Gulf Crisis (1990–1991)

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GULF CRISIS (19901991)

A critical international situation that began on 2 August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and that officially ended on 28 February 1991, after a U.S.-led military coalition defeated Iraq and liberated Kuwait.

The reasons for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait were primarily financial and geopolitical. Iraq emerged from the 19801988 IranIraq War financially exhausted, with a debt of about $80 billion. Its president, Saddam Hussein, tried to service the debtand fund Iraq's high-technology defense industry, reconstruction, and food importswith oil revenue. But oil prices fell between January and June 1990 from $20 to $14 a barrel. Saddam Hussein charged, with merit, that Kuwait and the United Arab Emi-rates had exceeded their Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quotas, therefore keeping the price of oil low. He claimed that overproduction was encouraged by the United States in order to weaken Iraq, and he considered the Kuwaiti action an act of war. He demanded that the price of a barrel of oil be raised to US$25, that Kuwait "forgive" $10 billion in debt incurred during his war with Iran and pay $2.4 billion for Iraqi oil it "illegally" pumped from the Rumayla oil field (the southern tip of which is under Kuwait), and that the Gulf states give Iraq financial aid amounting to $30 billion. Saddam Hussein based these demands on the claim that Iraq's war with Iran and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives protected the Gulf states from revolutionary Iran.

Saddam Hussein also wanted to lease two uninhabited islands, Warba and Bubiyan, to provide Iraq secure access to the Persian/Arabian Gulf and as possible bases for a blue-water navy. Kuwait was reluctant to negotiate with Iraq, a country of seventeen million with vast potential, because Bubiyan was very close to Kuwait City and because of concerns that the demand was a precursor to Iraqi claims to disputed border territories and, indeed, to all of Kuwait, which Iraq historically considered a part of itself. Kuwait's reluctance to negotiate and its continuing demand for loan repayment were seen as arrogant by Saddam Hussein and shortsighted by others in the region.

Paradoxically, the end of the IranIraq War had left Iraq militarily strong, strong enough to aspire to leadership of the Arab world. Iraq had 1 million experienced soldiers, 500 planes and 5,500 tanks, and was developing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Officials in the West and Israel voiced alarm, and Western media criticism of human rights violations, especially against the Kurds in Iraq, made Saddam Hussein suspicious. Fearing an action similar to Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, he issued a sensational threat on 2 April 1990 to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons if it should

attack Iraq. The threat produced an outpouring of support throughout the Arab world, where he was viewed as a blood-and-guts Arab Bismarck ready to take on Israel, which had annexed Jerusalem and the Golan, had invaded Lebanon, had bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunis, and since 1987, had been suppressing a civilian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, all without an Arab response. By August Saddam Hussein had used a potent mixture of themesWestern imperialism, Arab impotence, the Palestinian cause, and Islam (later, the poor against the rich)to tap Arab anger and alienation and to rally the Arab masses.

On the eve of the invasion, the United States gave Saddam Hussein mixed signals. On 25 July, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie assured him that U.S. President George H. W. Bush wanted better relations with Iraq and that the United States had no opinion on "ArabArab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait," but she cautioned him against the use of force. There is no evidence that the United States deliberately misled him, but Saddam Hussein ignored a fundamental element of U.S. foreign policy: Oil is a vital U.S. interest, one for which it would go to war.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, to the surprise of most observers. His army occupied the country in a few hours with little resistance, killing hundreds of Kuwaitis and jailing and torturing hundreds more. Soldiers looted schools and hospitals of their equipment and banks of their deposits and bullion.

At the government level, Arab reaction split into two camps. The anti-Iraq group consisted of the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman), as well as Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Djibouti, and Somalia. The neutral or pro-Iraq group included Jordan, the PLO, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania. The split was reflected in the first voting at a 3 August Arab League meeting of foreign ministers, the majority of whom voted to condemn both Iraqi aggression and foreign intervention. With each passing day, the crisis slipped from Arab League hands, becoming an international confrontation between Iraq and a U.S.-led coalition of twenty-eight countries.

President Bush moved swiftly to galvanize opposition to Iraq. The United Nations (UN) Security Council condemned the invasion on 2 Augustthe day it occurredand demanded Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal. During the following few days, the Soviet Union and the Islamic Conference Organization joined in the condemnation, and the UN placed economic sanctions on Iraq. Most significant was Saudi Arabia's agreement on 6 August to allow U.S. troops and aircraft on its soil, under the code name Operation Desert Shield, after being shown U.S. satellite photographs of Iraqi troops close to Saudi borders. On 8 August Saddam Hussein formally annexed Kuwait, and the UN reacted by declaring the annexation "null and void." On 10 August the Arab League summit passed resolutions authorizing the use of foreign troops to reverse the annexation. Thus, most nations, willingly or under U.S. pressure, condemned the invasion and demanded Iraq's withdrawal.

