Iraq Invades Kuwait

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Iraq Invades Kuwait

After months of political discussions and military buildup, Iraq launched its invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, at 2 AM The powerful Iraqi military successfully conquered its smaller neighbor in a matter of hours. Nations around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Iraq immediately withdraw its troops from Kuwait. Although Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) was surprised by the world's strong reaction, he refused to remove his forces and instead began threatening nearby Saudi Arabia. The United States and many other countries began sending troops into the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia and, if necessary, force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. This created a tense military standoff that lasted for six months before finally erupting into the Persian Gulf War.

Iraq invades Kuwait

When more than 100,000 highly trained Iraqi troops began pouring across the border into Kuwait on August 2, there was little doubt that they would achieve their goal of capturing the capital, Kuwait City. The tiny country of Kuwait was completely outmatched. Before the Persian Gulf War, Iraq had a land area of 170,000 square miles (440,000 square kilometers) and a population of around 18 million. Its army consisted of 1 million men and a variety of modern weapons and equipment. On the other hand, Kuwait had a land area of only 7,000 square miles (18,130 square kilometers, or about the size of the state of New Jersey) and a population of around 2 million. Less than 20,000 men were on active duty in the Kuwaiti army.

As the invasion began, columns of Iraqi tanks sped down the six-lane highway leading toward Kuwait City, located about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the Iraqi border. They met with almost no resistance along the way. Upon learning that the Iraqi army was approaching, the emir (ruler) of Kuwait, Prince Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, left the country by boat in the middle of the night. He fled to Saudi Arabia along with the heir to the throne, Prince Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, and the rest of Kuwait's royal family. The following morning, Prince Saad appeared on Saudi television to tell the world that Kuwait would fight until it regained its territory.

The taking of Kuwait City

By this time, however, the Iraqi forces were well on their way to capturing Kuwait City. Unlike the royal family, most Kuwaitis had no advance warning of the invasion. In fact, many only learned about it when they awoke to find Iraqi tanks rumbling through the streets. The early daylight hours of August 2 were a time of confusion and chaos in Kuwait City. Many residents reported hearing gunfire and explosions and seeing helicopters and military jets flying over-head. A U.S. Army officer happened to be staying at the Kuwait International Hotel that morning. "I looked out my window and saw flashes across the horizon," Major John F. Feeley Jr. recalled in The Persian Gulf War by Zachary Kent. "It was like lightning, except it was coming from the wrong direction. It was coming from the ground up."

Some Kuwaiti army units organized a limited response to the surprise attack, but they were quickly overrun by Iraq's invasion forces. A few Kuwaiti citizens also tried to fight back, but they too were brushed aside by Iraq's powerful army. As Iraqi troops approached the royal palace, the emir's brother, Sheik Fahd, and some of his personal guards stood on the steps with their pistols drawn and tried to prevent the Iraqis from entering. But Iraqi soldiers shot and killed them after a brief battle.

By midmorning the Iraqi forces had captured all of their main targets in Kuwait City. They had taken control of the royal palace, key government offices, the central bank where Kuwait's gold reserves were stored, and the Kuwaiti television and radio stations. The invasion had taken a total of seven hours. Hussein ordered thirty thousand troops to occupy Kuwait City. The remaining Iraqi forces continued moving south through Kuwait toward the border of Saudi Arabia.

The world responds

U.S. President George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) learned about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait shortly after it began from officials at the American embassy in Kuwait City. The U.S. government released a statement condemning the invasion and calling for the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Later in the day, Bush discussed the situation in a news conference and declared that there was "no place in today's world for this sort of naked aggression." British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–; served 1979–90), who happened to be visiting the United States at the time, also spoke out sternly against Iraq's actions. "If we let [the invasion] succeed no small country can ever feel safe again," she stated in Peter Cipkowski's Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. "The law of the jungle takes over."

One after another, countries around the world expressed their disapproval of the invasion. The leaders of Russia condemned the attack and called for the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty (freedom from external control). The Chinese government expressed its concern about the situation and encouraged both sides to find a peaceful solution. The European Community (an economic alliance of twelve European nations that later became known as the European Union) also issued a statement condemning the invasion.

