Gulf War

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See also: Iraq War and Gulf War (disambiguation)
C Company, 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, 1st UK Armoured Division
C Company, 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, 1st UK Armoured Division

The 1991 Gulf War was a conflict between Iraq and a coalition force of 34 nations mandated by the United Nations and led by the United States. In Iraq, the War is often colloquially called simply Um M'aārak - "The Mother of All Battles".

The lead up to the war began with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, following Iraqi contentions that Kuwait was illegally "slant-drilling" oil across Iraq's border. The invasion was met with immediate economic sanctions by the United Nations against Iraq. Hostilities commenced in January 1991, resulting in a decisive victory for the coalition forces, which drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait with minimal coalition deaths. The main battles were aerial and ground combat within Iraq, Kuwait, and bordering areas of Saudi Arabia. The war did not expand outside the immediate Iraq/Kuwait/Saudi border region, although Iraq fired missiles on Israeli cities. The causes of the war, and even the name of the war itself, are still debated (see the article Naming the Gulf War).



Prior to World War I, under the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, Kuwait was considered to be an autonomous caza within Ottoman Iraq. Following the war, Kuwait fell under British rule and later became an independent emirate. However, Iraqi officials did not accept the legitimacy of Kuwaiti independence or the authority of the Kuwaiti Emir. Iraq never recognized Kuwait's sovereignty and in the 1960s, the United Kingdom deployed troops to Kuwait to deter an Iraqi annexation.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Kuwait was allied with Iraq, largely due to desiring Iraqi protection from Shi'ite Iran. After the war, Iraq was heavily indebted to several Arab countries, including a $14 billion debt to Kuwait. Iraq hoped to repay its debts by raising the price of oil through OPEC oil production cuts, but instead, Kuwait increased production, lowering prices, in an attempt to leverage a better resolution of their border dispute. In addition, Iraq began to accuse Kuwait of slant drilling into neighboring Iraqi oil fields, and furthermore charged that it had performed a collective service for all Arabs by acting as a buffer against Iran (Persia) and that therefore Kuwait and Saudi Arabia should negotiate or cancel Iraq's war debts. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's primary two-fold justification for the war was a blend of the assertion of Kuwaiti territory being an Iraqi province arbitrarily cut off by imperialism, with the use of annexation as retaliation for the "economic warfare" Kuwait had waged through slant drilling into Iraq's oil supplies while it had been under Iraqi protection.

The war with Iran had also seen the destruction of almost all of Iraq's port facilities on the Persian Gulf, cutting off Iraq's main trade outlet. Many in Iraq, expecting a resumption of war with Iran in the future, felt that Iraq's security could only be guaranteed by controlling more of the Persian Gulf Coast, including more secure ports. Kuwait thus made a tempting target.

Ideologically, the invasion of Kuwait was justified through calls to Arab nationalism. Kuwait was described as a natural part of Iraq carved off by British imperialism. The annexation of Kuwait was described as a step on the way to greater Arab union. Other reasons were given as well. Hussein presented it as a way to restore the empire of Babylon in addition to the Arab nationalist rhetoric. The invasion was also closely tied to other events in the Middle East. The First Intifada by the Palestinians was raging, and most Arab states, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, were dependent on western alliances. Saddam thus presented himself as the one Arab statesman willing to stand up to Israel and the U.S.

Pre-war Iraqi-American relations

Prior to the Iran-Iraq War, U.S.-Iraqi relations were cool, and Iraq had been chiefly an ally of the Soviet Union. The U.S. was concerned with Iraq's belligerence toward Israel and disapproval of moves towards peace with other Arab states. It also condemned Iraqi support for various Arab and Palestinian nationalist groups such as Abu Nidal, which led to its inclusion on the incipient State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism on December 29, 1979. The U.S. remained officially neutral during the outbreak of hostilities in the Iran-Iraq War, as it had previously been humiliated by a 444 day long Iran hostage crisis and expected that Iran was not likely to win. In March 1982, however, Iran began a successful counteroffensive (Operation Undeniable Victory). In a bid to open the possibility of relations to Iraq, the country was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Ostensibly this was because of improvement in the regime's record, although former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense Noel Koch later stated, "No one had any doubts about [the Iraqis'] continued involvement in terrorism....The real reason was to help them succeed in the war against Iran." [1]

With Iran's newfound success in the war and its rebuff of a peace offer in July, arms sales from other states (most importantly the USSR, France, Egypt, and starting that year, China) reached a record spike in 1982, but an obstacle remained to any potential U.S.-Iraqi relationship - Abu Nidal continued to operate with official support in Baghdad. When the group was expelled to Syria in November 1983, the Reagan administration sent Donald Rumsfeld as a special envoy to cultivate ties.

