To put everything in its proper historical context...

A Brief History of the Gulf War


Many of the borders in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula are artificial creations of British and UN administrators. They do not reflect the ethnic, religious or political realities of the region, the most characteristically disastrous result of this being the creation of the state of Israel in disputable territory.

The state of Iraq was created in 1932 by combining the former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, which had been under a British mandate since the end of World War I. The formation of a state this size under a single administration on one hand gave the region a third pole of power between Persia and Turkey and on the other hand created an unstable amalgam of peoples with combined influence and might disproportionate to that of its southern neighbours. Mosul is largely Kurdish while Basra is inhabited by Shi'ite Muslims, as opposed to the majority Sunnites of Baghdad. In the context of the greater Iraqi state, both these populations are relegated to minority status.

The state of Kuwait, northernmost emirate of the Arabian peninsula, dates its history as a separate geopolitical entity back to the founding of Kuwait City in 1710, very recent by the historical measure of the region. Both the Ottomans and the Wahabi Arabs attempted to impose their direct rule on the city but both times these attempts failed due to British intervention. Kuwait becomes independent from Britain and joins the Arab League in 1961. Outstanding border disputes with Saudi Arabia are settled in 1966. Following the 1973 oil crisis, soaring oil prices bring unprecedented wealth to this small country.

Relations between Kuwait and Iraq

When Kuwait was declared independent from Britain, Iraq voiced objections to its admission to the Arab League, instead declaring it to be Iraqi territory. Iraq dropped those objections in 1963 but this claim was to resurface as a pretence in the 1990 invasion and annexation. During the 1980s, the countries enjoyed fairly close ties and Kuwait was on the receiving end of Iranian disapproval and military attacks due to its support for Iraq during the 1980-1988 war between the two countries.


  • 1990-05-28: Saddam Hussein accuses Kuwait and the UAE of sabotaging Iraq's economy by overproducing oil and allowing oil prices to drop.
  • 1990-07-17: Iraq accuses the Kuwaitis of infringing on Iraqi oil rights in the Rumaylah oil field that lies beneath the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
  • 1990-07-22: Iraqi armed forces begin concentrating on the south-eastern border with Kuwait.
  • 1990-08-02: Iraqi forces invade Kuwait and push through as far as the Saudi Arabian border. The Emir takes refuge in the United States. Four days later, the United Nations impose a complete trade embargo on Iraq.
  • 1990-08-07: Saudi Arabia, unable to match the Iraqi forces gathered on its border with Kuwait, requests assistance from the United States.
  • 1990-08-08: Saddam Hussein declares the annexation of Kuwait.
  • 1990-08-09: The UN declares the annexation void; the first US troops arrive in Saudi Arabia.
  • 1990-08-10: Saddam Hussein declares a jihad against the US and Israel. All but the more radical elements of the Muslim world ignore it.
  • 1990-08-12: Foreign naval forces begin enforcing the embargo on Iraq and attempt to halt Iraqi oil exports.
  • 1990-08-28: Iraq proclaims Kuwait its 19th province and renames Kuwait City to al-Kadhima.
  • 1990-09-15: Great Britain and France announce that they will deploy forces in the Gulf.
  • 1990-12-17: The United Nations set a deadline of 1991-01-15 for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
  • 1991-01-03: The US State Department imposes censorship on press reports from the Gulf.
  • 1991-01-09: Negotations between Iraq and the US end fruitless.
  • 1991-01-12: President Bush is authorised by the US congress to wage war on Iraq.
  • 1991-01-17: Operation Desert Storm commences at midnight UTC. The sky of Baghdad lights up as Iraq is attacked by US and British bombers, spearheading an alliance of 28 countries. Iraq's Soviet-built MiG fighters and anti-aircraft batteries prove a poor match for the enormous amount of highly sophisticated equipment deployed against them.
  • 1991-01-19: Iraq launches the first Scud missiles aimed at Israeli territory. The destruction of an Iraqi nuclear facility by Israeli bombers in 1981 was still a sore spot for Iraq. Attacks on Israel were more aimed at pleasing Arab public opinion and had no military objective.
  • 1991-01-22: Iraq begins destroying Kuwaiti oil installations and initiates an environmental disaster on a grand scale.
  • 1991-01-30: The first significant ground engagement between US and Iraqi forces occurs on Saudi territory.
  • 1991-02-19: A peace plan brought forward by the Soviet Union, with Iraqi approval, is declined by the US president.
  • 1991-02-27: American land forces enter Kuwait City. The country is declared liberated by president Bush.

