The Gulf Wars

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The Gulf Wars

Of the many conflicts that have divided the Middle East since 1918, two have received the bulk of public attention in the West (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). The first is the long-standing conflict between Jews and Arabs over control of the land that is now Israel and the Occupied Territories, known as the Arab-Israeli or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second was the clash between Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and a coalition of nations led by the United States. In two separate Gulf Wars, one in 1991 and another in 2003, U.S.-led forces clashed with Iraq's army, first to restore the nation of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in a dispute over land and oil reserves, and second over Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons), which posed a threat to the region and violated the terms of the ceasefire agreed to in 1991. These two Gulf Wars reveal several of the long-standing tensions existing in the Middle East in the early twenty-first century.

Controlling the flow of oil

Events in the late 1980s began nearly two decades of international intervention and conflict in the Middle East. After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 (a war between Iraq and Iran that began in 1980 in a dispute over territory, oil reserves, and dominance in the region), both Iraq and Iran turned to repairing their economies, which had suffered during wartime. To pay their debts and begin reconstruction of areas affected by the war, both began vigorous oil production, but soon slowed when they learned that oil prices were only going lower due to overproduction. At that time, the oil market was shared by about a dozen oil-producing countries, many in the Middle East, and all of which guarded their portion of that profitable market carefully. Throughout the 1980s oil-producing countries argued with one another over how to control the price of oil and over the amount of oil each country could produce. Agreements between these countries had periodically forced an increase in oil prices for consumers, but by 1990 the price of oil had dropped, threatening the economies of oil-producing countries as less money came in from oil sales.

As it tried to recover from its eight-year war with Iran, Iraq was especially dependent on oil revenue. It rose to claim a dominant role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an organization formed in the 1960s by the world's major oil-producing nations to coordinate policies and ensure stable oil prices in world markets. Saudi Arabia, which had acted as the leader among OPEC nations in the 1970s and 1980s, had long served as the organization's overseer, limiting its own production to keep oil prices steady regardless of overproduction of oil by other nations. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Saudi Arabia had grown tired of the overproduction by some OPEC members and announced that it would no longer abide by production limits. Without Saudi limits on production, the market was flooded with oil, and prices dropped. At this time, Iraq emerged as a strong voice for limited production and high oil prices.

Iraq—a country that had been overproducing oil throughout the early 1980s to support its war efforts—grew angry at countries in the late 1980s that were overproducing oil and driving prices down. Several countries finally agreed to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's proposed limits on oil production. Saudi Arabia signed a nonaggression pact with Iraq in 1989, agreeing to these limits. Saudi Arabia hoped that this measure would focus Iraq's attention on its rebuilding and decrease problems from overproduction. Neighboring Kuwait tried to establish a similar agreement with Iraq the following year, but Hussein demanded that Kuwait first meet several conditions, and Kuwait refused. Hussein grew increasingly angry, and, speaking of Kuwait specifically, he threatened in 1990 to attack nations that did not abide by the oil production limits set by OPEC. But Iraq's public aggression against Kuwait was not limited to oil; larger financial issues connected with the Iran-Iraq War also contributed.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had allied themselves with Iraq and loaned their neighbor billions of dollars. After 1988 Iraq was expected to repay its loans. Iraq tried to negotiate a reduction in the amount it owed to Kuwait, but Kuwait declined. In addition, Kuwait refused to agree to an oil price increase among OPEC nations and continued pumping fuel from the Rumaila oil field, a large oil field that Kuwait shared with Iraq. To add to the tensions, Iraq accused Kuwait of using slant-drilling techniques, which allowed Kuwait to drain oil from Iraq's portion of the Rumaila field.

Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia proved to be roadblocks in Hussein's attempts to gain more control over the Middle East. Hussein had long harbored hopes that he could be the leader of a united Arab world, yet countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which were both led by monarchs who lived upperclass lifestyles, made possible by their nation's large oil revenues, often refused to take part in many programs proposed by the Arab League or by Iraq. In addition, these oil-rich nations also often had cooperative relationships with the West, especially to the United States. According to Daniel C. Diller in The Middle East, "No one symbolized those rich elites better than the ruling families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia." Hussein hoped to take advantage of popular opposition to the wealthy members of the population in these countries in order to gain power for himself in the region. Hussein had been allied with the West during the Iran-Iraq War, but with his continued harassment of Kuwait he distanced himself from the West, redefining himself as a leader among Arabs. By criticizing the upper-class population in Arab countries in the Middle East for lowering oil prices due to overproduction, Hussein hoped to gain support for himself among the masses of poorer Arabs.