Due to fears that revolutionary Iran would defeat Iraq and export its Islamic Revolution to other Middle Eastern nations, the U.S. began giving aid to Iraq. From 1983 to 1990, the U.S. government approved around $200 million in arms sales to Iraq, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI). [2] These sales amounted to less than 1% of the total arms sold to Iraq in the relevant period, though the US also sold helicopters which, although designated for civilian use, were immediately deployed by Iraq in its war with Iran. [3]

An investigation by the Senate Banking Committee in 1994 determined that the U.S. Department of Commerce had approved, for the purpose of research, the shipping of dual use biological agents to Iraq during the mid 1980s, including Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), later identified by the Pentagon as a key component of the Iraqi biological warfare program, as well as Clostridium botulinum, Histoplasma capsulatum, Brucella melitensis, and Clostridium perfringens. The Committee report noted that each of these had been "considered by various nations for use in war." [4] Declassified U.S. government documents indicate that the U.S. government had confirmed that Iraq was using chemical weapons "almost daily" during the Iran-Iraq conflict as early as 1983. [5]

Chiefly, the U.S. government provided Iraq with economic aid. Iraq's war with Iran, and the consequent disruption in its oil export business, had caused the country to enter a deep debt. U.S. government economic assistance allowed Hussein to continue using resources for the war which would have otherwise had to have been diverted. Between 1983 and 1990, Iraq received $5 billion in credits from the Commodity Credit Corporation program run by the Department of Agriculture, beginning at $400 million per year in 1983 and increasing to over $1 billion per year in 1988 and 1989, finally coming to an end after another $500 million was granted in 1990. [6] Besides agricultural credits, the U.S. also provided Hussein with other loans. In 1985 the U.S. Export-Import Bank extended more than $684 million in credits to Iraq to build an oil pipeline through Jordan with the construction being undertaken by Californian construction firm Bechtel Corporation. [7] [8]

Following the war, however, there were moves within the Congress of the United States to isolate Iraq diplomatically and economically over concerns about human rights violations, its dramatic military build-up, and hostility to Israel. Specifically, the Senate in 1988 unanimously passed the "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988," which would have imposed sanctions on Iraq. The legislation died when the House balked as a result of intense lobbying against it by the Reagan administration. [9]

These moves were disowned by some Congressmen though some U.S. officials, such as Reagan's head of Policy Planning Staff at the State Dept. and Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Paul Wolfowitz disagreed with giving support to the Iraqi regime.

The relationship between Iraq and the United States remained unhindered until the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. On October 2, 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed secret National Security Directive 26, which begins, "Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S. national security." [10] With respect to Iraq, the directive stated, "Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East."

In late July, 1990, as negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait stalled, Iraq massed troops on Kuwait's borders and summoned American ambassador April Glaspie for an unanticipated meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Two transcripts of that meeting have been produced, both of them controversial. According to the transcripts, Saddam outlined his grievances against Kuwait, while promising that he would not invade Kuwait before one more round of negotiations. In the version published by The New York Times on September 23, 1990, Glaspie expressed concern over the troop buildup, but went on to say:

We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late '60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via [Chadli] Klibi [then Arab League General Secretary] or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.

Some have interpreted these statements as signalling a tacit approval of invasion, though no evidence of this has been presented. Although the State Department did not confirm the authenticity of these transcripts, U.S. sources say that she had handled everything "by the book" (in accordance with the US's neutrality on the Iraq-Kuwait issue) and had not signaled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein any approval for defying the Arab League's Jeddah crisis squad, which had conducted the negotiations. Many believe that Saddam's expectations may have been influenced by a perception that the US was not interested in the issue, for which the Glaspie transcript is merely an example, and that he may have felt so in part because of U.S. support for the reunification of Germany, another act that he considered to be nothing more than the nullification of an artificial, internal border. Others, such as Kenneth Pollack, believe he had no such illusion, or that he simply underestimated the extent of American military response.

In November 1989, CIA director William Webster met with the Kuwaiti head of security, Brigadier Fahd Ahmed Al-Fahd. Subsequent to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq claimed to have found a memorandum pertaining to their conversation. The Washington Post reported that Kuwaiti's foreign minister fainted when confronted with this document at an Arab summit in August. Later, Iraq cited this memorandum as evidence of a CIA-Kuwaiti plot to destabilize Iraq economically and politically. The CIA and Kuwait have described the meeting as routine and the memorandum as a forgery. The purported document reads in part:

We agreed with the American side that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq in order to put pressure on that country's government to delineate our common border. The Central Intelligence Agency gave us its view of appropriate means of pressure, saying that broad cooperation should be initiated between us on condition that such activities be coordinated at a high level.

Invasion of Kuwait

At the break of dawn on August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops crossed the Kuwaiti border with armor and infantry, occupying strategic posts throughout the country, including the Emir's palace. The Kuwaiti Army was quickly overwhelmed, though they bought enough time for the Kuwaiti Air Force to flee to Saudi Arabia. The heaviest fighting occurred at the Emir's Palace, where members of the royal guard fought a rear guard action to allow the royal family time to escape. A cousin of the Emir, who commanded the guard, was amongst those killed. Troops looted medical and food supplies, detained thousands of civilians and took over the media. Iraq detained thousands of Western visitors as hostages and later attempted to use them as bargaining chips. After a brief puppet government headed by Alaa Hussein Ali was installed, Iraq annexed Kuwait. Hussein then installed a new Iraqi provincial governor, describing this as "liberation" from the Kuwaiti Emir; this was largely dismissed as war propaganda.


