Persian Gulf War

views updated Jun 08 2018

Persian Gulf War


The Persian Gulf War, in which a coalition led by the United States drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in early 1991, was one of the most successful campaigns in history. At a cost of less than 300 Allied lives, coalition troops, whose military actions were largely funded by Saudi Arabia, drove out Saddam Hussein's forces. Thousands of Iraqi lives were lost in the process, however. In their victory, the coalition depended in large part on advances in military technology by the United States, whose arsenal included tools ranging from the F-117A stealth fighter to the M1A1 Abrams tank, and from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to unmanned drones and Patriot missiles. Less clearly successful was U.S. intelligence, which had failed to predict the war. Equally questionable was the ultimate outcome of the war, whose scores would not fully be settled until 12 years later.

The Persian Gulf War is sometimes called simply the Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm, after the U.S.-led campaign that comprised the bulk of the fighting. It may ultimately come to be known as "Gulf War II," or "Persian Gulf War II," with the 2003 operation in Iraq becoming the third in this series. The first, also known as the Iran-Iraq War, lasted from 1980 to 1988, and pitted the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein against the Islamic theocracy in Iran.

Both regimes had taken power in 1979, but the conflict concerned long standing disputes involving lands on the borders between the two nations. In the ensuing hostilities, most nationsincluding much of the Arab world, the United States, western Europe, and the Soviet blocsupported Iraq, generally regarded as the lesser of two evils. (Both the Americans and the Soviets also gave covert support to the Iranians as well.) The war, which cost some 850,000 lives, resulted in a stalemate, and both nations built monuments to their alleged victories.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, analysts working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prepared a report on the likelihood of Iraqi aggression in the near future. According to the now-infamous study, Saddam had so overextended his resources in the war with Iran that he would not take any major aggressive action for at least three years. In this instance, the CIA underestimated Saddam's penchant for military adventurism.

Invasion and Buildup

On August 2, 1990, without advance warning, Iraqi tanks and troops rolled into neighboring Kuwait. Both nations possessed considerable oil wealth, but Kuwait was by far the richer of the two, and Iraqparticularly under Saddam's regimehad long had designs on Kuwait. Given the importance of oil from the Persian Gulf region, which at that time fueled a great part of the world, neither the United States nor the United Nations (UN) Security Council was inclined to ignore Hussien's aggressive action.

The Security Council on August 3 called for an Iraqi withdrawal, and on August 6 it imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq. On August 5, President George H. W. Bush declared that the invasion "will not stand," and a day later, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia met with U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney to request military assistance. Saudi Arabia, Japan, and other wealthy allies would underwrite most of the $60 billion associated with the resulting military effort. By August 8, U.S. Air Force fighters were in Saudi Arabia.

Numerous countries were involved in the military buildup during late 1990, a program known as Operation Desert Shield. By January 1991, the United States alone had some 540,000 troops, along with another 160,000 from the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, and other nations. On November 29, 1990, the Security Council authorized use of force against Iraq unless it withdrew its troops by January 15. Saddam's only response was to continue building his troop strength in Kuwait, such that by the time the Allies counterattacked, he had some 300,000 men on the ground.

On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, which consisted largely of bombing campaigns against Iraq's command and control, infrastructure, and military assets. In retaliation, Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles on January 18. A great portion of the Allied losses occurred in this initial phase, when the Iraqis shot down several low-flying U.S. and British planes.

After thus severing the tail of the invading force, the Allies in February began concentrating on Iraqi positions in Kuwait. Having initially planned an amphibious landing, Allied commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf instead opted for an armored assault. On February 24, in a campaign phase named Operation Desert Sabre, Allied troops moved northward from Saudi Arabia and into Kuwait. By February 27, they had taken Kuwait City.

At the same time, operations in Iraq itself continued. In the only major bombing run on the capital city of Baghdad, Stealth fighters struck Iraqi intelligence headquarters, while U.S. Army Special Forces teams inserted themselves deep in Iraq. In the southern part of the country, U.S. tanks pounded Iraqi armored reserve forces, while Allied ground forces neutralized Hussien's "elite"

Republican Guard south of Basra. President Bush declared a cease-fire on February 28.

The war had lasted 42 days, and the principal campaign, the mid-January bombing, took just over 100 hours. Credit for this extraordinary success goes to a number of factors, not least of which was strong leadership. On the military side, there was Schwarzkopf on the ground, and in Washington, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who served as the principal military spokesman during the war. In this, the first major U.S. action since the end of fighting in Vietnam nearly two decades earlier, the performance of both leaders and troops showed that military capabilities had improved extraordinarily since then.