The Aftermath (as of December 2002)

Iraq is crippled and defiant, still under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. The impact of the war on the Iraqi oil industry is vast and the embargo takes its toll on the civilian population, reducing it from relative prosperity to third world status. The Iraqi government plays a neverending game of cat and mouse with UN-appointed inspectors assigned to ferret out chemical and biological weapons in Iraq's possession or any resources capable of providing Iraq with the capability to wage chemical, biological or nuclear warfare. In 1998, Iraq's refusal to cooperate and expulsion of UN inspectors results in fresh air raids on the country.

Large numbers of US and British forces remain stationed in Kuwait and other Gulf states as well as Turkey. A multinational task force of warships patrols the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf attempting to prevent illicit exports of oil from Iraq; smugglers operating through Turkey, Jordan and Syria have a field day. American and British war planes patrol two zones of Iraqi air space, north of 36° and south of 32° latitude, ostensibly to protect civilian populations from recriminations by the Baghdad regime (note how these areas coincide with the areas around Mosul and Basra), in practice limiting the range of the Iraqi military.

Saddam Hussein and the Bush Jr. administration continue the sabre-rattling but it's unlikely that any serious aggressive actions will be undertaken while the United States and the West are actively engaged in Afghanistan, and tension runs unusually high, even by Middle Eastern standards, in the West Bank. The US can ill afford to alienate the Arab world any more at this point.

Of course an 800-pound gorilla will assert its right to sit wherever it likes, and the military machine of the United States began preparing for action again late in 2002, as a new batch of weapons inspectors scour Iraq for evidence of hidden "forbidden" weapons and facilities.

The Future

As long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, there is little likelihood that the Iraqi regime will willingly mend its ways to comply with UN demands or that the United States and Britain will make any important concessions. On the other hand, the plight of the civilian population has garnered considerable international attention and led to a partial relaxation of the embargo and demands from permanent UN Security Council members France, Russia and China, as well as many Arab countries, for a better solution.

As Arab solidarity with Iraq increases and the humanitarian crisis is perceived as deepening, the US and Britain will find themselves increasingly cast in the role of aggressor. However, the general embargo is being quietly flaunted by numerous parties and consumer goods are increasingly available, and will probably reach a point at which the embargo becomes more of a nuisance than an effective weapon. Developments in Palestine have reduced local support of US actions, as it continues to support Israel, and the coalition that took back Kuwait has virtually disbanded and reassembling it would be a tough act.

Prosperous Kuwait, after 100 years of British and American protection, may never cast off its reputation as a satellite country and remains a target for its powerful neighbours. Of course, in this part of the world, there have never been any easy answers and any predictions are risky at best. I'll let history decide itself and node it after it's been made.

The now

The history I speak of is on the verge of being made, and not in a pretty way. I suppose it will all be recorded by others and am leaving the above as is for now. I recommend reading March 17, 2003 and March 18, 2003 for reactions and opinions and may add the facts after current events have taken their course and come to a conclusion. --2003-03-18