Within hours of the initial invasion, the Kuwaiti and United States of America delegations requested a meeting of the UN Security Council, which passed Resolution 660, condemning the invasion and demanding a withdrawal of Iraqi troops. On August 3, the Arab League passed its own resolution condemning the invasion and demanding a withdrawal of Iraqi troops. The Arab League resolution also called for a solution to the conflict from within the Arab League, and warned against foreign intervention. On August 6, the Security Council passed Resolution 661, placing economic sanctions on Iraq.

The decision by the West to repel the Iraqi invasion had as much to do with preventing an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, a nation of far more importance to the world than Kuwait, as it did with Kuwait itself. The rapid success of the Iraqi army against Kuwait had brought Iraq's army within easy striking distance of the Hama oil fields, Saudi Arabia's most valuable. Iraqi control of these fields as well as Kuwait and Iraqi reserves would have given it a large share of the world's oil supply, second only to Saudi Arabia itself. The United States, Europe, and Japan in particular saw such a potential monopoly as dangerous. Saudi Arabia, a geographically large nation with dispersed population centers would have found it difficult to quickly mobilize to meet the Iraqi division deployed in Southern Kuwait. Without a doubt Iraq would have gained control of the Eastern Oil fields but it is heavily debatable whether Iraq could have have fought into the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The Iraqi armoured divisions would face the same difficulties that Saudi forces were facing in order to defend the Oil fields, namely to transverse large distances across inhospitable desert. This would have all occurred against the backdrop of intense bombing by the Saudi Airforce, by far the most modern arm of the Saudi military. No other nation or grouping of nations militaries apart from the United States would have been able to dislodge 450,000 battle hardened Iraqi soldiers with over 2,000 modern battle tanks and countless artillery and heavy mortar pieces. While it is true the nations of France and Great Britain possess equal levels of military technology as the U.S. they would not have achieved the critical mass neccessary to swing the war decisively in their favour. It after all took half a million American troops to dislodge Iraq while Britain and France would have struggled to muster anything more than 80,000 troops on their own. No other nations apart from United States, Britain and France have any capacity to project force half way across the globe.

Iraq had a number of grievances with Saudi Arabia. The concern over debts stemming from the Iran-Iraq war was even greater when applied to Saudi Arabia, which Iraq owed some 26 billion dollars. The long desert border was also ill-defined. Soon after his victory over Kuwait Saddam began verbally attacking the Saudi kingdom. He argued that the American-supported Kingdom was an illegitimate guardian of holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saddam combined the language of the Islamist groups that had recently fought in Afghanistan with the rhetoric Iran had long used to attack the Saudis.

The addition of Allahu Akbar to the flag of Iraq and images of Saddam praying in Kuwait were seen as part of a plan to win the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and detach Islamist Mujahideen from Saudi Arabia. There was further escalation of such propaganda attacks on Saudi Arabia as western troops poured into the country.

President George H. W. Bush quickly announced that the US would launch a "wholly defensive" mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia - Operation Desert Shield - and US troops moved into Saudi Arabia on August 7. On August 8, Iraq declared parts of Kuwait to be extensions of the Iraqi province of Basra and the rest to be the 19th province of Iraq.

The United States navy mobilized two naval battle groups, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Independence, to the area, where they were ready by August 8. The United States also sent the battleships USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin to the region, and they would later become the last battleships to actively participate in a war. Military buildup continued from there, eventually reaching 500,000 troops. The consensus among military analysts is that until October, the American military forces in the area would have been insufficient to stop an invasion of Saudi Arabia had Iraq attempted one.

A long series of UN Security Council and Arab League resolutions were passed regarding the conflict. One of the most important was Resolution 678, passed on November 29, giving Iraq a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991, and authorizing "all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660", a diplomatic formulation authorizing the use of force.

The United States, especially Secretary of State James Baker, assembled a coalition of forces to join it in opposing Iraq, consisting of forces from 34 countries: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Honduras, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States itself. US troops represented 74% of 660,000 troops in the theater of war. Many of the coalition forces were reluctant to join; some felt that the war was an internal Arab affair, or feared increasing American influence in Kuwait. In the end, many nations were persuaded by Iraq's belligerence towards other Arab states, and offers of economic aid or debt forgiveness.

Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and President Bush Sr. visit U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day, 1990.
Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and President Bush Sr. visit U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day, 1990.

The United States gave several public justifications for involvement in the conflict. The first reasons given were the importance of oil to the American economy and the United States' longstanding friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, some Americans were dissatisfied with these explanations and "No Blood For Oil" became a rallying cry for domestic opponents of the war, though they never reached the size of opposition to the Vietnam War. Later justifications for the war included Iraq's history of human rights abuses under President Saddam Hussein, the potential that Iraq may develop nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, and that "naked aggression will not stand."

Although the human rights abuses of the Iraq regime before and after the Kuwait invasion were well-documented, the government of Kuwait set out to influence American opinion with a few spectacular, but embellished and false accounts. Shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the organization Citizens for a Free Kuwait was formed in the U.S. It hired the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton for about $11 million, money from the Kuwaiti government. This firm went on to manufacture a campaign which described Iraqi soldiers pulling babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals and letting them die on the floor. A video news release was widely distributed by US TV networks; false supporting testimony was given before Congress and before the UN Security Council. The fifteen-year-old girl testifying before Congress was later revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States; the supposed surgeon testifying at the UN was in fact a dentist who later admitted to having lied. (For more, see Nurse Nayirah.)