The United Nations Security Council held a special meeting on August 2 to discuss the situation. Within the United Nations, the Security Council has the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Security Council consists of five permanent members—the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—and ten elected members that each serve two-year terms. At the special meeting the Security Council passed Resolution 660. This resolution officially condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, demanded the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces, and called for negotiations to settle the crisis. Fourteen of the fifteen Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, while the Middle Eastern country of Yemen abstained (did not vote).

Mixed feelings in the Middle East

While much of the world disapproved of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the reaction in the Middle East was mixed. Several Arab states immediately spoke out against the invasion, including Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon. But several countries in the Persian Gulf region remained silent or reacted cautiously. Some of these countries, like Saudi Arabia, were shocked by Iraq's actions and worried about what Hussein might do next. King Hussein (1935–1999; ruled 1953–99) of Jordan (no relation to Saddam Hussein) wanted the Arab nations of the Middle East to work together to resolve the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait, without the involvement of the United States and other Western powers (the noncommunist countries of Western Europe and North America).

Hussein's decision to invade Kuwait was quite popular among Iraqis. It also found support in some other Arab nations, such as Sudan and Yemen. The people of these countries tended to view Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as artificial states that were created to serve Western interests. They felt that the creation of these states in the 1920s, when the Persian Gulf area was under British rule, unfairly divided the Arab world and led to political tensions across the region. Furthermore, some Arabs resented Kuwait's close ties to the United States, which in turn was a strong supporter of their bitter enemy, Israel.

Israel had been created by the UN in 1948 as a homeland for all Jewish people. Its location in the Middle East was also the ancient homeland of an Arab people called the Palestinians. When Israel became a Jewish state, thousands of Palestinians fled and became refugees in Jordan and other neighboring countries. Some of these Palestinians formed a group called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The purpose of the PLO was to reclaim lost territory and found an independent Palestinian state. The PLO has often turned to acts of violence and terrorism in its struggle with Israel.

The Arab League—a political, economic, and military alliance of twenty Arab nations and the PLO—held a meeting to discuss the invasion of Kuwait. Fifteen members of the Arab League issued a joint statement calling for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. But Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and the PLO refused to sign the statement. While they did not necessarily support the invasion, they viewed it as an effort by Hussein to place Arab interests ahead of American and Israeli interests. A short time later, King Hussein of Jordan and PLO leader Yasir Arafat (1929–) went to Baghdad to meet with Hussein. They warned him to be cautious and presented peace plans aimed at avoiding U.S. military involvement.

Operation Desert Shield

The aim of avoiding U.S. involvement was useless, since the American military became involved within a week of the invasion. First Kuwait's ambassador to the UN, Sheik Saud Nasir al-Sabah, directly asked for U.S. military assistance to help free his country. Then, as Iraqi troops began to gather along the border of Saudi Arabia, that country's ruler, King Fahd (1923–; ruled 1982– ), agreed to allow American troops to enter Saudi Arabia and help defend it against a possible invasion.

On August 8, 1990, President Bush announced that he was sending U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia. He explained that his aims were to persuade Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, restore Kuwait's government to power, ensure the security of the Persian Gulf region, and protect American citizens in the area. "America does not seek conflict," Bush said, as quoted in the August 9, 1990, New York Times. "But America will stand by her friends." He gave the military buildup the code name Operation Desert Shield. It ended up being the largest deployment of American troops overseas since the Vietnam War (1955–75).

A number of other countries began sending troops to Saudi Arabia as well. The coalition (a temporary alliance of countries working toward a common goal) against Iraq eventually included thirty-one countries, nine of which were located in the Middle East (Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and United Arab Emirates). But some Arab leaders criticized the participation of Arab states in the coalition. For example, King Hussein of Jordan condemned Saudi Arabia's decision to allow Western military forces to be stationed in its territory. He claimed that the United States and its allies were only interested in protecting their oil supplies, rather than in helping the people of the Middle East.

In the meantime, the UN took other steps to punish Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. On August 6 the Security Council passed Resolution 661, which imposed economic sanctions (trade restrictions aimed at forcing a nation to obey international law) against Iraq. Eighteen countries voted in favor of the resolution, while Yemen and Cuba abstained. Following this resolution, countries around the world stopped trading with Iraq. They refused to buy oil from Iraq or to send it shipments of food, weapons, or other goods. These international actions forced Hussein to rely only on his own internal resources, which were strained from the war with Iran.