Among the civilian leaders were Cheney, Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and President Bush. The president, sometimes criticized for a failure to communicate his aims to his subordinates or the public as a whole, was quite clear in his objectives for the Persian Gulf War. On January 15, 1991, Bush sent his principal security advisors a memorandum which outlined four major aims: to force an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, to restore Kuwait's government, to protect American lives, and to promote stability and security in the Gulf region.

Another factor in the successand another point of comparison with Vietnamwas the near-unanimous support for the action. Whereas American allies and foes alike questioned the value of the action in Vietnam, virtually no one other than Saddam's regime (along with a handful of antiwar protestors at home) opposed the U.S. effort to liberate an invaded nation. This support was helped rather than hurt by an unprecedented level of television coverage. While Vietnam became known as "the first televised war," TV reporting in the 1960s and 1970s was minimal compared to the round-the-clock reportage offered by cable outlets, most notably the Cable News Network (CNN), in 1990 and 1991.

The U.S. arsenal. While human factors deserve a great deal of credit for the success of Allied operations in the Persian Gulf War, the war would not have been won as efficiently without the technological superiority offered by modern weaponry. Among the tools in the U.S. arsenal were a variety of aircraft, including the AH-64 Apache helicopter, the leading anti-armor attack chopper. Introduced in 1984, the Apache could operate in conditions of darkness or low visibility, and was made to sustain heavy pounding from antiaircraft guns.

The E-3 Sentry AWACS (airborne warning and control system) was a masterpiece of modern technology. Packed with electronics, the aircraftbased on the Boeing 707 and introduced in 1977was made to identify enemy aircraft, jam enemy radar, guide bombers to their targets, and manage the flow of friendly aircraft. Even more cutting-edge were the Pointer and Pioneer drones, or remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs).

Based on Israeli designs and first used by the United States during the war, the RPVs served as airborne spy platforms. The Pioneer, with a range of about 100 miles (161km) and a flight duration of five hours, could take high-definition pictures from 2,000 feet (610 meters) and transmit them to a processing center. In addition to its video cameras, it was equipped with infrared heat sensors, and provided a wealth of intelligence on everything from enemy troop movements to the recommended path for Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Other aircraft included the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, the F-117A Stealth fighter, and the E-8G JSTARS surveillance aircraft. Among the other notable weapons used in the Persian Gulf War were the M1A1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the MIM-104 Patriot missile defense system, and the Tomahawk cruise missile. High above the ground was the GPS, whose 24 satellites helped soldiers find their bearings in the desert, and assisted artillery in targeting.

Controversies. More controversial than the role of weapons systems was that of intelligence in the Persian Gulf War. The CIA did not inspire a great deal of confidence, either with its initial estimate of Iraqi intentions or from its August 1996 "Final Report on Intelligence Related to Gulf War Illnesses." In the wake of illnesses that broke out among returning personnel, the CIA sought to investigate the connection between these conditions and Iraqi use of chemical or biological agents. The CIA report found no evidence that Iraq had intentionally used such weapons against the United States, even though Saddam used chemical weapons against rebellious Kurds in the north.

More successful was the performance of Defense Department intelligence and related activities, both on the part of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and various military intelligence and psychological warfare units. DIA began operations in Iraq long before the war, and regularly gathered intelligence reports that proved invaluable to military leadership. The same was true of military intelligence units, while psychological operations had an immeasurable impact by coercing Iraqis to provide the Allies with intelligence on their forces' activities and capabilities.

In addition to controversies over the success of intelligence, there remained questions concerning the success of the war as a whole. This fact was symbolized by the failure of Bushwho, after the war, had the highest poll numbers of any U.S. President since scientific polling beganto gain reelection in 1992. Ironically, Saddam Hussein, who many U.S. leaders had expected to be toppled in the unrest that followed the war, remained in power despite UN sanctions and the imposition of a no-fly zone over the northern and southern portions of the country. Among the factors cited for Bush's sudden loss of popularity from mid-1991 onward (in addition to an economic slowdown and clever campaigning by challenger William J. Clinton) was his failure to remove Saddam Hussein. However, as Bush rightly noted, such action was not within his mandate from the UN.