Various peace proposals were floated, but none were agreed to. The United States insisted that the only acceptable terms for peace were Iraq's full, unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq insisted that withdrawal from Kuwait must be "linked" to a simultaneous withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and Israeli troops from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. Morocco and Jordan were persuaded by this proposal, but Syria, Israel, and the anti-Iraq coalition denied that there was any connection to the Kuwait issue. Syria joined the coalition to expel Saddam but Israel remained officially neutral despite rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. The Bush administration persuaded Israel to remain outside the conflict with promises of increased aid, while the PLO under Yasser Arafat openly supported Saddam Hussein, leading to a later rupture in Palestinian-Kuwaiti ties and the expulsion of many Palestinians from Kuwait.

On January 12, 1991 the United States Congress authorized the use of military force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Soon after the other states in the coalition did the same.

Air campaign

A day after the deadline set in Resolution 678, the coalition launched a massive air campaign codenamed Operation Desert Storm: more than 1,000 sorties per day, beginning early morning on January 17, 1991. Five hours after the first attacks, Baghdad state radio broadcast a voice identified as Saddam Hussein declaring that "The great duel, the mother of all battles has begun. The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins."

Weapons used in the air campaign included smart bombs, cluster bombs, daisy cutters and cruise missiles. Iraq responded by launching 8 Scud missiles into Israel the next day. The first priority for coalition forces was destruction of the Iraqi air force and anti-aircraft facilities. This was quickly achieved and for the duration of the war Coalition aircraft could operate largely unchallenged. Despite Iraq's better-than-expected anti-aircraft capabilities, only one coalition aircraft was lost in the opening day of the war. Stealth aircraft were heavily used in this phase to elude Iraq's extensive SAM systems and anti-aircraft weapons; once these were destroyed, other types of aircraft could more safely be used. The sorties were launched mostly from Saudi Arabia and the six coalition aircraft carrier groups in the Persian Gulf.

The next coalition targets were command and communication facilities. Saddam had closely micromanaged the Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq War and initiative at the lower levels was discouraged. Coalition planners hoped Iraqi resistance would quickly collapse if deprived of command and control. The first week of the air war saw a few Iraqi sorties but these did little damage, and thirty-eight Iraqi MiGs were shot down by Coalition planes. Soon after, the Iraqi airforce began fleeing to Iran. On January 23, Iraq began dumping approximately 1 million tons of crude oil into the gulf, causing the largest oil spill in history.

The third and largest phase of the air campaign targeted military targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait: Scud missile launchers, weapons of mass destruction sites, weapons research facilities and naval forces. About one third of the Coalition airpower was devoted to attacking Scuds, which were on trucks and therefore difficult to locate. In addition, it targeted facilities useful for both the military and civilians: electricity production facilities, nuclear reactors, telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution, railroads and bridges. Electrical power facilities were destroyed across the country. At the end of the war, electricity production was at four percent of its pre-war levels. Bombs destroyed the utility of all major dams, most major pumping stations and many sewage treatment plants.

In most cases, the Allies avoided hitting civilian-only facilities. However, on February 13, 1991, two laser-guided "smart bombs" destroyed the Amiriyah blockhouse, which the Iraqis claimed was for the auspices of an air shelter. U.S. officials claimed that the blockhouse was a military communications center, but Western reporters have been unable to find evidence for this. The White House claims, in a report titled Apparatus of Lies: Crafting Tragedy, that U.S. intelligence sources reported the blockhouse was being used for military command purposes. [11] In his book, Saddam's Bombmaker, the former director of Iraq's nuclear weapon program, who defected to the west, supports the theory that the facility was used for both purposes.

We sought refuge several times at the shelter.... But it was always filled.... The shelter had television sets, drinking fountains, its own electrical generator, and looked sturdy enough to withstand a hit from conventional weapons. But I stopped trying to get in one night after noticing some long black limousines slithering in and out of an underground gate in the back. I asked around and was told that it was a command center. After considering it more closely, I decided it was probably Saddam's own operational base.

Iraq launched missile attacks on coalition bases in Saudi Arabia and on Israel, in the hopes of drawing Israel into the war and drawing other Arab states out of it. This strategy proved ineffective. Israel did not join the coalition, and all Arab states stayed in the coalition except Jordan, which remained officially neutral throughout. The Scud missiles generally caused fairly light damage, although its potency was felt on February 25 when 28 Americans were killed when a Scud destroyed their barracks in Dhahran. On January 29, Iraq attacked and occupied the abandoned Saudi city of Khafji with tanks and infantry. However, the Battle of Khafji ended when Iraqis were driven back by Saudi forces supported by US Marines with close air support over the following two days.

The effect of the air campaign was to decimate entire Iraqi brigades deployed in the open desert in combat formation. The air campaign also prevented effective Iraqi resupply to forward deployed units engaged in combat, as well preventing the large number (450,000) of Iraqi troops from achieving the force concentration essential to victory.

