Gulf Wars

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The two Gulf Wars, the latter often called the Iraq War, may be seen as a single conflict involving two periods of major combat, in January–February 1991 and March–April 2003, separated by a twelve-year strategic pause (which in turn was punctuated by several sharp air campaigns). The Gulf War resulted from the invasion (2 August 1990) of Kuwait by Iraq, which led to United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions 660, demanding immediate Iraqi withdrawal, and 678, authorizing member states to use "all necessary means" to force Iraqi compliance, both of which were rejected by the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Iraq had long had an irredentist claim on Kuwait stemming back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, at which time the southern region of Iraq around Basra and what is now Kuwait both belonged to the same province. The deep cause of the invasion, however, was the exhaustion of Iraq at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), which saddled it with a debt of $80 billion, at least $10 billion of which was owed to Kuwait. The only way for Iraq to pay its debt and rebuild its economic infrastructure was by exporting oil—of which Kuwait had a great deal. Kuwait consistently failed to observe OPEC's production quotas designed to restrict the supply of oil and thereby keep the price high, at a time when Iraq desperately needed to extract the highest price possible. This, combined with the refusal of the Gulf monarchies to cancel Iraq's debt, soured Iraq's relations with these states, particularly as Saddam earnestly felt that he had protected countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from revolutionary Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iraq's invasion invoked a furious international response. It caused strategic alarm in the West, where it was feared that the Iraqi forces that swept through Kuwait in a few days might carry on into Saudi Arabia, leaving Saddam in control of much of the world's oil reserves. It was, moreover, such a blatant breach of the norm of state sovereignty that condemnation was general in the United Nations. President George H. W. Bush captured the spirit of the time in saying, in his 1991 State of the Union address, that what was at stake was "more than one small country: it is a New World Order—where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind."

A U.S.-led coalition of thirty-four countries was formed between early September and 20 November 1990 when UN Resolution 678 was passed. Britain, which was traditionally prepared to meet challenges to international order with force, had a long imperial connection to the region, and saw an opportunity to reassert the Anglo-American "special relationship," strongly supported the war. As John Sullivan, writing in The Independent (2 September 1990) quipped, "For the British … intervening east of Suez is like riding a bike: you never lose the knack." France's initial position was more equivocal, having been an ally of Iraq, around a quarter of whose military equipment it had supplied, and desirous of an approach to the region independent of the United States. As Saddam's intransigence grew, however, President François Mitterrand considerably stepped up France's military contribution. Within the Middle East all states supported the Coalition except Jordan, which sought a middle position. The stakes were highest for the Saudi monarchy, whose survival depended on a swift end to the war. Without Western help it could not resist invasion, but the deployment of non-Muslim troops in the heartland of Islam was domestically inflammatory. Iran put aside its hatred of the United States, portraying the war positively as an effort to "safeguard Arabia in the face of Iraqi threats" (Tehran Radio, 8 August 1990, quoted in Freedman and Karsh, 1993, p. 109).

Ultimately thirty-four states contributed about 700,000 troops to the Coalition, the largest being the 500,000-strong U.S. contingent supported by 45,000 British, 14,600 French, 100,000 Saudi, 33,000 Egyptian, and 15,000 Syrian troops. Iraq had roughly half this number of troops, the bulk of those being low-quality infantry divisions in static defensive positions on the Saudi border and a few armored divisions as a tactical reserve in central Kuwait, while the better-trained and -equipped Republican Guard divisions were deployed mostly in southern Iraq.

Operation Desert Storm began on 17 January 1991 with a forty-three-day air campaign of almost 100,000 sorties targeting first the Iraqi air defense network, command and control network, and other infrastructure, and later concentrating on degrading Iraqi ground forces directly. Iraq had only one strategic response: attack the Coalition's weak point—the alignment of Islamic states with infidels against other Muslims—by attacking Israel with ballistic missiles with the aim of enticing it to retaliate and thereby fracture the Coalition. The plan failed as Israel was dissuaded from retaliating by U.S. political pressure and by a determined Coalition effort to destroy Iraq's missile launchers.

The ground campaign began on 24 February 1991 with attacks by U.S. Marines and Saudi forces directly into Kuwait in the south, which fixed the attention of the Iraqi command. Meanwhile, to the west the main Coalition forces consisting of U.S. Army units backed by British and French forces swung wide of Kuwait striking directly at the Republican Guard divisions in southern Iraq. The Iraqi collapse was swift. Conscript infantry surrendered in large numbers as Coalition forces overran their forward positions. Kuwait City was liberated on 26 February. By the morning of 27 February the Iraqi military had lost 3,700 tanks, 2,400 armored personnel carriers, and 2,700 artillery pieces. Estimates of Iraqi military dead range from 50,000 to 100,000. Coalition deaths amounted to less than five hundred—approximately half of those being noncombat deaths.

On 3 April 1991 the war's end was marked by the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 687 by which Iraq was obliged to accept not only the inviolability of its border with Kuwait but also, under international supervision, "the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless" of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and facilities. Compliance was to be enforced by sanctions and by the threat of renewed use of force. Overall, the strategy was to deal with Iraq by providing Saddam's subordinates incentives to depose him (it was assumed that many in his regime were eager to get rid of him) and if that could not be achieved then by containment. In actuality Saddam retained enough military power—the Republican Guard divisions in southern Iraq had escaped destruction in the ground campaign—to crush the major uprisings against him.