The first Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm

The tense relationship between Kuwait and Iraq would lead to the start of the first Gulf War. In the weeks before the war began, Hussein increased his public, verbal accusations against Kuwait in an attempt to get Kuwaiti leaders to agree to limited oil production and higher oil prices. In his speeches Hussein highlighted Kuwait's alliances with the West, and the United States and Israel in particular, maintaining that overproduction of oil among Arab nations was "inspired by America to undermine Arab interests and security," according to Diller. On July 17, 1990, Hussein threatened Kuwait with an attack, saying that Iraq would "not forget the maxim that cutting necks is better than cutting the means of living," according to Don Nardo in The Persian Gulf War, by which he hoped to gain public support by being seen as more concerned about the wellbeing of the Kuwaiti people than were that nation's rulers. Days later Hussein began to amass thousands of troops along Iraq's border with Kuwait.

The OPEC nations finally agreed to lower oil prices on July 26, 1990, but Hussein remained convinced that gaining control of Kuwait would enhance his position in the Arab world. By controlling Kuwait, Hussein reasoned that he could ease his country's debt, have a stronger voice in OPEC decisions, and increase Iraqi access to important trading ports along an expanded coastline with the Persian Gulf.

Iraqi claims to the land of Kuwait were not new. For many years before and during the rule of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), Kuwait and Iraq had been part of a united region. But Kuwaiti tribes had broken their allegiance with the Ottoman rulers at the beginning of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), and were protected by Britain until gaining their independence in 1961. Iraq had periodically claimed that Kuwait was rightfully a part of Iraq in the years leading up to the first Gulf War, but Britain and other Western nations had always intervened to put a stop to any Iraqi aggression. Hussein exploited Iraqi suspicions that the West had usurped, or taken, a portion of their land by supporting Kuwait as a separate nation.

Iraqi strike

Deploying 140,000 ground troops, 1,500 tanks, and fighter jets and bombers, Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Within four hours Iraqi troops had captured Kuwait City, the capital of Kuwait. Later that same day the United Nations called for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq refused, declaring instead that it was annexing, or taking possession of, Kuwait. On August 6, 1990, the United Nations passed Resolution 661, which imposed a trade and financial embargo, or ban, on Iraq. The embargo froze Iraq's financial assets held in foreign banks, essentially cutting Iraq off from the world markets by prohibiting the sale of its oil or the import of goods. Many in the international community hoped that without access to trade, Iraq would soon give up its fight and leave Kuwait. While Iraq was unable to profit from trade or use its cash reserves to import needed supplies, the United Nations administered an aid program to deliver food and medicine to the Iraqi population in an attempt to ease the suffering that resulted from the embargo.

Iraq's attack on Kuwait immediately drew the attention of the United States. Though it had been an ally of Iraq during its war with Iran and still considered Iran a major threat, the United States feared that Hussein's aggression might threaten U.S. oil supplies and other strategic interests in the region. U.S. president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–1993) quickly pulled together a coalition, or alliance, of more than thirty countries to challenge Iraq's advances. The coalition included support from several Middle Eastern nations. Bush explained the intentions of U.S. involvement as "preserving oil supplies, containing Iraq's program to develop nuclear weapons, supporting the security of Israel, and maintaining the credibility of America as the sole remaining world military power," as summarized by Peter Huchthausen in America's Splendid Little Wars. Saudi Arabia, which feared that Iraq's quick seizure of Kuwait meant that it would next target Saudi Arabian soil, requested a U.S.-led coalition to protect it from Iraq.

To guard against an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, and in order to force the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, the United States worked closely with the United Nations and relied on a military coalition of about thirty nations, with an additional eighteen countries supplying economic, humanitarian, and other assistance. Supporters of this effort, called Operation Desert Shield, included Arab, Asian, and European nations.

Coalition attacks

Even though the United Nations sanctions had cut Iraq off from nearly 90 percent of its imports by November, Iraq gave no signs of withdrawing from Kuwait. The United Nations issued an ultimatum, or a final statement of warning, on November 29: if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, the coalition forces would remove Iraq from the country by force. Iraq did not withdraw, and on January 16, 1991, the offensive campaign called Desert Storm began. Coalition bombers, armed helicopters, and gunships in the Persian Gulf hit Iraqi and Kuwaiti targets with bombs and cruise missiles for forty-three days. In addition to strategic strikes against such targets as the Iraqi nuclear weapons plant and Iraqi government buildings in Baghdad, Huchthausen reported that "during the Gulf War, 2,780 coalition aircraft, 75 percent of which came from the United States, flew more than twenty-three thousand sorties [armed attacks] against Iraqi ground forces, who proved to be a predictable enemy on open terrain. The results were devastating to Iraq."