The air campaign had a significant effect on the tactics employed by opposing forces in subsequent conflicts. No longer were entire divisions dug in the open facing U.S. forces but rather they were dispersed, e.g. Serbian forces in Kosovo. Opposing forces also reduced the length of their supply lines and the total area defended. This was seen during the war in Afghanistan when the Taliban preemptively abandoned large swaths of land and retreated into their strongholds. This increased their force concentration and reduced long vulnerable supply lines. This tactic was also observed in the invasion of Iraq when the Iraqi forces retreated from northern Iraqi Kurdistan into the cities.

Ground campaign

Operation Desert Storm
Operation Desert Storm

On February 22, 1991, Iraq agreed to a Soviet-proposed cease-fire agreement. The agreement called for Iraq to withdraw troops to pre-invasion positions within three weeks following a total cease-fire, and called for monitoring of the cease-fire and withdrawal to be overseen by the UN Security Council. The US rejected the proposal but said that retreating Iraqi forces would not be attacked, and gave twenty-four hours for Iraq to begin withdrawing forces.

On February 24, the U.S. began Operation Desert Sabre, the ground portion of its campaign. Soon after, U.S. Marines and their Arab allies penetrated deep into Kuwait, collecting thousands of deserting Iraqi troops, weakened and demoralized by the extensive air campaign. A few days into the campaign, Kuwait City was recaptured by units of the Kuwaiti Army.

At the same time, the U.S. VII Corps launched a massive armored attack into Iraq, just to the west of Kuwait, taking the Iraqis completely by surprise. The left flank of this movement was protecting by the French 6th Light Armored Division (which included units of the French Foreign Legion), and their right flank by the British 1st Armoured Division. Once the allies had penetrated deep into Iraqi territory, they turned eastward, launching a massive flank attack against the Republican Guard. Tank battles flared as the Republican Guard attempted to retreat, which the Allies won with minimal losses.

 General Colin Powell briefs President George H. W. Bush and his advisors on the progress of the ground war
General Colin Powell briefs President George H. W. Bush and his advisors on the progress of the ground war

The U.S. anticipated that Iraq might use chemical weapons; General Colin Powell later suggested that a U.S. response to such an act might have been to destroy dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, flooding Baghdad, though this was never fully developed as a plan.

The United States originally hoped that Saddam would be overthrown in an internal coup, and used CIA assets in Iraq to organize a revolt. When a popular rebellion against Saddam began in southern Iraq, the United States did not support it due to the fact that the coalition refused to aid in an invasion. As a result, not only was the rebellion brutally subdued, but the main CIA operative who was tasked with organizing the revolt was disavowed and accused of "disobeying orders to not organize a revolt".

In their co-written 1998 book, A World Transformed George Bush and Brent Scowcroft concluded that overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government would have fractured the alliance and would have had many unnecessary political and human costs associated with it.

The "Highway of Death".
The "Highway of Death".

Iraq did not use chemical weapons and the allied advance was much swifter than US generals expected. On February 26, Iraqi troops began retreating out of Kuwait, setting fire to Kuwaiti oil fields as they left. A long convoy of retreating Iraqi troops formed along the main Iraq-Kuwait highway. This convoy was bombed so extensively by the Allies that it came to be known as the Highway of Death. One hundred hours after the ground campaign started, President Bush declared a ceasefire and on February 27 declared that Kuwait had been liberated.

A peace conference was held in Iraqi territory occupied by the coalition. At the conference, Iraq won the approval of the use of armed helicopters on their side of the temporary border, ostensibly for government transit due to the damage done to civilian transportation. Soon after, these helicopters — and much of the Iraqi armed forces — were refocused toward fighting against a Shiite uprising in the south. In the North, Kurdish leaders took heart in American statements that they would support an uprising and began fighting, in the hopes of triggering a coup. However, when no American support was forthcoming, Iraqi generals remained loyal and brutally crushed the Kurdish troops. Millions of Kurds fled across the mountains to Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. These incidents would later result in no-fly zones being established in both the North and the South of Iraq. In Kuwait, the Emir was restored and suspected Iraqi collaborators were repressed. Eventually, over 400,000 people were expelled from the country, including a large number of Palestinians (due to their support of and collaboration with Saddam Hussein).

Both sides had roughly equal numbers of troops- approximately 540,000 Allied troops to approximately 545,000 Iraqi troops. A further 100,000 Turkish troops were deployed along the common border of Turkey and Iraq. This caused significant force dilution of the Iraqi military by forcing it to deploy its forces along all its borders (except ironically its bitter enemy Iran). This allowed the main thrust by the Americans to not only possess a significant technological advantage but also an equality in force numbers.

A US Army convoy crosses the Iraqi desert.
A US Army convoy crosses the Iraqi desert.

The main surprise of the ground campaign was relatively low Allied casualties. This was due to some tactical errors on the part of the Iraqis such as deploying tanks behind sand berms which offered no protection against the kinetic energy rounds used by the M1 Abrams and the other coalition tanks. Fighting from such obvious defensive positions gave away the location of the Iraqi tanks from a great distance. The Iraqi forces also failed to utilize the advantage that could be gained from using urban warfare - fighting within Kuwait City, which could have inflicted significant casualities on the attacking forces. The confines of the urban geography would have reduced the greatest advantage of the Allies, the ability to kill at long range. In the desert M1 Abrams tanks scored kills out to 4 kilometers. Rarely in urban combat does the fighting range exceed 1 km, a range at which theoretically the M1 Abrams tank was vulnerable to the 125 mm gun of the Iraqi T-72 tanks.

