and other military and government targets. These targets were often located in civilian areas and were typically used by both civilians and the military. Although the coalition air forces often used very precise weapons, the attacks caused many civilian casualties and completely disrupted Iraqi civilian life. The third task, weakening Iraq’s ground forces, was larger still. The coalition used less sophisticated weaponry to strike Iraqi defensive positions in both Iraq and Kuwait, to destroy their equipment, and to undermine morale. After five and a half weeks of intense bombing and more than 100,000 flights by coalition planes, Iraq’s forces were severely damaged.
In an attempt to pry the coalition apart, Iraq fired Scud missiles at both Saudi Arabia and Israel, which especially disrupted Israeli civilian life. Iraq could thus portray its Arab adversaries as fighting on the side of Israel. The strategy failed to split the coalition, in part because the Israeli government did not retaliate. Iraq also issued thinly veiled threats that it would use chemical and biological weapons. The United States hinted in return that such an attack might provoke a massive response, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons. Iraqi ground forces also initiated a limited amount of ground fighting, occupying the Saudi border town of Khafji on January 30 before being driven back.
One month into the air war, the Iraqis began negotiating with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) over a plan to withdraw from Kuwait. Had this initiative come before the start of the coalition’s attack, it might have split the coalition; now it simply seemed a sign that the war was weighing heavily on Iraq. The war made diplomacy difficult for Iraq: officials had to travel overland to Iran and then fly to Moscow to ferry messages back and forth. Sensing victory, the coalition united behind a demand for Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
Part V: Land War
On February 24 the coalition launched its long-anticipated land offensive. The bulk of the attack was in southwestern Iraq, where coalition forces first moved north, then turned east toward the Iraqi port of Al Ba_rah. This maneuver surrounded Kuwait, encircling the Iraqi forces there and in southern Iraq, and allowed coalition forces (mainly Arab) to move up the coast and take Kuwait city. Some Iraqi units resisted, but the coalition offensive advanced more quickly than anticipated. Thousands of Iraqi troops surrendered. Others deserted. Iraq then focused its efforts on withdrawing its elite units and sabotaging Kuwaiti infrastructure and industry. Many oil wells were set on fire, creating huge oil lakes, thick black smoke, and other environmental damage. Two days after the ground war began, Iraq announced it was leaving Kuwait.
On February 28, with the collapse of Iraqi resistance and the recapture of Kuwait—thereby fulfilling the coalition’s stated goals—the coalition declared a cease-fire. The land war had lasted precisely 100 hours. The cease-fire came shortly before coalition forces would have surrounded Iraqi forces. On March 2 the UN Security Council issued a resolution laying down the conditions for the cease-fire, which were accepted by Iraq in a meeting of military commanders on March 3. More extensive aims, such as overthrowing the Iraqi government or destroying Iraqi forces, did not have the support of all coalition members. Most Arab members, for example, believed the war was fought to restore one Arab country and not to destroy another. The United States also worried that extending the goal would have involved them in endless fighting.
The Iraqis achieved none of their initial goals. Rather than enhancing their economic, military, and political position, they were economically devastated, militarily defeated, and politically isolated. Yet because the government and many of the military forces remained intact, the Iraqis could claim mere survival as a victory. The surviving military forces were used a short time later to suppress two postwar rebellions: one involving Shia Muslims in southern Iraq and one involving Kurds in the north.
Almost all of the casualties occurred on the Iraqi side. While estimates during the war had ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 Iraqis killed, Western military experts now agree that Iraq sustained between 20,000 and 35,000 casualties. The coalition losses were extremely light by comparison: 240 were killed, 148 of whom were American. The number of wounded totaled 776, of whom 458 were American.
Part VI: Consequences of the War
The end of the fighting left some key issues unresolved, including UN sanctions against Iraq, which did not end with the war. On April 2, 1991, the Security Council laid out strict demands for ending the sanctions: Iraq would have to accept liability for damages, destroy its chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles, forego any nuclear weapons programs, and accept international inspections to ensure these conditions were met. If Iraq complied with these and other resolutions, the UN would discuss removing the sanctions. Iraq resisted, claiming that its withdrawal from Kuwait was sufficient compliance.
Many Western observers believed the victory was hollow because Saddam Hussein was still in power. At first, when Hussein was greatly weakened, Western powers believed a rebellion might succeed in overthrowing him. Meanwhile, potential rebels within Iraq believed they might receive international help if they rebelled. But when the Shia population of southern Iraq rebelled shortly after the cease-fire, they were greeted not with international help but with Iraqi military forces returning from the southern front. It quickly became clear that the rebels would receive no international help, although several governments gave them verbal support. Under the terms of the cease-fire, which established “no-fly zones” in the north and south, Iraqis could not attack the Shias with airplanes, but could use helicopters, which they did to great effect. Spontaneous and loosely organized, the rebellion was crushed almost as quickly as it arose.
The defeat of the Shias made the debate over helping Iraqi rebels even more urgent. Ultimately, however, most Western governments decided that if Hussein collapsed, Iraq might disintegrate, ushering in a new round of regional instability. A short while later, Kurds in the north of the country rebelled, and they too received no help. The Kurds were able to withstand Hussein longer than the Shias, in part because they had a history of organized, armed resistance. In the end, though, the Kurds achieved only a very modest success: a UN-guaranteed haven in the extreme north of the country. No permanent solution—such as Kurdish self-rule—was negotiated.
Elsewhere the effects of the war were less severe. In Kuwait the prewar regime was restored, and in 1992 the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, honored his pledge in exile to reconvene the country’s parliament. Palestinians in Kuwait fared poorly after the war, in large part because Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other prominent Palestinians had endorsed Hussein and his anti-Israeli rhetoric. Blamed for collaborating with the Iraqis, most of the Palestinian population (estimated at 400,000 before the war) was expelled from Kuwait or forbidden to return.
Following the war, thousands of American soldiers developed mild to debilitating health problems, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, insomnia, short-term memory loss, rashes, headaches, blurred vision, and aching joints. The symptoms became known collectively as Gulf War syndrome but their cause was unknown. Speculation about the cause centered on exposure to chemical and biological weapons; experimental drugs given to troops to protect against chemical weapons; vaccinations against illness and disease; insecticides sprayed over troop-populated areas; and smoke from burning oil wells ignited by retreating Iraqis. The U.S. Department of Defense originally stated it had no conclusive evidence that troops had been exposed to chemical or biological weapons. However, in 1996 the department acknowledged that more than 20,000 American troops may have been exposed to sarin, a toxic nerve gas (see Chemical and Biological Warfare). In 1997 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) suggested the deadly gas may have spread farther than previously thought, affecting perhaps hundreds of thousands of troops.
The UN continued to maintain most of the economic embargo on Iraq after the war, and several coalition countries enforced other sanctions, such as the no-fly zones. In 1995 the UN amended the sanctions to allow Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil for food and medicine if it also designated some of the revenue to pay for damages caused by the war; Iraq initially rejected this plan but then accepted it in 1996.
Contributed By: Nathan J. Brown, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Associate Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. Author of The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts, Politics, and Society in Egypt and the Arab Gulf States. Further Reading