Persian Gulf War
Desert Storm - War with Iraqi


Persian Gulf War, sometimes called Operation Desert Storm, was fought in early 1991 between Iraq and a coalition of 39 countries organized mainly by the United States and the United Nations (UN). The war took place chiefly in Iraq and the tiny oil-rich nation of Kuwait. These two countries lie together at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Leading members of the coalition against Iraq included Egypt, France, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United States.

The coalition had formed after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Iraq's invasion followed unsuccessful attempts to resolve several disputes between the two countries. After quickly gaining control of Kuwait, Iraq moved huge numbers of troops to Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia, triggering fears that Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia next. Iraq's actions were viewed with alarm by the world's industrialized countries, which relied on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as a primary source of petroleum. A number of coalition members sent troops to Saudi Arabia to protect it from possible attack.

On Jan. 17, 1991, after months of pressuring Iraq to leave Kuwait, the coalition began bombing Iraqi military and industrial targets. In late February, the coalition launched a massive ground attack into Kuwait and southern Iraq and quickly defeated the Iraqis. Coalition military operations ended on February 28.

The war resulted in immense human suffering in the Middle East and enormous material damage in Iraq and Kuwait. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or wounded or became refugees. Economic measures taken against Iraq caused great hardship in that nation and in other countries in the region. The war also caused severe environmental pollution in the region, as the Iraqis set hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells on fire and dumped huge amounts of Kuwaiti oil into the Persian Gulf. In addition, the war triggered bloody revolts in Iraq by Kurds and Shiite Muslim Arabs.

The Persian Gulf War was the first major international crisis after the end of the Cold War. It severely tested cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the ability of the UN to play a leading role in world affairs. The war also split the Arab world between coalition members and supporters of Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein.

Background to the war

Saddam Hussein's ambition for power and leadership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and in the Middle East was a central cause of the invasion of Kuwait. Besides Iraq, OPEC members also included Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Like those countries, Iraq was a major oil-exporting nation. But from 1980 to 1988, Iraq had fought a drawn-out war with its neighbor Iran. Iraq suffered serious economic damage in the Iran-Iraq War. Nevertheless, it emerged from that conflict as the second-strongest military power in the Middle East. Only the Jewish state of Israel was stronger.

Hussein argued that Iraq had become the region's chief power opposed to Israel and should thus be recognized by other Arab countries as leader of the Arab world. Since the late 1940's, Arab countries had fought several wars with Israel. Many Arabs wanted to abolish Israel and place its lands under the control of Palestinians and other Arabs.

Hussein claimed that, as leader of the Arab world, Iraq should receive help from other Arab countries in rebuilding its economy. According to Hussein, Iraq needed help from OPEC in raising world oil prices, along with the cancellation of debts that Iraq had incurred to Kuwait and other Arab countries to fight the Iran-Iraq War.

After the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein had disagreed with Kuwait's leaders over how much debt-cancellation and other financial aid Kuwait should provide for Iraq's economic recovery. Hussein also accused Kuwait of exceeding oil production limits set by OPEC and thus lowering world oil prices. In addition, Hussein claimed that Kuwait was taking Iraqi oil from the Rumaila oil field, a large field that lay beneath both Iraq and Kuwait.

Also, Iraq had often claimed that Kuwait should be part of Iraq. Iraq based its claim on the fact that, in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Kuwait had been included in a province of the Ottoman Empire, called Basra, which later became part of Iraq. But by the time Iraq was formed in the early 1920's, Kuwait was no longer part of the province. Also by the early 1920's, Britain had gained control of Kuwait and what became Iraq. Iraq became an independent nation in 1932, and Kuwait in 1961. However, Iraq did not recognize Kuwait's independence until 1963. After 1963, disputes continued between Kuwait and Iraq over the location of the two countries' common border.

What Hussein hoped to gain by taking Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was encouraged by a number of factors to consider an invasion of Kuwait. For example, by seizing Kuwait, Iraq could acquire that country's oil wealth and eliminate the Iraqi debt to Kuwait. Also, Iraq's control of Kuwaiti oil could have greatly increased Iraq's power within OPEC.

Hussein also sought better access to the Persian Gulf. Iraq's gulf coastline was extremely short. Kuwait's was much longer and included an excellent harbor. In addition, Hussein probably hoped that an invasion would keep Iraq's military occupied and so end a series of attempts by the military to force him out of power.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait

At 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1990, hundreds of tanks and other Iraqi forces swept across the Kuwaiti border. Within 24 hours, Iraq had complete control of Kuwait. Thousands of Iraqi troops then moved to Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia. To some, this movement signaled that Iraq might invade Saudi Arabia. On August 8, Iraq announced that it had annexed Kuwait.