In 1993, the CIA uncovered evidence that Saddam Hussein had attempted to assassinate Bush, in response for which U.S. warships fired 23 cruise missiles at Iraqi secret service headquarters. The years that followed saw a lengthy process of UN and U.S. attempts to find weapons of mass destruction thought to be hidden in Iraq continually thwarted by Saddam Hussein. When he evicted UN inspectors in 1998, the United States and United Kingdom launched a four-day bombing campaign, Desert Fox, against Iraq.

Although overt evidence was lacking, some in the U.S. intelligence and defense communities suspected Iraqi ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and after the 2001 destruction of those buildings, President George W. Bush indicated that the attacks had been sponsored or at least abetted by Iraq. In March, 2003, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, a land invasion of Iraq. Though many putative experts claimed that the campaign would not be as successful as the Persian Gulf War, this onewhile much less popular globallywas actually shorter, and achieved something the earlier war did not: the removal of Saddam Hussein from his position of leadership. Assisting the younger Bush were several figures from the Persian Gulf War, including Cheney and Powell, now vice president and secretary of state respectively.



Allen, Thomas B., F. Clinton Berry, and Norman Polmar. War in the Gulf. Kansas City, MO: Andrews & McMeel, 1991.

Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Clancy, Tom, and Fred Franks. Into the Storm: A Study of Command. New York: Putnam, 1997.

Dunnigan, James F., and Austin Bay. From Shield to Storm: High-Tech Weapons, Military Strategy, and Coalition Warfare in the Persian Gulf. New York: W. Morrow, 1992.

Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf Conflict, 19901991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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

Hawley, T. M. Against the Fires of Hell: The Environmental Disaster of the Gulf War. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

MacArthur, John R. Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.


Fog of War. <> (April 13, 2003).

Frontline: The Gulf War. Public Broadcasting System. <> (April 13, 2003).


Bush Administration (19891993), United States National Security Policy
Cruise Missile
F-117A Stealth Fighter
Information Warfare
Iraqi Freedom, Operation (2003 War Against Iraq)
Iraq, Intelligence and Security Agencies
Iraq War: Prelude to War (The International Debate Over the Use and Effectiveness of Weapons Inspections.)
Kuwait Oil Fires, Persian Gulf War
Patriot Missile System

Persian Gulf War

views updated May 21 2018


PERSIAN GULF WAR. The invasion of Kuwait by 140,000 Iraqi troops and 1,800 tanks on 2 August 1990, eventually led to U.S. involvement in war in the Persian Gulf region. Instead of repaying billions of dollars of loans received from Kuwait during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq (1980–1988), Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein resurrected old territorial claims and annexed Kuwait as his country's nineteenth province.

President George H. W. Bush feared that Saddam might next invade Saudi Arabia and thus control 40 percent of the world's oil. Bush organized an international coalition of forty-three nations, thirty of which sent military or medical units to liberate Kuwait, and he personally lobbied United Nations Security Council members. By November the UN had imposed economic sanctions and passed twelve separate resolutions demanding that the Iraqis withdraw. Bush initially sent 200,000 U.S. troops as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to defend Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield), describing the mission as "defensive." On November 8, Bush expanded the U.S. expeditionary force to more than 500,000 to " ensure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option." Contingents from other allied countries brought the troop level to 675,000. UN Security Council Resolution 678 commanded Iraq to evacuate Kuwait by 15 January 1991, or else face military attack.

What Saddam Hussein had hoped to contain as an isolated regional quarrel provoked an unprecedented alliance that included not only the United States and most members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but also Iraq's former military patron, the Soviet Union, and several Arab states, including Egypt and Syria. The Iraqi dictator must have found Washington's outraged reaction especially puzzling in view of recent efforts by the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush to befriend Iraq. Off-the-books U.S. arms transfers to Iraq were kept from Congress from 1982 to 1987, in violation of the law. Washington had supplied intelligence data to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, and Bush had blocked congressional attempts to deny agricultural credits to Iraq because of human rights abuses. The Bush administration had also winked at secret and illegal bank loans that Iraq had used to purchase $5 billion in Western technology for its burgeoning nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Assistant Secretary of State John H. Kelly told Congress in early 1990 that Saddam Hussein acted as "a force of moderation" in the Middle East. Only a week before the invasion Ambassador April Glaspie informed Saddam Hussein that Washington had no "opinion on inter-Arab disputes such as your border dispute with Kuwait."