On March 10, 1991, Operation Desert Farewell began to move 540,000 American troops out of the Persian Gulf.

Coalition involvement

Members of the Coalition included Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States of America. Germany and Japan provided financial assistance instead of military aid. Israel remained officially neutral despite rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.


Canada was one of the first nations to agree to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and it quickly agreed to join the U.S.-led coalition. In August Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent the destroyers HMCS Terra Nova and HMCS Athabaskan to enforce the trade blockade against Iraq. The supply ship HMCS Protecteur was also sent to aid the gathering coalition forces.

After the UN authorized full use of force in the operation Canada sent a CF18 squadron with support personnel. Canada also sent a field hospital to deal with casualties from the ground war. When the air war began, Canada's planes were integrated into the coalition force and provided air cover and attacked ground targets. This was the first time since the Korean War that Canadian forces had participated in offensive combat operations.

Canada suffered no casualties during the conflict but since its end many veterans have complained of suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.


Casualties During the War

Persian Gulf War casualty numbers are controversial. Coalition military deaths have been reported to be around 378, but the DoD reports that US forces suffered 147 battle-related and 325 non-battle-related deaths. The UK suffered 24 deaths (nine of those due to friendly fire), the Arab countries lost 39 men (18 Saudis, 10 Egyptians, 6 from the UAE, 3 Syrians, and 1 Kuwaiti), and France lost 2 men. The largest single loss of Coalition forces happened on February 25, 1991, when an Iraqi Scud missile hit an American military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia killing 28 U.S. Army Reservists from Pennsylvania. The number of coalition wounded seems to have been less than 1,000.

Before the war Pentagon officials were estimating 30,000-40,000 coalition casualties. The Dupuy Institute stood alone and in front of Congress predicted Coalition Casualties below 6,000. They used the TNDM model which makes use of historical data from previous wars to predict causalities. While the Institute was phenomenally accurate; it was because the Iraqi armed forces fought in the open desert with tanks placed behind sand berms. Had the Iraqi military made use of urban warfare in Kuwait city and dug their tanks in within the city perimeters instead of behind sand berms the actual figures may have been different. The TNDM model makes use of 'human' factors such as morale and they predicted that very few Iraqi divisions would put up resistance. This is a value judgment that is difficult to make accurately before war. The 120,000 professional Iraqi soldiers backed by 4,500 tanks, 4,000 armored vehicles and 3,000 artillery pieces and with another 280,000 conscripted soldiers armed with RPG's, heavy mortars and heavy machines guns provided a force that could have made the low casualty estimate not inevitable. The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have aptly demonstrated how casualities can be inflicted by a technologically inferior force which utilizes urban environments for concealment and cover against precise artillery and air strikes. It has demonstrated how urban warfare might have blunted the greatest advantage of the Coalition, long distance killing. 120,000 committed soldiers backed by modern equipment could be expected to cause large causalities on the order of several thousand; the fact that it did not happen in the Gulf War is no guarantee that it will not happen in the future.

Independent analysts generally agree the Iraqi death toll was well below initial post-war estimates. In the immediate aftermath of the war, these estimates ranged as high as 100,000 Iraqi troops killed and 300,000 wounded. According to "Gulf War Air Power Survey" by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, (a report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force; 1993-ISBN 0-16-041950-6), there were an estimated 10-12,000 Iraqi combat deaths in the air campaign and as many as 10,000 casualties in the ground war. This analysis is based on enemy prisoner of war reports. The Iraqi government claimed that 2,300 civilians died during the air campaign.

One infamous incident during the war highlighted the question of large-scale Iraqi combat deaths. This was the `bulldozer assault' in which two brigades from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) used anti-mine plows mounted on tanks and combat earthmovers to bury Iraqi soldiers defending the fortified "Saddam Line." While approximately 2,000 of the troops surrendered, escaping burial, one newspaper story reported that the U.S. commanders estimated thousands of Iraqi soldiers had been buried alive during the two-day assault February 24-25, 1991. However, like all other troop estimates made during the war, the estimated 8,000 Iraqi defenders was probably greatly inflated. While one commander, Col. Anthony Moreno of the 2nd Brigade, thought the numbers might have been in the thousands, another reported his brigade buried between 80 and 250 Iraqis. After the war, the Iraqi government claimed to have found 44 such bodies. [12]

The Post-War Effects of Depleted Uranium

In 1998, Saddam government doctors reported that Coalition use of depleted uranium caused a massive increase in birth defects and cancer among Iraqis, particularly leukemia. The government doctors claimed they were unable to provide evidence linking depleted uranium to the cancer and birth defects because the sanctions prevented them from obtaining necessary testing equipment. Subsequently, a World Health Organization team visited Basra and proposed a study to investigate the causes of higher cancer rates in southern Iraq, but Saddam refused.