Under international law, none of Iraq's claims against Kuwait justified its invasion of that country. The United Nations, as well as the United States and many other countries, condemned the Iraqi invasion. Hussein, however, accused the United States and other nations of following a double standard in their reaction. According to Hussein, if these nations condemned the Iraqi invasion, they should also condemn Israel's continuing occupation of lands it had won from Arab nations in the Arab-Israeli wars. Since the 1970's, the United States had been Israel's chief ally.

Arabs in many countries supported Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--particularly poor Arabs and Palestinians. Hussein became a hero to numerous Arabs by confronting Israel and the United States. He gained additional support from poor Arabs by calling for the redistribution of the vast wealth of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and certain other Arab oil-exporting nations.

The world's reaction

On August 2, at UN Headquarters in New York City, the UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning Iraq's invasion. Soon after the invasion, U.S. President George Bush and other world leaders began working to form an anti-Iraq coalition. The coalition eventually grew to include Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States. Arab members of the coalition were Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. South Korea was the only coalition member that was not also a member of the UN. The Arab countries of Jordan, Libya, and Yemen opposed the involvement of non-Arab countries but did not fight against the coalition.

China and the Soviet Union, at that time the world's most powerful Communist countries, did not join the coalition. But their cooperation as members of the UN Security Council allowed the UN to play a leading role in the crisis.

On August 6, the UN Security Council imposed an embargo that prohibited all trade with Iraq except for medical supplies and food in certain circumstances. Nearly all of Iraq's major trading partners supported the embargo. As a result, Iraq's foreign trade all but ended. On August 7, the United States announced that it would send troops to the Persian Gulf to defend Saudi Arabia from possible attack by Iraq.

In mid-August, Iraq began detaining various foreign citizens who had been living in Iraq or Kuwait. These hostages included foreign diplomats in Kuwait. Hussein later ordered these people moved to military and industrial sites in Iraq, where they would serve as "human shields" to discourage attacks by coalition members. By mid-December, however, Iraq had released all the hostages under pressure from other countries, including several key Arab nations.

On August 25, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force to carry out the embargo against Iraq. On November 29, the council gave coalition members permission "to use all necessary means" to expel Iraq from Kuwait if Iraq did not withdraw by Jan. 15, 1991. Iraq chose to stay in Kuwait.

By mid-January, the coalition had about 670,000 troops, 3,500 tanks, and 1,800 combat aircraft in the Persian Gulf region. The troops came from 28 coalition members and included about 425,000 troops from the United States. Many of the rest of the troops came from Britain and France and such Arab countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Coalition members that did not send troops provided equipment, supplies, or financial support. The coalition also had about 200 warships in the Persian Gulf region, including 6 U.S. aircraft carriers and 2 U.S. battleships.] Iraq had between 350,000 and 550,000 troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq, with about 4,500 tanks and 550 combat aircraft. It also had a small navy.

The coalition takes military action

Militarily, the coalition first tried to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait by bombing Iraqi military and industrial targets. But after more than five weeks of heavy bombing, Iraq still refused to withdraw. The allies then started a major ground attack against Iraqi forces.

The air war began at 3 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991. The coalition aimed first to destroy Iraq's ability to launch attacks. Other goals included eliminating Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons facilities; gaining superiority over Iraq's air force; disrupting Iraq's ability to gather information about coalition forces and to communicate with its own forces; and reducing the readiness of Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

Allied aircraft first bombed Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, and then attacked targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait. The allies gradually focused heavy bombing on Iraqi troops; artillery and tanks; transportation routes; and supplies of ammunition, food, fuel, and water.

The coalition achieved many of its objectives in the air war, in part due to the use of such high-technology equipment as night-vision systems and precision-guided weapons. These weapons included extremely accurate cruise missiles launched from U.S. ships in the gulf.

Iraq responded to the start of the air war by launching "Scud" missiles at populated areas in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Scuds were crude and inaccurate by Western standards. But they terrorized the populations of targeted cities and killed a number of people in both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Analysts believe that Iraq used the attacks on Israel to try to draw it into the war. Had Israel struck back, Iraq might have succeeded in forcing Arab countries out of the coalition by portraying the war as an Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Israel did not enter the war, thus making it much easier to keep the coalition together.

The first major ground battle occurred at Khafji, a small Saudi Arabian coastal town near Kuwait. The Saudis had deserted the town before the war. On January 29, Iraqi troops occupied Khafji. With U.S. help, Saudi and Qatari troops recaptured the town on January 31. By late February, the air war had reduced, through casualties and desertions, the number of Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq to about 183,000.