Instead of acceding to Resolution 687, Iraq resisted all the way. Attempts by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to root out and destroy Iraq's WMD were consistently obstructed (despite which UNSCOM made a good deal of progress, a fact conclusively revealed after the 2003 Iraq War). But questions remained, particularly about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stockpile, which came to a head with Iraq's refusal to allow UNSCOM the right to inspect, at any time, any site where it suspected WMD facilities might be hidden. The crisis made apparent divisions within the Security Council: France, Russia, and China took a view, contrary to Britain and the United States, that inspections and sanctions had been taken as far as they could go and should be ended. The United States and Britain alone launched Operation Desert Fox in December 1998—air and missile strikes designed to "degrade" Iraq's WMD capabilities—but the inspections regime had effectively ended. Meanwhile the sanctions regime was subverted by smuggling and corruption, losing any coercive effect while simultaneously allowing Saddam the propaganda gift of blaming others for the steady impoverishment of Iraq's people.

The result was stalemate. Iraq could not be rehabilitated internationally while Saddam still ruled. Yet there was no will to take direct action against him. In 1991 when Saddam exclaimed, "O Iraqis, you triumphed when you stood with all this vigor against the armies of thirty countries …" the response was derision. In 2003 when he said, "In 1991 Iraq was not defeated. In fact, our army withdrew from Kuwait according to a decision taken by us," many people in the Middle East were inclined to agree.

Initially President George W. Bush looked set to continue the policies of his predecessor Bill Clinton. There was talk of reviving the sanctions regime—a policy on "smart" sanctions was agreed to by the Security Council in November 2000—but on regime change in Iraq the Bush administration was decidedly noncommittal. The turning point was the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, which prompted a reshaping of U.S. national security thinking. The United States' resolve to solve the problem of Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly animated by long-standing mutual antagonism, but underlying this was a genuine—albeit hypothetical—fear of the malign combination of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and rogue states. Since Saddam had never encouraged the idea that Iraq was in compliance with Resolution 687 (quite the opposite; the maintenance of the myth of him as a great leader depended on resolute defiance of any consequence of defeat in 1991), WMD provided the pretext for the Iraq War. The diplomatic brawl over this issue appeared to have been resolved with the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 (8 November 2002), which found Iraq in "material breach" of its obligations under Resolution 687 and threatened "serious consequences" should that not be rectified. But it recommenced bitterly in January 2003 when it became clear that the quest for an even more explicit authorization for war was bound to fail. On the one side, Britain under Prime Minister Tony Blair—for whom WMD was not a pretext but the actual issue—strongly backed the threat of use of force (to his political detriment domestically). On the other side, France and Germany ferociously opposed it, accusing the United States of arrogant unilateralism. Undoubtedly their opposition was based in part on pecuniary commercial interests in Iraq, anti-Americanism, and, in the case of Germany especially, antimilitarism, but it also reflected the mood of much of the European public, including Britain's.

Although Iraq was on bad terms with all of its neighbors—Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—none were really happy about the war. Iran under the rule of the ayatollahs remained implacably anti-Western. The Saudi monarchy feared it would provoke an anti-Western backlash domestically that could cause its downfall. Syria, accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism, was hostile. Jordan, though its leadership was pro-Western, was popularly pro-Saddam. Turkey, officially secular and a member of NATO, was also captured by the mood of opposition to the Coalition that had swept the Islamic world. All except Kuwait rejected the use of their territory for staging facilities for the invasion.

The war began in the early hours of 20 March 2003 with a sharp air and missile attack on targets in Baghdad aimed at decapitating the regime, which failed. The next day ground forces comprising three groups launched attacks on Iraq northward from Kuwait. The U.S. Army V Corps advanced west of the Euphrates River before turning northeast to attack Baghdad. The U.S. First Marine Expeditionary Force advanced between the Euphrates and Tigris. The British First Armoured Division focused on Iraq's second city, the port city of Basra, and surrounding areas. Iraqi resistance was extremely weak, despite some pockets of hard fighting at An Nasiriyah (23–24 March), Najaf (25–28 March), around Basra until 6 April when it was captured, and in and around Baghdad from 1 to 9 April when the regime effectively ceased to exist. At a cost of fewer than one hundred Coalition casualties Iraq's army, numerically superior to the attacking force and entrenched in defensive positions on its own soil, was utterly routed in less than half the time and with less than a third of the troops it took to win the Gulf War in 1991—the previous historical benchmark of lopsided military victories. The Coalition forces were ably led, well trained, and for the most part superbly equipped professional soldiers with high morale. The Iraqi forces were poorly led, ill trained, and badly equipped; they could perhaps have exploited more of the advantages that naturally accrue to the defender in war, but that would not have changed the outcome significantly.

The aftermath of the conventional war was a far more significant challenge for the Coalition. The achievement of the March–April 2003 campaign to oust Saddam must be balanced against the feeble performance of the occupation. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Iraq became a magnet for Islamic militancy, which exacerbated the domestic insurgency. In 2005 it remained to be seen whether the slow and painful transition of Iraq to a stable democracy would catalyze democratic change elsewhere in the Middle East as the architects of the war hoped. The alternative—bloody civil war—could destabilize the entire region and the entire world. The Gulf Wars provided perhaps the greatest and most divisive international crises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

See alsoAl Qaeda; Anti-Americanism; Islamic Terrorism; United Nations and Europe.


Cornish, Paul, ed. The Conflict in Iraq 2003. Houndmills, U.K., 2004.

Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf Conflict 1990–1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order. London, 1993.

Gordon, Michael R., and Bernard E. Trainor. The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf. Boston, 1995.

Williamson, Murray, and Robert H. Scales Jr. The Iraq War: A Military History. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

David J. Betz