In hopes of breaking Arab support away from the United Nations coalition, Hussein directed the Iraqi army to launch missiles into Israel, a longtime foe of many Arab nations in the region. If Israel returned fire, Hussein reasoned, it would be difficult for many Arab nations to remain loyal to the Western-led coalition. In the past, Arab nations' often banded together to try to destroy Israel, and Hussein believed that many would not continue to fight Iraq, an Arab country, if it was being attacked by Israel. Mindful of this possibility, the United Nations persuaded Israel to let the coalition forces protect it. Israel did not return fire, and the coalition remained dominant until the war's end.

On February 24, 1991, the coalition began a ground campaign, and coalition troops forced the retreat of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Within one hundred hours, Iraq was defeated. On February 27, President Bush announced the coalition's victory, the liberation of Kuwait, and a ceasefire. The war had claimed the lives of 240 coalition soldiers and an estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers (although Iraq officially claimed a loss of 20,000). But as a result of the war, many thousands of Iraqi and Kuwaiti citizens became refugees. Peter Cipkowski wrote in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf that the war triggered "what is now regarded as one of history's largest, fastest, and most widespread migrations." He reported that during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait nearly 1.5 million people fled Iraq and Kuwait for other Arab nations in the Gulf; another 65,000 left during the United Nations' coalition attacks; and another two million people left Iraq after the war's end, when fighting between Hussein's loyal troops and revolting Shiites (a branch of Islam that believed that only the direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad could be the leaders of the religion) broke out in the south in March 1991.

Aftermath: a decade of tension

The end of the Gulf War restored the contested territory between Iraq and Kuwait to its prewar state. Kuwait maintained its original borders, restored its monarchy, and began the lengthy process of repairing the devastation of its cities and oil production capabilities. Saddam Hussein remained in charge of Iraq, with command over a formidable military. Iraq, however, remained cut off from trade due to United Nations' sanctions, and its industry and infrastructure were severely damaged, Hussein's governmental laws became more strict, destroying any opposition to his rule and doing everything possible to suppress internal conflict.

Many in the international community saw the first Gulf War as the true end to the Cold War (1945–91; a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union for control over international politics based on economic and military superiority). With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Middle East was no longer a region contested by the world's superpowers. The United States, with its command of the United Nations' coalition forces, had clearly emerged as the world's lone superpower. However, the United Nations' coalition had declined to remove Saddam Hussein from power, one of the goals of the United States during the first Gulf War. Many in the international community felt it was wrong to remove Hussein from power and assumed that Iraq would eventually have a revolution in which the Shiite majority would take over. Hussein, however, remained in power for the next decade, and the tensions between Iraq and the United States would continue to grow during this time.

The second Gulf War

In the years following the first Gulf War, Hussein made it difficult for United Nations' officials to implement all of the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. The main issue was whether or not Iraq continued to possess weapons of mass destruction. During the mid-1990s the Iraqi government often refused to allow United Nations' weapons inspectors access to all requested areas within the country to search for these weapons. Under the terms of the ceasefire the United Nations' was to confirm that Iraq had destroyed its weapons of mass destruction and no longer had the capability to manufacture them. The international community tried many tactics during the mid-1990s to try to force Iraq to comply with United Nations' weapons inspectors's demands, including bombing raids against Iraq by the United States, Britain, and France, but this did little to sway the Iraqi government or Hussein and only continued to destroy the country's infrastructure (roads, bridges, water pipes, and power lines). While refusing to grant weapons inspectors complete access to Iraqi facilities, Hussein insisted that all weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them had been destroyed.

The election of George W. Bush (1946–; served 2000–), the son of former U.S. president George H. W. Bush, to the U.S. presidency in 2000 brought several changes in the way that the international community, especially the United States, responded to Iraq. George W. Bush appointed several of his father's former advisers to positions within his administration. Most significantly, Dick Cheney, secretary of defense during the first Gulf War, became Bush's vice president. Many of these