At about 4 a.m. on February 24, coalition forces launched a major ground attack into Iraq and Kuwait. The attack consisted of several large operations carried out at the same time. U.S. and French troops invaded Iraq from Saudi Arabia, west of Iraqi fortifications in Kuwait. They moved rapidly north into Iraq and toward the Euphrates River to cut off Iraqi supply lines and to prevent an Iraqi retreat. U.S. and British troops also crossed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia. They moved north into Iraq and then swept east to attack the Iraqi troops.

In another operation, coalition troops assaulted Iraqi forces at several points across southern Kuwait. These coalition troops consisted of U.S. marines and troops from Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The troops quickly broke through Iraqi fortifications, and about 63,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered. On February 26, Hussein ordered his troops to leave Kuwait. But by that time, the Iraqi forces had been surrounded. The coalition ended all military operations at 8 a.m. on February 28, about 100 hours after the ground attack had begun.

Iraq accepted the terms of a formal cease-fire agreement on April 6. On April 11, the UN Security Council officially declared an end to the war. In the cease-fire agreement, Iraq promised to pay Kuwait for war damages. Iraq also agreed to the destruction of all its biological and chemical weapons, its facilities for producing such weapons, and any facilities or materials it might have for producing nuclear weapons. Iraq did not yet have nuclear weapons, but it was trying to produce them. Iraq stockpiled chemical weapons in Kuwait before the ground war, but there is no evidence that either side used chemical weapons during the war. Neither side used biological or nuclear weapons.

After the formal cease-fire, the UN continued the embargo to pressure Iraq to carry out its promises. However, Iraq stubbornly resisted complying with the terms of the cease-fire agreement.

Consequences of the war

As many as 100,000 Iraqi troops may have died as a result of the war, but some experts believe the total is much lower. Deaths of coalition troops totaled only about 370. Thousands of civilians in Iraq and Kuwait probably were also killed during the war. Many other Iraqi civilians later died as a result of wartime destruction or because of revolts triggered by Iraq's defeat.

Coalition bombing severely damaged Iraq's transportation systems, communication systems, and petroleum and other industries. Coalition attacks also wiped out much of Iraq's ability to provide electric power and clean water. As a result, many civilians died after the warfrom disease or a lack of medicine or food.

In Kuwait, Iraqi troops looted the country and damaged many of Kuwait's oil wells, in most cases by setting them on fire. In addition, Iraq dumped an estimated 465 million gallons (1.75 billion liters) of Kuwaiti crude oil into the Persian Gulf, killing wildlife and causing long-term harm to the environment.

After the war, Saddam Hussein continued to rule Iraq. But revolts broke out among Kurds in northern Iraq and, in southern Iraq, among Arabs of the Shiah sect of the Muslim religion. Both groups had long opposed Hussein's rule. Iraq's army swiftly put down most of the rebellions. Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Arabs then fled to Iran. Thousands of others hid in the marshlands of southern Iraq. More than a million Kurds fled to the mountains of northern Iraq and to Turkey and Iran. Tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites were killed in the revolts or died later of disease, exposure, or hunger.

In April 1991, the United States and other coalition members established a safety zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurdish refugees from Iraqi troops. Coalition forces remained in northern Iraq until July. But coalition aircraft continued to patrol northern Iraq as part of an effort to enforce a ban on Iraqi aircraft flights and troop movements there. In 1992, to protect the Shiite population, coalition forces imposed a ban on Iraqi aircraft flights over southern Iraq. In 1996, Iraqi troops attacked Kurds in northern Iraq. The United States responded with missile attacks against Iraqi military targets.

The Persian Gulf War also focused world attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following the war, the United States renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes between Israel and the Arab countries. These efforts helped lead to the signing in 1993 and 1995 of peace agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, a group that represents Palestinian Arabs.

The war also proved that significant new forms of international cooperation were possible in the post-Cold War era. Cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with China's support, allowed the UN to take effective action against Iraq.

After the war, some veterans complained of physical and psychological ailments that they believed were related to their service. Their symptoms, sometimes referred to together as Gulf War syndrome, included memory loss, fatigue, and joint pain. Some people believed that exposure to dangerous chemicals when U.S. troops destroyed a chemical weapons depot in Iraq may have affected the troops. Others argued that the syndrome was not a single illness and that the symptoms resulted from the stress of war or other factors. By the late 1990's, debate continued over whether Gulf War syndrome was a single illness and what caused it.

Contributor: David A. Deese, Ph.D., Prof. of Political Science, Boston College.


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