Bush and his advisers, without informing Congress or the American people, apparently decided early in August to use military force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. "It must be done as massively and decisively as possible, " advised General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Choose your target, decide on your objective, and try to crush it." The president, however, described the initial deployments as defensive, even after General H. Norman Schwarzkopf had begun to plan offensive operations. Bush did not announce the offensive buildup until after the November midterm elections, all the while expanding U.S. goals from defending Saudi Arabia, to liberating Kuwait, to crippling Iraq's war economy, even to stopping Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. UN sanctions cut off 90 percent of Iraq's imports and 97 percent of its exports. Secretary of State James Baker did meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Azziz in early January 1991, but Iraq refused to consider withdrawal from Kuwait unless the United States forced Israel to relinquish its occupied territories. Bush and Baker vetoed this linkage, as well as any Arab solution whereby Iraq would retain parts of Kuwait. Iraq's aggression, which the president likened to Adolf Hitler's, should gain no reward.

Although Bush claimed he had the constitutional authority to order U.S. troops into combat under the UN resolution, he reluctantly requested congressional authorization, which was followed by a four-day debate. Senator Joseph R. Biden of Delaware declared that "none [of Iraq's] actions justify the deaths of our sons and daughters." Senator George Mitchell of Maine cited the risks: "An unknown number of casualties and deaths, billions of dollars spent, a greatly disrupted oil supply and oil price increases, a war possibly widened to Israel, Turkey or other allies, the possible long-term American occupation of Iraq, increased instability in the Persian Gulf region,

long-lasting Arab enmity against the United States, a possible return to isolationism at home." Senator Robert Dole of Kansas scorned the critics, saying that Saddam Hussein "may think he's going to be rescued, may be by Congress." On 12 January, after Congress defeated a resolution to continue sanctions, a majority in both houses approved Bush's request to use force under UN auspices. Virtually every Republican voted for war; two-thirds of House Democrats and forty-five of fifty-six Democratic senators cast negative votes. Those few Democratic senators voting for war (among them Tennessee's Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut) provided the necessary margin.

Operation Desert Storm began with a spectacular aerial bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait on 16 January 1991. For five weeks satellite television coverage via Cable News Network enabled Americans to watch "smart" bombs hitting Iraqi targets and U.S. Patriot missiles intercepting Iraqi Scud missiles. President Bush and Secretary Baker kept the coalition intact, persuading Israel not to retaliate after Iraqi Scud missile attacks on its territory and keeping Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev advised as allied bombs devastated Russia's erstwhile client. On 24 February General Schwarzkopf sent hundreds of thousands of allied troops into Kuwait and eastern Iraq. Notwithstanding Saddam's warning that Americans would sustain thousands of casualties in the "mother of all battles, " Iraq's largely conscript army put up little resistance. By 26 February Iraqi forces had retreated from Kuwait, blowing up as many as 800 oil wells as they did so. Allied aircraft flew hundreds of sorties against what became known as the "highway of death, " from Kuwait City to Basra. After only 100 hours of fighting on the ground, Iraq accepted a UN-imposed cease-fire. Iraq's military casualties numbered more than 25,000 dead and 300,000 wounded; U.S. forces suffered only 148 battle deaths (35 from friendly fire), 145 nonbattle deaths, and 467 wounded (out of a coalition total of 240 dead and 776 wounded). An exultant President Bush proclaimed, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome."

The war itself initially cost $1 million per day for the first three months, not including the ongoing expense of keeping an encampment of 300,000 allied troops in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. The overall cost of the war was estimated to be $54 billion; $7.3 billion paid by the United States, with another $11 billion from Germany and $13 billion from Japan, and the remainder ($23 billion) from Arab nations. For the first time in the twentieth century, the United States could not afford to finance its own participation in a war.

Bush chose not to send U.S. forces to Baghdad to capture Saddam Hussein, despite his earlier designation of the Iraqi leader as public enemy number one. Attempts during the fighting to target Saddam had failed, and Bush undoubtedly hoped that the Iraqi military or disgruntled associates in the Ba'ath party would oust the Iraqi leader. When Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi'ites in the south rebelled, Bush did little to help. As General Powell stated: "If you want to go in and stop the killing of Shi'ites, that's a mission I understand. But to what purpose? If the Shi'ites continue to rise up, do we then support them for the over-throw of Baghdad and the partition of the country?" Powell opposed "trying to sort out two thousand years of Mesopotamian history." Bush, ever wary of a Mideast quagmire, backed away: "We are not going to permit this to drag on in terms of significant U.S. presence à la Korea." Saddam used his remaining tanks and helicopters to crush these domestic rebellions, sending streams of Kurdish refugees fleeing toward the Turkish border. Public pressure persuaded President Bush to send thousands of U.S. troops to northern Iraq, where the UN designated a security zone and set up makeshift tent cities. Saddam's survival left a sour taste in Washington, and created a situation that Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh have compared to "an exasperating endgame in chess, when the winning player never seems to trap the other's king even though the final result is inevitable."

