The Gulf War, 1991

At the end of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988, Iraq emerged with its state intact and a reinforced sense of national pride, but laden with massive debts. Iraq had largely financed the war effort through loans, and owed some $37 billion to Gulf creditors in 1990. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein called on the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to cancel the Iraqi debt they held, arguing that the loans should be considered payments to Iraq for protecting the Arabian Peninsula from Iranian expansionism, but his appeals went unanswered. The Gulf states’ refusal to cancel Iraq’s war debts contributed to Saddam Hussein’s decision to make threats against Iraq’s rich, but militarily weak, neighbor Kuwait.

President George Bush speaks to U.S. Military personnel gathered for his Thanksgiving holiday visit during Operation Desert Shield. (Department of Defense/Gerald Johnson)

After Kuwait rejected Saddam’s debt-forgiveness demands, he threatened to reignite a conflict over the long-standing question of ownership of the Warbah and Bubiyan Islands, to which Iraq ascribed importance because of the secure access they afforded to its ports on the Khawr 'Abd Allah—the waterway to the Persian Gulf that remained the only viable alternative to the closed Shatt Al-'Arab, cluttered with debris from the Iran-Iraq War.

The dispute over the Bubiyan and Warbah Islands was a key point of contention in the lengthy history of territorial conflict between Iraq and Kuwait. In 1961, when the United Kingdom ended its protectorate over Kuwait, then Iraqi Prime Minister General 'Abd Al-Karim Qasim asserted that Kuwait was an "integral part of Iraq" because it had been part of the former Ottoman province of Al-Basrah. Iraq threatened to exert its sovereignty over Kuwait, but the consequent deployment of British troops to Kuwait forced the Iraqis to back down. Although subsequent regimes relinquished this claim by recognizing Kuwait's independence, Ba’athist Iraq never formally accepted a common boundary between the two countries.

Still, there had been no major incidents regarding the border dispute until 1990, when Iraq was in the throes of the postwar economic crisis. In July, Saddam accused Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates of breaking with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production quotas and over-producing crude oil for export, which depressed prices, depriving Iraq of critical oil revenues. In addition, Saddam Hussein alleged that Kuwait was stealing oil from the Rumayla oil field that straddled the Iraq-Kuwait border. He also demanded that Kuwait cede control of the Bubiyan and Warbah Islands to Iraq.

During this period, there was a deterioration of relations between the United States and Iraq. Iraq accused the United States and Israel of deliberately weakening Iraq by encouraging Kuwait to reduce oil prices. When Iraq began to threaten Kuwait early in July 1990, the United States staged maneuvers in the Gulf to warn Iraq against taking military action against the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Despite this show of U.S. force, President George H.W. Bush adopted a conciliatory policy toward Saddam Hussein in hopes of moderating the Iraqi regime and policies. The Bush administration tried to maintain economic and political relations with Iraq, and on April 12, 1990, sent a delegation of American senators led by Senator Robert Dole to meet with Hussein. Senator Dole brought a message from the White House suggesting that the United States wanted to improve relations with Iraq. A letter from President Bush to Saddam delivered by U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie on July 27 echoed this sentiment.

But on August 2, 1990, a force of one hundred thousand Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait and overran the country in a matter of hours. The invasion of Kuwait led to a United Nations Security Council embargo and sanctions on Iraq and a U.S.-led coalition air and ground war, which began on January 16, 1991, and ended with an Iraqi defeat and retreat from Kuwait on February 28, 1991.

Although the United States was aware of Hussein’s threats to Kuwait, it did not anticipate the Iraqi military incursion. The Iraqi Republican Guard units moved toward Kuwait City while Iraqi Special Forces secured key sites, including the islands of Warba and Bubayan, Kuwaiti air fields, and the palaces of the Emir and the Crown Prince. There was some Kuwaiti resistance to the Iraqi invasion, but the Iraqi forces easily suppressed Kuwait’s defenses. Members of the Kuwaiti royal family escaped to Saudi Arabia where they appealed for international support. On August 28, Iraq declared that Kuwait had become its nineteenth province.

International condemnation of the Iraqi invasion was widespread and virtually unanimous. Within days, the United States led efforts to organize an international coalition, which, working through the United Nations Security Council, passed Resolution 660 demanding Iraq’s immediate and unconditional withdrawal, Resolution 661 imposing economic sanctions, and Resolution 663 declaring the annexation of Kuwait null and void.

The United States and Saudi Arabia agreed to a deployment of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia to protect the peninsula. At the same time, the United States and the coalition insisted on Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, but Iraq refused to withdraw and began looting Kuwait and destroying its infrastructure.

By October 30, the Bush administration made a decision to push Iraq out of Kuwait by force if necessary. Bush increased the U.S. force presence and petitioned the United Nations for authorization to use force. The result was UN Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, but gave Iraq a forty-five day grace period to withdraw. Led by the United States, an international coalition of nations amassed forces in the region to help liberate Kuwait.

After the deadline for withdrawal passed, the coalition led by the United States attacked Iraq by air. Within twenty-four hours, coalition forces controlled the skies and bombarded such strategic sites as the Iraqi command and control facilities, Saddam Hussein’s palaces, the Ba’th Party headquarters, power stations, intelligence and security facilities, hydroelectric stations, oil refineries, military-industrial complexes, and Iraq’s missile facilities. Coalition aircraft subsequently targeted Iraqi troops in Kuwait

In retaliation, Saddam Hussein launched missile attacks against Israel and on coalition force bases in Saudi Arabia. But Israel refused to retaliate and coalition forces took the offensive by launching a land campaign that began on February 24 and lasted four days. Comprising forces from thirty-four countries, including a number of Arab countries, the coalition forces liberated Kuwait City and drove Iraqi forces into a retreat. On March 2, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 686, which set forth conditions for a cease-fire. Iraq was obligated to accept its provisions, which included sanctions and payment of reparations for war damages. Iraq was obligated to return property stolen from Kuwait. The United States continued to put pressure on Iraq through the United Nations, which passed Security Council Resolution 687 establishing the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to inspect Iraq’s suspected chemical and biological weapons capabilities. The United States subsequently sought to ensure that the trade embargo imposed on Iraq the previous year through Resolution 661 remained in place and that Iraq was stripped of chemical weapons and missiles and its nuclear research capabilities. In the chaos following the war, spontaneous Shiite rebellions in the South and Kurdish unrest in northern Iraq broke out but were eventually suppressed by Saddam Hussein and his Revolutionary Guards.