Saddam Hussein's response on 12 August was to link the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank (including Jerusalem) and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. The linkage idea generated support in the Arab world, particularly among Palestinians and their organization, the PLO.

The United States rejected linkage, insisting on unconditional withdrawal and on denying Saddam Hussein any fruits of his invasion. Nevertheless, Bush declared on 1 October at the UN that an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait might provide an opportunity "to settle the conflicts that divide the Arabs from Israel." Despite numerous diplomatic missions by world leaders, Saddam Hussein remained intransigent. In November the United States declared that it would double its troop strength in the Gulf from about 200,000 to 400,000an action that guaranteed an offensive military optionand the UN authorized the use of force to liberate Kuwait. Bush gave Saddam Hussein until 15 January 1991 to vacate Kuwait. When he did not, U.S. and allied forces began air attacks on 16 January on Iraq and on Iraqi positions in Kuwait under the code name Operation Desert Storm. Some of the air strikes were conducted from Turkey, which had supported the coalition, even though most Turks were against a military confrontation with Iraq. Iraq in turn fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, damaging hundreds of buildings and killing several people. Israel uncharacteristically did not retaliate, in deference to U.S. concerns that Israeli involvement in the war would risk the continued cooperation of the Arab partners in the coalition. Instead, the United States sent the Patriot antimissile system to Israel to intercept the Scuds, and a number of nations compensated Israel for the damage. Iraq also fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, and Iraqi troops crossed its borders in late January. In an attempt to break out of its isolation, Iraq offered Iran major concessions regarding the Shatt al-Arab waterway, but fearing Saddam Hussein's ambition, Iran stayed neutral throughout the crisis, even though it exchanged prisoners with Iraq and gave sanctuary to 122 Iraqi combat aircraft.

After another ultimatum from Bush and a number of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts, the coalition launched ground forces into Iraq on 23 February, led by U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf. Kuwait was liberated four days later, and Iraq, after accepting the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, agreed to a cease-fire on 28 February, but not before setting fire to some 600 or 700 Kuwaiti oil wells.

The Gulf crisis, including the war, had enormous consequences for the region. Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed. Middle East Watch charged that the United States and its allies may have deliberately targeted the infrastructure, costing $200 billion according to an Iraqi estimate, and, in addition, may have bombed civilian residences to encourage Saddam's overthrow, even though such actions are in violation of international law. Neither the United States nor Iraq have been forthcoming about Iraq's casualties, which numbered in the tens of thousands.

Kuwait, of course, suffered the ravages of invasion, occupation, and war. Hundreds of Kuwaitis were killed and tortured. The looting, destruction, sabotage, and liberation cost $65 billion, with another $25 billion earmarked for reconstruction. Kuwaitis exacted revenge on the thriving community of about 350,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, some of whom had publicly supported the Iraq army. (Others, however, had fought with the Kuwaiti resistance, while most had gone about their daily life.) After liberation, hundreds of Palestinians were tortured and killed. The community lost $8 billion and was reduced to about 30,000, most of the remainder having resettled in Jordan.

The Gulf crisis produced political divisionsespecially involving Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Iraq, Jordan, and the PLO, on the otherbetween not just the governments but also the peoples of the Arab world. These divisions will take a long time to heal.

See also bubiyan island; bush, george herbert walker; hussein, saddam; iraniraq war (19801988); iraq; kuwait; league of arab states; organization of petroleum exporting countries (opec); palestine liberation organization; persian (arabian) gulf; shatt al-arab.


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Ibrahim, Ibrahim, ed. The Gulf Crisis: Background and Consequences. Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1992.

Khalidi, Walid. The Gulf Crisis: Origins and Consequences. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1991.

Marr, Phebe. "Iraq's Uncertain Future." Current History 90, no. 552 (January 1991): 14, 3942.

Mattar, Philip. "The PLO and the Gulf Crisis." Middle East Journal 48, no. 1 (Winter 1994): 3146.

Salinger, Pierre, and Laurent, Eric. Secret Dossier: The Hidden Agenda behind the Gulf War, translated by Howard Curtis. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Sifry, Micah L., and Cerf, Christopher, eds. The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books, 1991.

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Gulf Crisis (1990–1991)

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