First Gulf War

First Gulf War
First Gulf War

The First Gulf War was fought by a coalition of forces from 34 countries against Iraq in 1991 in response to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The war began because of several crises stemming from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88. The Iran-Iraq War ended on August 8, 1988.

Iraq was left with huge debts, largely to other Arab nations that had helped to finance the war, and extensive material damage; however, the Iraqi military had benefited from the war by becoming the strongest military force in the Gulf region.

Immediately following the cessation of the Iran-Iraq War, the Kuwaiti government made the disastrous decision to increase its oil production in violation of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) agreements.

The Kuwaitis increased oil extraction from the Rumaila oil wells, which lay on disputed territory with neighboring Iraq. Iraqi revenues were 90 percent dependent on oil, and the Kuwaiti increase in oil production helped to lower oil prices and slowly began to strangle Iraq economically.

Kuwait’s leaders, the Al-Sabah family, ignored Iraq’s protestations. Until the early 20th century Kuwait had been a semi-independent emirate administered from Baghdad under the Ottoman Empire.

During the 19th century British influence in the Gulf and in Kuwait in particular increased, and after World War I Britain was responsible for drawing the borders between the two nations. Although Iraq ultimately established diplomatic relations with Kuwait, many Iraqis continued to view it as part of Iraq.

Strategic Access

Iraq also owed $14 billion from the Iran-Iraq War to Kuwait; Iraq had expected that Kuwait would cancel the debt since Iraq had fought and suffered during the long war with Iran while the oil-rich nations in the region had helped to finance the struggle.

However, Kuwait not only refused to cancel the debt, it demanded its immediate repayment. During the Iran-Iraq War many of Iraq’s limited port facilities in the Shatt al-Arab were destroyed, leaving Iraq almost landlocked. Kuwait had greater strategic access to the Persian Gulf, which Iraq viewed as essential were hostilities to erupt again with Iran.

From 1988 to 1990, Saddam Hussein increased his threats against Kuwait, asking for cancellation of Iraq’s debts. He also sought help from King Hussein of Jordan to mediate the problems. In July 1990 Saddam met with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie and stated his grievances regarding Kuwait; Glaspie gave him a controversial response that he took to mean that the United States would not become involved in the dispute if he took stronger steps to rectify the problem. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Kuwaiti oil fields on fire
Kuwaiti oil fields on fire

The Iraqi military quickly overran and occupied all of Kuwait, and the ruling family fled the country. Hussein justified the invasion based on Kuwait’s slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields across the border, as well as his complaints over debt cancellation.

He also appealed to Arab nationalism, claiming that Kuwait was part of Iraq, calling it the 19th province of Iraq. Immediately after the invasion the United Nations (UN) passed Resolution 660 condemning the invasion and demanding an immediate withdrawal. UN Resolution 661 then imposed economic sanctions on Iraq.

Saudi Arabia was alarmed by the invasion and the mounting power of the Iraqi military, which was within striking distance of the vast Saudi Hama oil wells. In Operation Desert Shield, begun on August 7, 1990, the U.S. military beefed up its forces in Arabia to defend its Saudi ally from a possible Iraqi attack. In addition, the UN placed a January 15, 1991, deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

The United States and the UN assembled a coalition force of 34 countries to implement this resolution by force should Iraq fail to comply. On January 12, 1991, the U.S. Congress narrowly approved the use of U.S. military force in an operation against Iraq.

When Iraq failed to comply with the January 15 deadline, coalition forces initiated Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991, with a massive monthlong air campaign against Baghdad and much of Iraq. The air attacks, over 1,000 in number, disabled military and communication installations and severely weakened the Iraqi military and infrastructure.

Coalition forces launched a ground attack, Operation Desert Sabre, on February 24, 1991; they quickly overwhelmed the thinly stretched Iraqi forces, and after only 100 hours President George H. W. Bush declared a cease-fire.

Iraqi troops hastily retreated back across the border, setting Kuwaiti oil fields on fire as they withdrew. This caused massive environmental damage that persisted into the 21st century. Iraqi troops also dumped approximately 1 million tons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf.

The quick victory was a surprise, and the war ended sooner than predicted. Kuwait City was recaptured, and on February 27, 1991, Kuwait was officially liberated and the Iraq-Kuwait border was restored. However, Saddam Hussein was not captured, and he remained in power.

Allied forces did not pursue him and did not try to occupy Iraq, although they did advance to within 150 miles of the capital of Baghdad. President Bush justified this decision by noting that the goal of the coalition had been to liberate Kuwait.

However, the U.S. administration hoped that continued economic sanctions against Iraq, as well as assistance for resistance groups within Iraq (such as Shi’i and Kurdish factions), would lead the Iraqi people to revolt against Hussein and oust him from power. But Hussein ruthlessly repressed any uprisings.

Although the sanctions caused the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqis, mostly women and children, they had little effect on Hussein’s regime, which actually extended its political control over a nation badly crippled by years of war.

Thus the First Gulf War was a military success, succeeding in liberating Kuwait, but it did not change the Iraqi regime. Consequently the United States, Great Britain, and a small number of other nations moved to oust Hussein and occupy Iraq in the Second Gulf War, beginning in 2003.