Under Security Council Resolution 687, Iraq had to accept the inviolability of the boundary with Kuwait (to be demarcated by an international commission), accept the presence of UN peacekeepers on its borders, disclose all chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons including missiles, and cooperate in their destruction. What allied bombs had missed, UN inspectors did not. Saddam Hussein's scientists and engineers had built more than twenty nuclear facilities linked to a large-scale Iraqi Manhattan Project. Air attacks had only inconvenienced efforts to build a bomb. Inspectors also found and destroyed more than a hundred Scud missiles, seventy tons of nerve gas, and 400 tons of mustard gas. By the fall of 1992 the head of the UN inspection team rated Iraq's capacity for mass destruction "at zero."

Results from the war included the restoration of Kuwait, lower oil prices, resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Arabs, and at least a temporary revival of faith in the United Nations. Improved relations with Iran and Syria brought an end to Western hostage-taking in Beirut. Firefighters extinguished the last of the blazing oil wells ignited by the retreating Iraqis in November 1991, but only after the suffocating smoke had spread across an area twice the size of Alaska and caused long-term environmental damage. An estimated 200,000 civilians died, largely from disease and malnutrition. Millions of barrels of oil befouled the Persian Gulf, killing more than 30,000 sea birds. Finally, an undetermined but large and growing number of U.S. veterans of the Persian Gulf War found themselves plagued with various medical conditions, referred to as "Gulf War Syndrome" and thought to be the result of exposure to various toxic gases and radioactive exposure from ammunition.


DeCosse, David E., ed. But Was It Just?: Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Ederton, L. Benjamin and Michael J. Mazarr, eds. Turning Point: the Gulf War and U.S. Military Strategy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

El-Baz, Farouk, and R. M. Makharita, eds. The Gulf War and the Environment. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1994.

Greenberg, Bradley S., and Walter Gantz, eds. Desert Storm and the Mass Media. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1993.

Head, William Head, and Earl H. Tilford, Jr., eds . The Eagle in the Desert: Looking Back on U.S. Involvement in the Persian Gulf War. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996.

Ursano, Robert J., and Ann E. Norwood, eds. Emotional Aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, Families, Communities, and Nations. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1996.

J. GarryClifford/d. b.

See alsoAir Pollution ; Arab Nations, Relations with ; Iraq-gate ; Oil Crises ; Persian Gulf Syndrome ; United Nations ; War Casualties ; War Costs ; andvol. 9:Address to the Nation: Allied Military Action in the Persian Gulf ; Gulf War Letter ; Gulf War Story .

Persian Gulf War

views updated May 18 2018

Persian Gulf War

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) led his country in an invasion of its southern neighbor, Kuwait, beginning an Iraqi occupation of the small, oil-rich nation. Six months later, Operation Desert Storm—a U.S.-led and United Nations–approved coalition of thirty nations—was launched to defend Kuwait from Iraqi aggression.

Iraq-Kuwait conflict

Iraq had recently emerged from the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf region. At the conclusion of the conflict, Iraq's military consisted of more than one million men. During the war, Iraq had invested heavily in defense industries, particularly in the development of missiles—rockets that can carry nuclear or nonnuclear bombs—and in chemical weapons production. Chemical weapons are toxic substances, such as nerve gas or mustard gas, specifically designed to cause death or other harm; usually only small amounts are required to kill large numbers of people. By 1990, Iraq's military

power and its defense industries placed Hussein in a strong position in the Persian Gulf, and he had growing ambitions to be the leader of the Arab world.

To pursue his goals, Hussein needed money. Iraq had emerged from the war with an enormous debt and needed billions of dollars to repair the damage inflicted by Iran. A significant portion of the Iraqi national debt was owed to Kuwait, and the Iraqis felt that the Kuwaitis should erase the debt because Iraq had, in essence, protected Kuwait from Iran.