The World Health Organization was nonetheless able to assess the health risks of Depleted Uranium in a post-combat environment thanks to a 2001 mission to Kosovo. A 2001 WHO fact sheet on depleted uranium concludes: "because DU is only weakly radioactive, very large amounts of dust (on the order of grams) would have to be inhaled for the additional risk of lung cancer to be detectable in an exposed group. Risks for other radiation-induced cancers, including leukaemia, are considered to be very much lower than for lung cancer." In addition, "no reproductive or developmental effects have been reported in humans" as a result of DU exposure. [13]

The U.S. Department of State has also published a fact sheet on depleted uranium. It states: "World Health Organization and other scientific research studies indicate Depleted Uranium poses no serious health risks" and "[d]epleted Uranium does not cause birth defects. Iraqi military use of chemical and nerve agents in the 1980's and 1990's is the likely cause of alleged birth defects among Iraqi children." In regard to cancer claims, the fact sheet states that "[a]ccording to environmental health experts, it is medically impossible to contract leukemia as a result of exposure to uranium or depleted uranium," and "[c]ancer rates in almost 19,000 highly exposed uranium industry workers who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory projects between 1943 and 1947 have been examined, and no excess cancers were observed through 1974. Other epidemiological studies of lung cancer in uranium mill and metal processing plant workers have found either no excess cancers or attributed them to known carcinogens other than uranium, such as radon." [14]

However, some claim that the effect is more severe as the Depleted Uranium ammunition would fragment into tiny particles when it hit the target. [15]


Kuwaiti oil wells on fire.
Kuwaiti oil wells on fire.

The cost of the war to the United States was calculated by Congress to be $61.1 billion. Other sources estimate up to $71 billion. About $53 billion of that amount was paid by different countries around the world: $36 billion by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States; $16 billion by Germany and Japan (which sent no forces due to the treaties that ended WWII). About 25% of Saudi Arabia's contribution was paid in the form of in-kind services to the troops, such as food and transportation.

U.S. troops represented about 74% of the combined force, and the global cost was therefore higher. The United Kingdom, for instance, spent $4.1 billion during this war.


The Gulf War was a heavily televised war. For the first time people all over the world were able to watch live pictures of missiles hitting their targets and fighters taking off from aircraft carriers. Allied forces were keen to demonstrate the accuracy of their weapons.

The big-three network anchors led the network news coverage of the war. ABC's Peter Jennings, CBS's Dan Rather, and NBC's Tom Brokaw were anchoring their evening newscasts when air strikes began on January 16, 1991. ABC News correspondent Gary Shepard, reporting live from Baghdad, told Jennings of the quietness of the city. But, moments later, Shepard was back on the air as flashes of light were seen on the horizon and tracer fire was heard on the ground. On CBS, viewers were watching a report from correspondent Allen Pizzey, who was also reporting from Baghdad, when the war began. Rather, after the report was finished, announced that there were unconfirmed reports of flashes in Baghdad and heavy air traffic at bases in Saudi Arabia. On the "NBC Nightly News", correspondent Mike Boettcher reported unusual air activity in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Moments later, Brokaw announced to his viewers that the air attack had begun. But it was CNN who gained the most popularity for their coverage. CNN correspondents John Holliman and Peter Arnett and CNN anchor Bernard Shaw relayed telephone reports from the Al-Rashid Hotel as the air strikes began. Newspapers all over the world also covered the war and TIME Magazine published a special issue dated January 28, 1991, the headline "WAR IN THE GULF" emblazoned on the cover over a picture of Baghdad taken as the war began.

U.S. policy regarding media freedom was much more restrictive than in the Vietnam War. The policy had been spelled out in a Pentagon document entitled Annex Foxtrot. Most of the press information came from briefings organized by the military. Only selected journalists were allowed to visit the front lines or conduct interviews with soldiers. Those visits were always conducted in the presence of officers, and were subject to both prior approval by the military and censorship afterward. This was ostensibly to protect sensitive information from being revealed to Iraq, but often in practice it was used to protect politically embarrassing information from being revealed. This policy was heavily influenced by the military's experience with the Vietnam War, which it believed it had lost due to public opposition within the United States.

At the same time, the coverage of this war was new in its instantaneousness. Many American journalists remained stationed in the Iraqi capital Baghdad throughout the war, and footage of incoming missiles was carried almost immediately on the nightly television news and the cable news channels such as CNN. A British crew from CBS News (David Green & Andy Thompson) equipped with satellite transmission equipment travelled with the front line forces and having transmitted live TV pictures of the fighting en route, arrived the day before the forces in Kuwait City, broadcasting live television from the city and covering the entrance of the Arab forces the following day.


Saddam Hussein in a propaganda picture overseeing a war scene in the foreground.
Saddam Hussein in a propaganda picture overseeing a war scene in the foreground.

Following the uprisings in the north and south, no-fly zones were established to help protect the Shi'ite and Kurdish groups in South and North Iraq, respectively. These no-fly zones (originally north of the 36th parallel and south of the 32nd parallel) were monitored mainly by the United States and the United Kingdom, though France also participated. Combined, they flew more sorties over Iraq in the eleven years following the war than were flown during the war. These sorties dropped bombs nearly every other day. However, the greatest amount of bombs was dropped during two sustained bombing campaigns: Operation Desert Strike, which lasted a few weeks in September 1996, and Operation Desert Fox, in December 1998.

