Background of the Conflict

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Background of the Conflict

In August 1990 the Middle Eastern country of Iraq invaded the nation of Kuwait, its smaller neighbor to the south. In early 1991 the United States joined forces with a number of other countries in Operation Desert Storm, with the goal of pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Since both Iraq and Kuwait are located at the northern tip of a body of water called the Persian Gulf, this conflict became known as the Persian Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War ended in a dramatic victory for the U.S.-led coalition in February 1991, when Iraqi troops were forced to withdraw from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting.

The United Nations (UN) agreement that officially ended the Persian Gulf War required Iraq to destroy or remove all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the decade after the war ended, however, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) consistently refused to meet the terms of this peace agreement. The international community tried a number of different approaches to persuade Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, including diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for violating international law), and military strikes. Finally, in early 2003 the United States launched a second war against Iraq, which became known as the Iraq War or Gulf War II. This military action, code named Operation Iraqi Freedom, succeeded in removing Hussein from power.

The early history of the Arab world

The roots of these two modern wars go back centuries, to the early history of the Arab world. The people known as Arabs live primarily in North Africa and the Middle East. They live in a number of different countries, from Sudan and Somalia in Africa to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq in the Middle East. The main factor connecting the Arabs in these different countries is that they all speak the Arabic language. Although some Arabic speakers use different dialects (local versions of a language), the written form of the language is the same across the Arab world. This common language creates a shared culture among Arabs and helps them feel like a single, united group.

Most Arabs are Muslims, meaning that they practice a religion known as Islam. Muslims worship one god, called Allah. They believe that Allah revealed himself to man through the Koran, a holy book written in Arabic. The prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) founded Islam and began spreading Allah's word in the year 622 c.e. (In Islam, a prophet is a man chosen by Allah to be his messenger to the world.) Over the next few centuries Muslims divided into two main branches, Sunni and Shiite. The two groups differ mainly over which prophets they consider the rightful successors to Muhammad. About 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis. Today the religion of Islam is practiced by roughly one billion people around the world. It is the principal religion in large parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

But not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The Arab world also includes some Christians who are considered Arabs because they speak Arabic. In addition, many people who practice the religion of Islam do not speak Arabic. Even some Muslim countries in the Middle East are not part of the Arab world. For example, two of Iraq's close neighbors, Turkey and Iran, are Muslim countries that are not considered Arab because most of their people speak a different language (Turkish and Persian, respectively).

Ancient Mesopotamia and the Ottoman Empire

The area of the Middle East that is now known as Iraq was the site of one of the world's first great civilizations. It was called Mesopotamia, which means "land between the rivers" in Greek, because it was located in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. By 2500 b.c.e. Mesopotamia was the center of political activity in the region. The city of Baghdad, situated on the banks of the Tigris River, was the heart of Mesopotamia. It was one of the world's great cities and eventually became the cultural center of Islam. (Baghdad now serves as the capital of modern Iraq.)

Around 1500 b.c.e. Mesopotamia came under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were non-Arab Turks who had adopted the religion of Islam. Based in Constantinople (which later became the city of Istanbul in Turkey), these invaders wanted to control the Arab world. Once they had conquered Mesopotamia, the Ottomans divided the region into three provinces based on the ethnic and religious differences of the people who lived there. The Mosul Province in the north was populated mostly by Kurds, a non-Arab people with their own distinct culture and traditions. The central Baghdad Province was controlled by Sunni Muslims, while the Basra Province in the south was held by Shiite Muslims. After seizing Mesopotamia, the Ottomans gradually expanded their rule over much of the Middle East. The rulers of the sheikhdom of Kuwait, the Sabah family, agreed to become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1871. (A sheikhdom is a small state ruled by a sheikh, or Arab chieftain.) The Ottomans then joined Kuwait to the Basra Province.

During the late 1800s Great Britain began taking an interest in the Middle East. The British Empire had expanded to include India, and British leaders saw valuable opportunities for trade in the Persian Gulf region to the west of India. At the same time, the power of the Ottoman Empire had begun to weaken. More and more countries under its control were beginning to press for independence. Kuwait's Sabah family formed a trade relationship with the British that grew into a formal alliance as the Ottomans lost their hold on the region. In 1899 Sheik Mubarak Sabah (1837–1915; ruled 1896–1915) signed an agreement that made Kuwait a protectorate (a dependent political unit) of Great Britain. In exchange, the British gave the Sabah family a large sum of money. The Ottomans never formally recognized the agreement, however, and continued to treat Kuwait as a semi-independent part of their empire.