But Kuwait would not forgive the debt. Hussein knew that if he could combine the lucrative oil fields of Kuwait with Iraq's own substantial oil reserves, he would control more than 20 percent of the world's oil. Ownership of the Rumaila oil field was especially disputed because it stretches across both Iraqi and Kuwaiti territories. Iraq accused Kuwait of pumping from the Rumaila oil field and selling the oil at considerable profit during the Iran-Iraq War. Hussein demanded that the border between the nations be revised to give Iraq the entire Rumaila field, and that Kuwait pay Iraq $2 billion for the oil it had already pumped from the field. Kuwait rejected these claims.

The invasion

In mid-July 1990, Hussein threatened action against Kuwait as Iraqi forces gathered along the Kuwaiti border. Nonetheless, the invasion on August 2, 1990, was sudden and unexpected. Within hours, Kuwait was overrun. Most of its ruling family escaped to Saudi Arabia. Initially, the Iraqis claimed that the Kuwaiti opposition had invited Iraq into Kuwait, but no credible Kuwaitis were willing to verify this story. Thus, the Iraqi authorities simply asserted their claim to Kuwait and prepared to annex the entire country.

Following the invasion, the Iraqis looted the entire country of furniture, cars, Kuwait's gold reserves, industrial equipment, and even treasures

from the Kuwaiti museum. Approximately half of Kuwait's citizenry, along with substantial numbers of Asian and Palestinian workers employed in Kuwait, fled the country. The Iraqis ruthlessly crushed resistance by any who remained. A great number of arrests, tortures, and executions followed, and a large portion of Kuwait's male population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five was taken back to Iraq as hostages.

The world responds

Meanwhile, the international community reacted swiftly. The United States had had friendly relations with Iraq for many years, and had provided it with arms and intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War. But after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) feared Iraqi control of the world's oil and decided to take action. After ordering a U.S. economic embargo (prohibition of trade with a country) of Iraq, Bush organized an international coalition (alliance) of forty-three nations, thirty of which sent military or medical units to help liberate Kuwait. Western European states and Japan also embargoed Iraq. Bush worked to convince the United Nations to support his actions, and on August 6, 1990, the United Nations Security Council ordered a global economic embargo against Hussein's regime.

Continuing his forceful actions, Bush sent U.S. military forces to nearby Saudi Arabia, commencing Operation Desert Shield. Forces of several Arab powers and other members of the international community soon joined U.S. forces. On August 25, the United Nations authorized the use of military force to impose the embargo against Iraq. The crisis mounted through the fall, as the United States and its Desert Shield partners poured troops and military equipment into Saudi Arabia. Bush sent nearly one-half million U.S. troops to the region. By November 1990, a massive military presence had been established in the Persian Gulf region. Hussein threatened to use chemical and biological weapons against his enemies if his country was attacked.

Operation Desert Storm

U.N. and American diplomats set a deadline in January 1991 for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. The date passed unheeded, and on January 16, 1991, the U.S.-led coalition unleashed an air attack on Baghdad and other military installations inside Iraq.

Operation Desert Storm began with a spectacular aerial bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait. For five weeks, satellite television coverage via Cable News Network (CNN) enabled Americans at home to watch “smart” bombs (self-guiding weapons) hitting Iraqi targets and U.S. Patriot missiles intercepting Iraqi Scud missiles (a type of missile designed in the Soviet Union) aimed at Israel. On February 24, after five weeks of bombardment, the commander of the Coalition Forces, General Norman Schwarzkopf (1934–), sent hundreds of thousands of allied troops into Kuwait and eastern Iraq. Hussein had warned that Americans would sustain thousands of casualties in the “mother of all battles” if they attacked on the ground, but Iraq's army put up little resistance, and its threat to use biological and chemical weapons was never realized. By February 26, Iraqi forces were retreating from Kuwait.

End of the battle

After only one hundred hours of fighting on the ground, Iraq accepted a U.N.-imposed cease-fire. Iraq's military casualties numbered more than 25,000 dead and 300,000 wounded; U.S. forces suffered only 148 battle deaths and 467 wounded. Exactly six weeks into the war, the residents of Kuwait City welcomed the multinational liberating army as it paraded through the streets. A few weeks later, Desert Storm troops began returning to the United States, receiving a hero's welcome. General Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell (1937–), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became instant celebrities; George Bush earned the highest approval rating ever accorded an American president.

All was not well in Kuwait and Iraq, though. Kuwait sustained severe environmental damage as retreating Iraqi troops set fire to its oil fields, which burned uncontrollably for several days, sending noxious plumes of black smoke into the atmosphere and polluting the fragile desert environment.