Sanctions Left After War

The United Nations decided to leave its sanctions against Iraq in place at the end of the Gulf War in order to enforce Iraq's compliance with the ceasefire agreement and to weaken, and hopefully end, Saddam Hussein's rule of the country. Tragically, the embargo, or ban, on Iraqi trade with foreign countries made life increasingly difficult for Iraqis in the 1990s. Industrial and agricultural production in Iraq stalled without access to necessary machinery, spare parts, or supplies. The war's destruction of power plants made it difficult for Iraq to offer reliable electricity or safe drinking water to its citizens. Food and medicine came into Iraq from international humanitarian agencies, but the Iraqi government often distributed it to groups supportive of the government, leaving specific ethnic and religious groups such as the Kurds (non-Arabic Muslims) and the Shiites (a branch of Islam that believed that only the direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad could be the leaders of the religion), who had revolted against Hussein's rule, with less. Malnutrition (a condition where the body does not get essential vitamins and minerals) and disease increased throughout the country. While only limited amounts of food were available, the Iraqi government's effective rationing system prevented Iraq from suffering a famine, a widespread shortage of food leading to massive starvation, under the sanctions.

Hussein continued his rule, putting down revolts of Shiites in Iraq's south and Kurds in the north. After years of sanctions the international community began to question the effectiveness of such a policy. In Iraq Under Siege, edited by Anthony Arnove, contributor Dr. Peter L. Pellett discussed the problems with sanctions against Iraq, noting in his chapter that in 1995 United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali remarked that the United Nations needed to investigate "whether suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders whose behavior is unlikely to be affected by the plight of their subjects." While the United Nations initiated a food-for-oil program in 1995 that enabled Iraq to sell some of its oil to buy food and medical supplies for its people, the suffering continued, with severe poverty leading to starvation of parts of the population and increased deaths. Pellet observed that, instead of weakening Hussein's position in Iraq, the sanctions "strengthened" his power, "not only within Iraq, but throughout the region." Hussein was perceived by many Iraqis and others in the region as standing up to the United States and United Nations.

advisers, including Cheney, felt that not enough had been done to remove Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War. They believed that Iraq was still a threat to the United States and to other Western countries, despite the United Nations being unable to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the means to produce such weapons. The United Nations, however, stated that even though Iraq had not fully complied with the ceasefire agreement, there was no proof that it possessed these weapons, and it would not support attacks against Iraq without evidence that Iraq was a threat to other countries.

After terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and another into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., with a fourth plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001, the United States declared a "war on terror," and vowed to fight terrorism around the world. Terrorism is violent action taken by individuals or groups against noncombatant targets such as civilians and nonmilitary sites, usually to achieve a political goal. The group that attacked the United States on September 11 was called Al Qaeda, and it was led by Osama bin Laden (1957–). Al Qaeda operated terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, where the strict, Muslim Taliban government had granted Osama bin Laden refuge. After the events of September 11, the United States quickly put together a large, international coalition to support military action against bin Laden and the Taliban government, which refused to hand bin Laden over to the United States. In October 2001 the United States struck Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. Though it captured many Al Qaeda members, U.S. forces were unable to locate bin Laden.

Having succeeded in its first strike in the war against terror, the United States was determined to fight the terrorists before they could attack again. Many nations around the world were supportive of this effort, but were uncertain about what criteria were used to determine a terrorist threat. For instance, some nations could call groups terrorist, while others might consider them freedom fighters. In addition, terrorists are not found in only one nation. They are present in many societies around the world, but do not represent their nations or the general populace. Many countries had reservations about the United States using preemptive (preventive or anticipatory) military force to invade other nations.

The United States, with the cooperation of other nations, continued to track down and capture Al Qaeda members around the world. In November 2002 the United States government began to turn its attention to Iraq. Many of President Bush's advisers were disturbed by Iraq's continued failure to comply with the demands of United Nations' weapons inspectors and were more concerned than ever about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was known to have used such weapons against Iraqi Kurds during the 1980s, and he was known to supply terrorist groups with money and weapons. U.S. officials believed that Iraq posed a threat to the security and safety of the Middle East and to the West.

In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush labeled Iraq, along with North Korea and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil." Bush criticized Iraq, saying "The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade." Bush requested that the United Nations take action against Iraq for resisting the United Nations' weapons inspectors' attempts to search for weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations, however, had already imposed stricter guidelines for Iraq to prove its compliance with weapons inspectors, and it felt that Hussein and the Iraqi government were being more open to inspectors then they had in the 1990s. Because little evidence of weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq up to that point, the United Nations refused to take further action against Iraq.