Encyclopaedia of the Orient
Ali al-Sammawy (
The Gulf Syndrome (

Starting on January 17, 1991, the U.S.-led coalition unleashed the forty-three days of Operation Desert Storm. The coalition air forces quickly disrupted Iraq's command and control network and tore up its extensive air defences. American fighters quickly found that Iraqi pilots were poor dogfighters (many could barely fly, let alone fight) and shot down nearly three dozen Iraqi jets with only one coalition loss. Coalition strike aircraft shut down much of the country's electricity, water, and oil production, as well as destroying bridges and railroads, impeding movement on Iraq's roads, and hammering Iraq's military forces themselves. In addition, the coalition mounted a fierce campaign on Iraq's known WMD and arms production factories. Iraq did fight back, launching volleys of al-Hussein modified Scud missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, but U.S. diplomacy (and the reassuring -if ultimately ineffective- presence of American Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Israel and Saudi Arabia) succeeded in keeping the Israelis out of the war and the Saudis in. When the Scuds failed to do the trick, Saddam tried other approaches. He threatened the international oil market by setting Kuwait's oil wells on fire. He tried to create an ecological catastrophe by dumping Kuwaiti oil into the Persian Gulf. He tried to mount several terrorist operations against the coalition, but these were easily thwarted by Western intelligence services. Finally, he mounted a surprise offensive by two of Iraq's best regular army divisions to maul some of the coalition Arab units in the hope that this would force the coalition high command to cut short the air campaign and get on with the ground campaign (in which, Saddam still believed, Iraq would be able to inflict heavy casualties on the coalition). But the attack had to be called off on its second day when the two divisions came under murderous fire from coalition air forces.

Very shortly, the Iraqis began to realise that things were not going according to their plan. As the weeks passed, Saddam concluded that many of his assumptions had been badly off base. Saddam's military advisors had expected the coalition's air campaign would last three to seven days at most; even the most pessimistic among them had not believed it could go on for more than ten days. It never occurred to the Iraqi leadership that the coalition would sit back and bomb them for thirty-nine days before making a move on the ground. By mid-February, Saddam had become very concerned, in particular because the coalition air campaign was doing more damage to his army in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations than he had ever expected. Saddam's concern was not that the air strikes themselves would destroy the Iraqi Army or drive it out of Kuwait, but that they would so weaken his army in the Kuwaiti Theatre that it would not be able to stand up to coalition ground forces when they finally did attack. Coalition air strikes probably destroyed about 1,200 Iraqi armoured vehicles. Of far greater importance, the coalition air campaign had effectively shut down Iraq's logistical system in the KTO and was demolishing the morale of the army, leading to widespread desertions. Indeed, by the time the coalition ground offensive did kick off on February 24, Iraqi forces in the Kuwaiti Theatre had fallen from their high of around 550,000 to about 350,000 because of these morale and logistical problems.

The coalition launched its long-awaited ground campaign on February 24. When it came, Iraq's frontline infantry divisions disintegrated in a mass of surrenders and flight. The coalition strategy consisted of a diversionary attack by U.S. Marines into southeastern Kuwait, coupled with a vast outflanking manoeuvre to the west of the Iraqi lines (the famed "Left Hook") by the U.S. VII Corps, the most powerful armoured concentration in history. On the second day of the ground war Baghdad realised two important facts. First, that morning they had counterattacked the Marines with one of their best regular army mechanized divisions, only to have it wiped out in a few hours of fighting, having done virtually no damage to the Marines. This let Baghdad know that even its best formations could not hope to defeat the coalition army. Second, after several Iraqi units were destroyed by huge American armoured formations in the far west of the Kuwaiti Theatre, Baghdad recognised the Left Hook. It must have been a terribly shock to the Iraqis to realise that powerful U.S. armoured forces were moving to cut off the entire Iraqi Army in Kuwait. In response, Saddam issued a general retreat order to try to get as much of his army out as far as he could. Meanwhile, the Iraqi General Staff shifted five Republican Guard divisions and three armoured and mechanized divisions of the regular army to form up defensive screens to the west and south, behind which the army was supposed to retreat. They also pulled several other Republican Guard and regular army heavy divisions back to defend Baghdad and al-Basrah against a possible coalition move to overthrow the regime.

On the third and fourth days of the ground campaign, coalition forces smashed into the Iraqi defensive screen and fought the hardest battles of the war. In southeastern Kuwait, the Iraqi First Mechanized and Third Armoured Divisions put up a desultory fight around Kuwait International Airport and the Matlah Pass that kept the Marines occupied but never endangered them. However, in the west of the Kuwaiti Theatre, the Republican Guards fought to the death. On February 26, three U.S. armoured and mechanized divisions and one armoured cavalry regiment (a combined force of more than one thousand M-1A1 tanks) plowed into the lines of the Iraqi Tawakalnah 'alla Allah Mechanized Division of the Republican Guard. In roughly twelve hours of vicious combat, the Americans obliterated the Tawakalnah -destroying nearly every one of the division's three hundred operable tanks and APC's- but the Americans came away with a great deal of respect for the Republican Guards, who fought on despite being outnumbered, outgunned, and outmatched in every way. The story was the same on February 27, when other American armoured units crushed a brigade of the Madinah Munawrah Armoured Division and the Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar infantry Divisions. The guards did not fight well and inflicted minimal damage on the Americans, but they fought hard.