Bush chose not to send U.S. forces to Baghdad to capture Saddam Hussein. Leaving Hussein in power meant that rival sects in Iraq, the Kurds and the Shi'tes, would face continuing oppression at the dictator's hands. But foreseeing the possibility of a prolonged civil, and perhaps regional, war, Bush ruled out further military action. Instead, he brought about international economic sanctions against Iraq, many of which remained in effect until the Iraq invasion in 2003. Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq, proud and defiant even with his military power severely reduced.

Under the terms of the United Nations' Security Council Resolution 687, Iraq had to accept the boundary with Kuwait assigned by an international commission. Iraq was also required to accept the presence of U.N. peacekeepers on its borders and to reveal and cooperate in the destruction of all its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, including missiles. U.N. inspectors found that Hussein's scientists and engineers had built more than twenty nuclear facilities. They found more than 100 Scud missiles, 70 tons of nerve gas, and 400 tons of mustard gas, and they destroyed everything they found.

Persian Gulf War

views updated May 17 2018


The Persian Gulf War of 1990 and 1991 began as the high point of Soviet-American cooperation in the postwar period. However, by late December 1990, a chilling of Soviet-American relations had set in as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sought to play both sides of the conflict, only to have the USSR suffer a major political defeat once the war came to an end.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze joined U.S. secretary of state James Baker in severely condemning the Iraqi action, and the United States and USSR jointly supported numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions demanding an Iraqi withdrawal and imposing sanctions on Iraq for its behavior.

Nonetheless, while supporting the United States (although not committing Soviet forces to battle), Gorbachev also sought to play a mediating role between Iraq and the United States, in part to salvage Moscow's important economic interests in that country (oil drilling, oil exploration, hydroelectric projects, and grain elevator construction, as well as lucrative arms sales), and in part to bolster his political flank against those on the right of the Soviet political spectrum (many of whom were later to stage an abortive coup against him in August 1991), who were complaining that Moscow had "sold out" Iraq, a traditional ally of the USSR and one with which Moscow had been linked by a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation since 1972.

Responding to these pressures, Gorbachev twice sent a senior Soviet Middle East Expert, Yevgeny Primakov, to Iraq to try to mediate on Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, albeit to no avail. Instead, the Soviet specialists working in Iraq were swiftly taken hostage in advance of the January 15, 1991, United Nations deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal.

In late December 1990, as it became more and more apparent that the U.S.-led coalition would begin its attack against Iraq on January 15, Shevardnadze suddenly resigned as Soviet foreign minister in the face of mounting pressure from Soviet right-wing forces. His replacement, Alexander Bessmertnykh, was far less pro-U.S., and his remarks utilized the old Soviet jargon of "balance of power" rather than Gorbachev's "balance of interests" terminology. Nonetheless, this did not inhibit the coalition attack on Iraq that took place on January 15 and that thoroughly defeated Saddam Hussein's forces and drove them out of Kuwait by the end of February 1991. Gorbachev's behavior during the fighting, as he sought the best possible deal for Hussein from the United States, resembled that of a trial lawyer seeking to plea bargain for his client under increasingly negative conditions. This was particularly evident in his peace plan of February 21, which provided for a lifting of sanctions against Iraq before it had fully withdrawn its troops from Kuwait. The United States, however, neither accepted Gorbachev's entreaties nor paid much attention to the increasingly hostile warnings of Soviet generals as U.S. troops advanced.

By the time the war ended, Washington had emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East, while the USSR lost much of its influence both in the Middle East and in the world. After the war, the United States consolidated its military position in the Persian Gulf and reinforced its relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, while Moscow sat on the diplomatic sidelines.

Given Moscow's diminished position in the region and in the world as a whole after the Gulf War, Gorbachev tried to salvage the USSR's prestige to the greatest degree possible. Thus, besides trying to reinforce relations with Iran, he sought to retain a modicum of influence in Iraq by opposing U.N. intervention following the postwar massacres of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds by Hussein's forces. Primakov, whose influence in the Russian government was rising, stated that he believed Hussein "has sufficient potential to give us hope for a positive development of relations with him."

Nonetheless, Gorbachev's attempts to protect Hussein availed him little. Less than a year after the end of the Gulf War, the USSR collapsed, and Gorbachev fell from power.

See also: iraq, relations with; united states, relations with


Beschloss, Michael R., and Talbott, Strobe. (1993). At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War. Boston: Little, Brown.