Widespread infrastructure destruction hurt the Iraqi population. Years after the war electricity production was less than a quarter its pre-war level. The destruction of water treatment facilities caused sewage to flow directly into the Tigris River, from which civilians drew drinking water, resulting in widespread disease.

Economic sanctions were kept in place following the war, pending a weapons inspection regime with which Iraq never fully cooperated. Iraq was later allowed to import certain products under the UN's Oil for Food program. A 1998 UNICEF report found that the sanctions resulted in an increase in 90,000 deaths per year. Many argue that the sanctions on Iraq and the American military presence in Saudi Arabia contributed to an increasingly negative image of the United States in the Arab world.

A United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons was established, to monitor Iraq's compliance with restrictions on weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. Iraq accepted some and refused other weapons inspections. The team found some evidence of biological weapons programs at one site and non-compliance at many other sites.

In 1997, Iraq expelled all U.S. members of the inspection team, alleging that the United States was using the inspections as a front for espionage; members of UNSCOM were in regular contact with various intelligence agencies to provide information on weapons sites back and forth. The team returned for an even more turbulent time period between 1997 and 1999; one member of the weapons inspection team, U.S. Marine Scott Ritter, resigned in 1998, alleging that the Clinton administration was blocking investigations because they did not want a full-scale confrontation with Iraq. He also alleged that the CIA was using the weapons inspection teams as a cover for covert operations. In 1999, the team was replaced by UNMOVIC, which began inspections in 2002. In 2002, Iraq — and especially Saddam Hussein — became targets in the United States' War on Terrorism, leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom.

Many returning coalition soldiers reported illnesses following their participation in the Gulf War, a phenomenon known as Gulf war syndrome. The number of children born in soldier's families with serious congenital defects or serious illnesses is also alarmingly high, 67%, according to a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs. [16] There has been widespread speculation and disagreement about the causes of the syndrome and birth defects (though the government has attempted to downplay the seriousness of the situation). A report published in 1994 by the Government Accountability Office said that American troops were exposed to 21 potential "reproductive toxicants". Some factors considered as possibly causal include exposure to radioactive depleted and non-depleted uranium used in munitions, oil fires, or the anthrax vaccine.

The People's Republic of China (whose army in many ways resembled the Iraqi army) was surprised at the performance of American technology on the battlefield. The swiftness of the coalition victory resulted in an overall change in Chinese military thinking and began a movement to technologically modernize the People's Liberation Army.

A crucial result of the Persian Gulf War, according to Gilles Kepel, was the sharp revival in Islamic extremism. The change of face by Saddam's secular regime did little to draw support from Islamist groups. However, it, combined with the Saudi Arabian alliance with the United States and Saudi Arabia being seen as being on the same side of Israel dramatically eroded that regime's legitimacy. Activity of Islamist groups against the Saudi regime increased dramatically. In part to win back favour with Islamist groups Saudi Arabia greatly increased funding to those that would support the regime. Throughout the newly independent states of Central Asia the Saudis paid for the distribution of millions of Qur'ans and the building of hundreds of mosques for extremist groups. In Afghanistan the Saudi regime became a leading patron of the Taliban in that nation's civil war, and one of the only foreign countries to officially recognize the government.


Precision guided munitions (PGMs, also "smart bombs"), such as the United States Air Force guided missile AGM-130, were heralded as key in allowing military strikes to be made with a minimum of civilian casualties compared to previous wars. Specific buildings in downtown Baghdad could be bombed whilst journalists in their hotels watched cruise missiles fly by. PGMs amounted to approximately 7.4% of all bombs dropped by the coalition. Other bombs included cluster bombs, which break up into clusters of bomblets, and daisy cutters, 15,000-pound bombs which can disintegrate everything within hundreds of yards.

Scud is a low-technology rocket bomb that Iraq used, launching them into both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some bombs caused extensive casualties, others caused little damage. Concerns were raised of possible chemical or biological warheads on these rockets, but if they existed they were not used.

America's Patriot missile defense was used for the first time in combat. The U.S. military claimed to have shot down many Scud rockets in flight, with an effectiveness of 100%. Afterwards, it was demonstrated that the Patriots' effectiveness was primarily psychological: some claim that their effectiveness was as low as between 0% to 10%. However, there really is no good evidence to prove whether the Scuds were intercepted or not, so no figures are really backed up by undisputed facts. The higher figures tend to be calculated based on the percentage of Scud warheads which were known to have impacted and exploded compared to the number of Scud missiles launched, but due to factors such as duds, misses and impacts which were not reported (some Scud variations were re-engineered in a manner outside their original tolerance, and said to have frequently failed or broken up in flight), this is not really a good way to measure effectiveness. The lowest figures are typically based upon the number of interceptions where there is proof that the warhead was hit by at least one missile, but due to the way the poorly built Al-Hussein (Scud derivative) missiles broke up in flight, it was often hard to tell which piece was the warhead, and there were few radar tracks which were actually stored which could be analyzed later, hence the very low figures. Realistically the actual performance was probably somewhere in between. The U.S. Army maintains the Patriot delivered a "miracle performance" in the Gulf War. [17]

Global Positioning System units were key in enabling coalition units to navigate easily across the desert. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and satellite communication systems were also important.

See also

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Films about the Gulf War

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