Hussein annexes Kuwait

Hussein was surprised by the strong negative response to his invasion of Kuwait. He had misread signals from U.S. government officials and convinced himself that the international community would not interfere. He never expected the countries of the world to come together against him. Hussein reacted angrily to the American military buildup in Saudi Arabia and to the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. At one point, according to The March to War by James Ridgeway, he promised to "pluck out the eyes of those who would attack the Arab nation." Hussein also said that the Iraqi people "would rather die in dignity than live in humiliation."

In the meantime, Iraq's occupying forces began organizing a new, pro-Iraqi government in Kuwait. They seized all the assets of the ruling Sabah family and announced that the emir no longer held any power in Kuwait. Then the Iraqis tried to find Kuwaiti citizens who would be willing to serve in a "transitional [temporary] free government." But the Kuwaitis realized that this government would not hold any real power. Instead, it would be a puppet administration for Hussein, doing whatever he told it to do. The Iraqis were unable to find any leading citizens willing to join the proposed government. The occupying forces later announced that they had formed a new government led by Kuwaiti officers and provided a list of names. But Kuwaiti diplomats outside the country told the world that the names all belonged to Iraqis.

On August 8 Hussein abandoned his attempt to form a transitional government in Kuwait. Instead he announced that Iraq was annexing (formally making it a part of Iraq) Kuwait. "Thank God that we are now one people, one state that will be the pride of the Arabs," Hussein stated, as quoted in The Persian Gulf War by Zachary Kent. But annexing Kuwait turned out to be a terrible mistake. It was the first annexation of an independent nation since Germany annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia during World War II (1939–45). It thus reminded many people of Germany's aggression under dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in that war. In addition, Iraq's annexation of Kuwait frightened many small countries around the world. If Hussein could simply take over his smaller neighbor, other powerful nations might do the same thing to them.

Hussein's annexation of Kuwait made it difficult for even his allies to defend him. On August 9 the United Nations Security Council unanimously (with the agreement of all) passed Resolution 662, which condemned the annexation and declared it null and void (refused to acknowledge it). The Arab League held an emergency meeting on August 10. Representatives from both Iraq and Kuwait attended the meeting. The Arab League also passed a resolution refusing to recognize Iraq's annexation of Kuwait. Twelve member states voted in favor of the resolution, while three voted against it and three abstained. The countries that had voted in favor of the resolution joined the coalition against Iraq and began sending troops to help protect Saudi Arabia.

Once again, Hussein was surprised by the strong international reaction. He was particularly upset at his Arab neighbors that had joined the U.S.-led coalition. He made an angry speech on Iraqi television in which he called on Arabs and Muslims everywhere to launch a jihad, or holy war, against the American invaders. His words generated public support in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan.

Hussein attempts to raise support

Over the next few days, Hussein took steps to increase his base of support in the Arab world. For example, Hussein knew that most Arabs supported the Palestinians in their efforts to reclaim lost territory from Israel. He also knew that many Arabs did not want the United States and other Western powers to decide issues in the Middle East. On August 12 he announced his own peace plan, which linked these popular ideas to his invasion of Kuwait. Hussein's plan called for American military forces to withdraw from Saudi Arabia and be replaced with Arab League forces. It also requested an end to the economic sanctions against Iraq. Finally, Hussein demanded that Israel withdraw from the Palestinian territories it occupied. In exchange, he offered to withdraw Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The proposal met with little interest.

A few days later, Hussein made peace with Iran, his neighbor to the north. Iraq and Iran had fought each other in an eight-year war that ended with a cease-fire in 1988. The two sides had never agreed on the terms of a peace treaty, and they continued to argue over territory that had changed hands during the war. Hussein finally agreed to terms that favored Iran to prevent it from joining the coalition against Iraq. Although Iran resumed diplomatic relations with its old enemy, it also promised to honor the UN's trade restrictions against Iraq.