Meanwhile, the fog of war had descended over the American political and military leadership, prompting the most controversial decision of the war. By the end of February 27, the U.S. Central Command believed that the Republican Guard had largely been destroyed. This was based on reports from American combat units claiming to have engaged with and wiped out Iraqi Republican Guard formations, reports that U.S. troops were already at the outskirts of al-Basrah, and the assumption that coalition air forces has sealed all the lines of retreat out of the Kuwaiti Theatre. Added to this were reports of a massacre by coalition aircraft of Iraqi soldiers fleeing Kuwait (mostly in stolen Kuwaiti vehicles and piled high with loot). The president was already feeling domestic pressure to end the war and the "slaughter" of Iraqi forces. Consequently, with the advice of the Pentagon and CENTCOM, President Bush ordered a halt to the ground offensive during the morning of February 28.

The reality was somewhat different. Of the eight Republican Guard divisions deployed in the Kuwaiti Theatre, only three (Nebuchadnezzar, Adnan, and Tawakalnah) had been destroyed, and a fourth (Madinah) had lost about half of its strength. CENTCOM actually did not know where many American units were, believing them to be farther forward than was the case. Nor were the exits from the Kuwaiti Theatre cut off: at least two Republican Guard divisions -the Baghdad infantry and the Special Forces Divisions- had already escaped across the Euphrates River and were moving to defend the capital. Finally, the Hammurabi Armoured Division and al-Faw infantry Division remained largely intact and, along with the remnants of the Madinah, were taking up positions to defend al-Basrah. Even the reported "slaughter" on what was becoming called the "Highway of Death" turned out to have been wrong; in fact, the vast majority of the Iraqis fled their vehicles when the first aircraft appeared, and only a few dozen bodies were found among the hundreds of wrecked vehicles. As a result, it was a rude surprise for the administration in the first days of March when the CIA began to write about the 842 Iraqi tanks that had survived Desert Storm (about 400 of which were Republican Guard T-72s) and the steps that the surviving Republican Guard divisions were taking to put down the revolts against Saddam's regime.

Sources Consulted:

Pollack, Kenneth. The Threatening Storm. New York: Random House Books, 2002.
'The Gulf War' was originally the war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. It cost the lives of at least 300,000 men, women and children, and left a million soldiers injured on both sides.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein started it by seeking to move his border into disputed Iranian territory, while his neighbour was reeling over the Islamic revolution and politically isolated from the West. However his invasion got bogged down outside Abadan in 1982; the Iranians counter-attacked and ended up bogged down outside Basra in 1987. Eventually the pair agreed to a UN brokered ceasefire.

During the latter part of the war came the underpublicised 'War of the Cities', when Iran and Iraq fired missiles at each other's cities. This was the first time in history that missiles were used in warfare against civilian targets by both sides. After patiently developing and stockpiling its own al-Hussein missiles, Iraq fired 189 Al-Hussein missiles at Tehran, Isfahan and Qom, killing 2,000 civilians over a two month period in 1988. Iran retaliated by launching 77 North Korean built Scud missiles against Iraqi cities, targetting mostly Baghdad. While the number of casualties on both sides per missile was actually not as high as the V2 missiles in World War Two (when one factors that London in 1944 had a much lower population density than Tehran in 1988), the attacks had the effect of causing widespread panic. A quarter of Tehran's population fled, and these attacks probably helped bring the war to a conclusion.

The term was subsequently appropriated and used for the considerably less bloody Desert Storm in 1991. And again in 2003, although some people call it 'Gulf War 2' (should it be Gulf War 3 ?). At any rate, these conflicts took place on land and not in the Persian Gulf.

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