Freedman, Robert O. (2001). Russian Policy Toward the Middle East Since the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Challenge for Putin (Donald W. Treadgold Papers in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, no. 33). Seattle: University of Washington: Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Nizamedden, Talal. (1999). Russia and the Middle East. New York: St. Martins.

Rumer, Eugene. (2000). Dangerous Drift: Russia's Middle East Policy. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Shaffer, Brenda. (2001). Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Vassiliev, Alexei. (1993). Russian Policy in the Middle East: From Messianism to Pragmatism. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press.

Robert O. Freedman

Persian Gulf War

views updated Jun 08 2018

Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 had a variety of environmental consequences for the Middle East. The most devastating of these effects were from the oil spills and oil fires deliberately committed by the Iraqi army. There were extensive press coverage of these events at the time, and the United States accused the Iraqis of "environmental terrorism." These accusations were seen by some as propaganda effort, and there was almost certainly some political motivation to both how the damage was estimated and how it was characterized during the war. But it is clear now that the note of outrage often struck by the Allies was not out of place. The devastation, though not as extensive as originally supposed, was still substantial.

The Iraqis began discharging oil into the Persian Gulf from the Sea Island Terminal and other supertanker terminals off the coast of Kuwait on January 23, 1991. Allied bombers tried to limit the damage by striking at pipelines carrying oil to these locations, but the flow continued throughout the war. Estimates of the size of the spill have varied widely and the controversy still continues, with a number of diplomatic and political pressures preventing many government agencies from committing themselves to specific figures. But it now seems likely that this was the worst oil spill in history, probably 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound , Alaska, and twice the size of the 1979 spill from the blowout of Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Whatever the actual size of the spill, it occurred in an area that was already one of the most polluted in the world. Oil spills and oil dumping are common in the Persian Gulf; it has been estimated that as many as two million barrels of oil are spilled in these waters every year. Some ecologists believe that the ecosystem in the area has a certain amount of resistance to the effects of pollution . Other scientists have maintained that the high level of salinity in the Gulf will prevent the oil from having many long-term effects and that the warm water will increase the speed at which the oil degrades. But the Gulf has a slow circulation system and large areas are very shallow; many scientists and environmentalists have predicted that it will be many years before the water can clear itself.

The spill killed thousands of birds within months after it began, and it had an immediate and drastic effect on commercial fishing in the region. Oil soaked miles of coastline; coral reefs and wetlands were damaged, and the seagrass beds of the Gulf were considered particularly vulnerable. Mangrove swamps, migrant birds, and endangered species such as green turtles and the dugong, or sea cow, are still threatened by the effects of the spill. The Saudi Arabian government has protected the water they draw from the Gulf for desalinization , but little has been done to limit or alleviate the environmental damage. This has been the result, at least in part, of a shortage of resources during and after the war, as well as obstacles such as floating mines and shallow waters which restricted access for boats carrying cleanup equipment.

At the end of the war, the retreating Iraqi army set over 600 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire. When the last burning well was extinguished on November 6, 1991, these fires had been spewing oil smoke into the atmosphere for months, creating a cloud which spread over the countries around the Gulf and into parts of Asia. It was thought at the time that the cloud of oil smoke would rise high enough to cause global climatic changes. Carl Sagan and other scientists, who had first proposed the possibility of a nuclear winter as one of the consequences of a nuclear war, believed that rain patterns in Asia and parts of Europe would be affected by the oil fires, and they predicted failed harvests and widespread starvation as a result. Though there was some localized cooling in the Middle East, these kinds of global predictions did not occur, but the smoke from the fire has still been an environmental disaster for the region. Air quality levels have caused extensive health problems, and acid rain and acid deposition have damaged millions of acres of forests in Iran.

The oil fires and oil spills were not the only environmental consequences of the Persian Gulf War. The movement of troops and military machinery, especially tanks, damaged the fragile desert soils and increased wind erosion . Wells sabotaged by the Iraqis released large amounts of oil that was never ignited, and lakes of oil as large as half a mile wide formed in the desert. These lakes continue to pose a hazard for animals and birds, and tests have shown that the oil is seeping deeper into the ground, causing long-term contamination and perhaps, eventually, leaching into the Gulf.

See also Gulf War syndrome

[Douglas Smith ]



Peck, L. "The Spoils of War." The Amicus Journal 3 (Spring 1991): 69.

Zimmer, C. "Ecowar." Discover 13 (January 1992): 3739.