Foreign citizens become "human shields"

At the time Iraq invaded Kuwait, thousands of foreign citizens were living and working in both countries. For example, there were 4,000 British citizens and 2,500 Americans in Kuwait when the invasion began. Many foreign-born workers managed to escape Iraq and Kuwait shortly after the invasion. But Iraqi military forces prevented many others from leaving, particularly Americans and Europeans. In addition, Iraqi troops captured a British Airways passenger jet that happened to land in Kuwait City on its way to India on the morning of August 2. They took all of the people onboard prisoner. During the first few weeks after the invasion, the safe release of these foreign citizens was the focus of many diplomatic efforts.

On August 18, however, Iraq announced that it would continue to serve as the "host" of the foreign citizens who had been trapped in Iraq and Kuwait at the time of the invasion. Furthermore, Iraqi officials said that they planned to use the foreigners as "human shields" to protect military and industrial targets from attack. Iraqi forces then moved thousands of American, British, and French citizens to Baghdad and other key locations in Iraq and Kuwait. The idea was to prevent the growing coalition forces from launching an attack against Iraq for fear of killing their own citizens. But the use of civilians (people not involved in a war, including women and children) as human shields only increased the international outrage directed at Hussein.

President Bush spoke out angrily against Iraq's treatment of foreigners. "We have been reluctant to use the word 'hostage,'" he was quoted as saying in The Persian Gulf War. "But when Saddam Hussein offers to trade the freedom of those citizens of many nations he holds against their will in return for concessions [agreeing to meet demands], there can be little doubt that ... they are, in fact, hostages." On August 18 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 664, which demanded the immediate release of all foreign citizens from Iraq and Kuwait.

On August 23 Hussein appeared on Iraqi television along with several of his Western hostages. The Iraqi president tried to appear friendly, even tousling the hair of one small boy. He also praised their bravery and thanked them for their role in maintaining peace. Once again, however, Hussein had miscalculated. This public appearance with his foreign prisoners created a huge outcry around the world.

At the same time, a number of well-known politicians and public figures from around the world—including American civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson (1941–), former boxer and Muslim peace activist Muhammad Ali (1942–), and former German chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Willy Brandt (1913–1992)—traveled to Baghdad to try to win the freedom of their countrymen. Hussein eventually agreed to release some of the women and children he had been holding, but he continued to use the men as human shields.

Iraq's brutal occupation of Kuwait

During the weeks following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi armed forces treated the Kuwaitis terribly. As the world criticized Hussein and sent military assistance to Saudi Arabia, thousands of people in Kuwait were arrested, tortured, and killed. Iraqi soldiers randomly took civilians off the streets of Kuwait City and held them for questioning. Anyone who was suspected of resisting Iraqi rule was executed. For example, twenty-one Kuwait University professors were murdered for refusing to replace a portrait of the emir of Kuwait with one of Hussein. Many witnesses reported that the Iraqi forces set up "torture centers" to frighten and extract information from the Kuwaiti people. Initial reports also claimed that Iraqi soldiers strolled into hospitals and disconnected the incubators that were supporting premature babies. However, this claim was later retracted.

The Iraqi troops also did a great deal of physical damage to Kuwaiti property during the occupation. For example, they broke into thousands of private homes and businesses and stole everything of value, including computers, generators, hospital equipment, televisions, clothing, jewelry, and food. Many of these goods were shipped back to Iraq. They also broke into a Kuwaiti art museum and either stole or destroyed a valuable collection of Islamic art. Iraqi soldiers even broke into the Kuwaiti National Zoo. They sent some of the more valuable animals back to Baghdad and used others for target practice or for food.

In the face of such terror and destruction, more than 1.5 million people fled the region during the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War. Many of the people who escaped were foreign-born workers from Egypt, India, and Asia. Most made their way to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The International Red Cross, an organization that helps victims of war, set up camps in Jordan to provide food and shelter for roughly 750,000 refugees.

Some Kuwaiti citizens formed a secret resistance movement to fight the Iraqi occupation. Some resistance fighters hung anti-Iraqi banners from high buildings in Kuwait City. Others used tactics of guerrilla warfare against the Iraqis. For example, Kuwaiti guerrillas launched attacks against the Iraqi embassy in Kuwait City and claimed to have shot down several Iraqi helicopters. Overall, though, the Kuwaiti resistance had little effect on the Iraqi military. In fact, some people claimed that it only made the Iraqi forces behave more brutally toward Kuwaitis. If Kuwait hoped to be free of Iraq's occupation, the tiny nation would need outside help.