European rule in the Middle East

When World War I (1914–18) broke out, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany against the Allied powers, which included Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the United States. After the Allies won the war in 1918, Great Britain and France largely divided the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves. By 1920 Turkey was the only territory that remained under Ottoman control. The British maintained control of Kuwait, which had sided with the Allies during the war. They also took charge of the areas that would become Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

In 1921 British leaders met with Middle Eastern leaders at the Cairo Conference in Egypt. The purpose of this meeting was to determine the boundaries of the new countries that would be formed in the areas under British control. The following year Great Britain sent a representative to Baghdad, High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox (1864–1937). Cox established the modern borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. He also installed leaders in these new countries who he believed would be loyal to Great Britain and support British interests.

Although they were not completely happy with Cox's decisions, the leaders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia accepted the new borders. But the leaders of Iraq were angered by the boundaries the British government had established for their country. One of their main complaints was that they had received only 36 miles (58 kilometers) of coastline on the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, this coastline did not feature a good location for a commercial port. Iraqi leaders felt that their limited access to the Persian Gulf would seriously affect their country's potential for trade.

Another major Iraqi complaint centered on the fact that the British had created the country by combining three former Ottoman provinces—Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. These provinces were home to different ethnic and religious groups that would not necessarily have chosen to live together under a single government. Some Iraqis felt that the British had created an "artificial state" without regard for the people who lived there.

Finally, Iraqi leaders pointed out that Kuwait had been a part of Basra Province under the Ottoman Empire. They argued that Kuwait should therefore be part of Iraq. They felt that the British had taken away land that lawfully belonged to them. The Iraqi interest in Kuwait was increased by the fact that Kuwait possessed a coastline that stretched 310 miles (499 kilometers) along the Persian Gulf.

The effects of European rule over the Middle East can still be felt today. Some Arabs resent the tiny Gulf sheikhdoms—such as Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates—that were created under British rule. They view these countries as artificial states that were created to serve European interests. They feel that the creation of these states unjustly divided the Arab world and led to political tensions across the region. In fact, some Arabs want to erase the national borders dividing the countries of the Middle East and unite the Arab world under a single government. Such feelings played a role in Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which in turn led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Iraq becomes an independent nation

Iraq gained its independence from British rule in 1932. Over the next few decades, Iraqi leaders made several attempts—both peaceful and forceful—to gain control of Kuwait. For example, Iraq's first ruler, King Faisal I (1885–1933; ruled 1921–33), proposed that Iraq be united with Kuwait shortly after Iraq became independent. But Kuwait was still a British protectorate at the time, and both the British government and Kuwait's ruling Sabah family rejected Faisal's idea.

In 1958 Iraq's monarchy was overthrown in a bloody military uprising. Three years later Kuwait declared its independence from British rule. As soon as British troops withdrew from Kuwait in 1961, however, Iraq's military ruler, General Abdul Karim Qassem (1914–1963; ruled 1958–63) again tried to claim Kuwait. Qassem sent troops to the Kuwaiti border, but he was forced to pull them back when the British military rushed back to defend Kuwait. The British troops that protected Kuwait from Iraqi invasion were eventually replaced by Arab League forces. Founded in 1945, the Arab League is an alliance of about twenty Arab nations that promotes political, military, and economic cooperation in the Arab world.

In 1963 Qassem's government was overthrown by the Baath Party. The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s to support the idea of reuniting the Arab world as one powerful nation. One of its members was a young revolutionary named Saddam Hussein, who would eventually become the president of Iraq. The Baath Party only held on to power for nine months before it was overthrown. But it returned to power in 1968, led by General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982; ruled 1968–79), Hussein's older cousin.

The new Iraqi government formally recognized Kuwait's independence in exchange for a payment of $85 million from the Kuwaiti government. But Bakr and his followers refused to settle on a specific border between Iraq and Kuwait. One factor in this ongoing border dispute was the South Rumaila oil field. This valuable oil reserve was squarely in the border region, and both countries wanted control over it. In 1973 Iraq once again marched its troops to the Kuwaiti border but withdrew under pressure from the Arab League. But this would not be the final time that Iraq threatened to take its smaller neighbor by force. In 1990 Iraq at last followed through on its threat.