The United States, however, using information that later proved to be faulty, felt that there was enough evidence that Hussein was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to Western countries. The United States also stated that while Hussein appeared to be more compliant with United Nations' weapons inspectors, he was still stalling investigations and not allowing inspectors full access to all parts of the country. In early 2003 the United States declared that Iraq was a terrorist threat to the United States and the international community and attempted to organize a coalition to invade Iraq and overthrow Hussein's government. The United Nations refused to be part of this coalition, stating that there was no proof that Hussein's government had the ability to develop weapons of mass destruction nor that it had any intent to purchase such weapons to use against the United States or other Western countries. Outside of the United Nations, some nations pledged their support for the U.S. effort, while others who had supported earlier U.S. actions in the war on terror refused to take part.

Regardless of the position of the United Nations, the United States and Britain led a coalition of about thirty nations in an attack against Iraq, known as the second Gulf War, beginning on March 19, 2003. Powerful air strikes and attacks by ground troops in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad had removed Hussein's government from power by mid-April 2003. Saddam Hussein went into hiding, and both of his sons, who had been high-ranking Iraqi government officials, were killed. President Bush declared the war a victory on May 1, 2003, but as of July 2005 United States and coalition troops remained in Iraq in order to keep peace in the country and to establish a new democratic government.

The implications of the second Gulf War

While the war was officially over, the conflict between the United States and the people of Iraq continued. Iraqi insurgents, those people who were against the occupation of Iraq by the United States military, sent suicide bombers into Iraqi cities to kill United States and coalition troops as well as any Iraqi people who supported the removal of Hussein's government or who helped U.S. and coalition forces. U.S. and coalition troops continued to search for members of Hussein's former government, as well as insurgent groups that were continuing to attack. Saddam Hussein was captured in an underground hiding place on December 13, 2003, and taken into U.S. custody to face trial in Iraq for crimes against humanity, including the deaths of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites during the 1980s.

Both the United States and Britain were severely criticized by the international community for invading Iraq. By 2004 the information that the United States government had relied upon to justify the attack on Iraq had been proved to be faulty. Iraq, it was now believed, had not possessed weapons of mass destruction since the late 1990s. The United States government continued to insist that the Iraqi government under Hussein was an oppressive force and would have sought to acquire such weapons in the near future. The attack on Iraq, it argued, prevented future terror. Many countries in the international community were skeptical and felt that the United States had rushed to war without first exhausting all diplomatic options.

A new, democratically elected Iraqi government took office in early 2005, made up of twenty-five representatives from Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious groups. The country's Shiite majority held the most power. This new government, however, faced the struggle of continued insurgent attacks, which increased in 2005 as United States and coalition soldiers continued to occupy Iraq. The United States government felt that if it pulled its troops out of Iraq, the country would fall into a civil war or other nations such as Syria or Iran would attack Iraq and take over the country. As of mid-2005 there were no plans for the United States to pull its troops out of Iraq, and while some progress had been made in readying Iraqi troops to defend themselves from insurgents, they were not ready to do so without international help.

The second Gulf War raised many questions about the role that the United States intends to play in the Middle East. To some critics, it appears that the United States has decided that it is necessary for the Middle East to accept Western politics and cultures so that the international community can be safe from countries that do not support Western influences. The Bush administration has publicly proclaimed its determination to support the formation of democratically elected governments in the region, and the right of the Western powers to remove governments that, in the United States' opinion, support terrorism or attempt to obtain weapons of mass destruction. While no other countries in the Middle East have yet to be attacked by the United States or any other international coalition for this purpose, many fear that many Middle Eastern nations that do not support the West, such as Syria and Iran, may soon be targets. While the major fighting of second Gulf War has ended, lowintensity warfare (fighting between a military force and non-military armed groups) against insurgents continues, and there is no way to know how long United States troops will remain in the region or what their role will be in the years to come.

For More Information


Arnove, Anthony, ed. Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.

Bratman, Fred. War in the Persian Gulf. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1991.

Carlisle, Rodney P. Iraq War. New York: Facts on File, 2005.

Cipkowski, Peter. Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1992.

Diller, Daniel C., ed. The Middle East. 8th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.

Huchthausen, Peter. America's Splendid Little Wars: A Short History of U.S. Military Engagements: 1975–2000. New York: Viking, 2003.

Nardo, Don. The Persian Gulf War. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1991.

Web Sites

"The Gulf War." Harper's Magazine. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"The Gulf War." PBS: Frontline. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Gulf Wars I and II: A Comparison of the Two Wars Between the U.S. and Iraq." Time. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Gulf War II: Into Battle." Time. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"President Bush Discusses Iraq Report." (October 7, 2004). White House. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"President Delivers State of the Union Address." (January 29, 2002). White House. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Timeline: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld." PBS. (accessed on July 8, 2005).