Gulf (Kuwait)




Saudi Arabia


United States

Other Arab states







 Bush war


Previous Iraqi threats to Kuwait were in 1961, 1968, 1973.

On 3 August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, a small independent Emirate (monarchy) on the Gulf. Saddam Hussein was believed to have four main war aims. (Some reports suggest he had intended to occupy only the border areas but invaded the whole state on impulse).

  • 1) Immediately, to raise oil prices by reducing Kuwait's production in order to fund reconstruction following the war with Iran
  • 2) to cancel very large debts owed by Iraq to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which had lent money to Iraq to pay for the war with Iran.
  • 3) To stop Kuwait drilling oil from under the frontier in the Rumaila oil field.
  • 4) to gain access to the Gulf without having to pass through Iranian and Kuwaiti waters
  • 5) in the longer run to gain control over 20% of the world's oil reserves.

Perhaps Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, intended further expansion to Saudi Arabia to control 50% of the world's oil reserves. If he generally acted according to opportunity then the threat of force was effective and necessary.

There have been disputed reports (possibly Iraqi propaganda) that the American government through its ambassador in Baghdad, prior to the invasion, had indicated to Saddam Hussein that they would not object to pressure being put on Kuwait, and even advised that Iraq's economic problems could best be solved by getting OPEC to raise prices. If these reports are true, Saddam Hussein may have thought that he would not be resisted. (Oil-producing states in the US were also suffering from low world oil prices). This seems likely to become one of the main historical disputes about this war. The ambassador, April Glaspie, has since denied that she advised Saddam Hussein that the US would not fight. However, the US had been supporting Saddam right up to this moment with export credits and arms supplies so that he must have thought he would continue to receive support. He had been encouraged to continue to fight Iran as a proxy for the US.

There is also speculation that it was Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of Britain, who persuaded the US president Bush to act but also may have provoked Saddam by advising the Emir of Kuwait not to negotiate.

Iraq used most of its past oil revenue to build up the military, rather than for civilian development. Its weapons were bought from the Soviet Union, France, Britain and West Germany. Iraq has developed and used chemical weapons and has been proved to undertake research into nuclear weapons. There was no reliable information at the time on whether it had nuclear weapons. The nuclear facilities were believed to have been destroyed during the war but later investigation showed that many escaped destruction. United Nations inspectors tried to close them down. Evidence suggested that a possible nuclear device might have been ready in about a year.

Iraq claims that Kuwait was ruled from Basra during the time of the Ottoman Empire - though the actual extent of Ottoman control is disputed - and that Kuwait owes its frontier to a British demarcation. However, there is the counter claim by non-Iraqis and Kurds that Iraq also is the result of a British (actually the Peace Conferences of 1920-21) decision when Kurdistan was added to the southern, Arabic speaking provinces. In modern times claims of sovereignty based on historical cases are usually disregarded. The test of sovereignty now is membership of the United Nations and the wishes of the people. The peoples of Iraq have never been consulted on the form of the state or the government. (Nor have the Kuwaitis.)

The Kuwaitis and Americans asked the United Nations to order economic sanctions on Iraq. A large American force with backing from several European powers and some Arab states, came to Saudi Arabia to protect the oil fields from Iraqi invasion. A UN resolution followed authorizing any means to force him to leave Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein appeared to be popular outside Iraq among most ordinary Arabs who resented the control of the oil fields and market by foreigners and their inability to protect the Palestinians from Israel.

President H W Bush's war aims were less clear. There seemed to be a combination of four aims:

  • 1) to secure oil supplies from arbitrary pricing and quasi-monopoly control
  • 2) to prevent Iraq remaining a dominant power in the area
  • 3) to uphold sovereignty and discourage the changing of frontiers by war.
  • 4) to prevent Iraq building and deploying nuclear weapons.

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a violator of human rights and alleged committer of genocide in Kurdistan was probably not an important factor as all the powers assisted Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran when his character was already well known.

Saudi Arabia presumably feared attack by Iraq on its oil fields and possibly their annexation. Saudi Arabia requested American help to prevent this.

After Palestine, the Gulf conflict was the world's second most dangerous dispute, mainly because there was no obvious final settlement possible. Following the defeat of Iraq a further conflict seemed likely later if Iraq breaks up into its constituent ethnic regions. There could be little doubt that as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power he would have gone to war again if he thought he would gain by it.

If Iraq had succeeded in bringing down the Gulf monarchies the industrial powers feared that oil would have been priced high and that Saddam Hussein would then have controlled a wealthy nuclear-armed military power, perhaps absorbing large parts of the Arab world - as is the declared ideology of the Ba'ath Party. In practice however, the behavior of Iraq's occupying forces suggested that Saddam saw Kuwait as a source of booty rather than a permanent possession.

Scientists concerned with pollution and climate change see advantages in the industrial powers being forced to use less oil. Many Arabs would like to prolong the life of their main asset by pumping more slowly.

Actual fighting began on 17 January 1991 when American, British, Saudi and Kuwaiti bombers attacked Iraqi military, economic and governmental targets. The land war lasted from 24th to 27th February, when Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi occupation, but in a damaged condition. In particular the whole oil industry of the country was disabled by being set on fire and blown up.

The war has been claimed to be the most violent in the 20th century. The number of casualties is unknown but believed to number in the hundreds of thousands. A retreating Iraqi army leaving Kuwait was bombed in an act claimed to be the biggest military massacre in modern times.

Although Saddam Hussein admitted defeat he refused to renounce claims to Kuwait.

The war seems likely to be a landmark in the use of technological weapons and in the contrast between a modern industrial army and a Third World army well-armed with obsolete weapons but with poor motivation.

The aftermath of the war saw a rising by the two main minority groups in Iraq, the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites in the south. However, although President Bush had called on the Iraqi people to overthrow the government, he apparently gave them no assistance and they were defeated again, causing as many as two million to become refugees in Iran and Turkey.

It will probably be some years before historians can come to a conclusion about the policies of the different powers in this war. For example, what was the United States government's intention for Iraq? Some have said that their actions appeared to be intended to weaken Saddam Hussein but keep a dictatorship of some kind in power, rather than the democracy Iraqi opposition groups were calling for.

Further actions were the setting up of a "Safe Haven" for the Kurds who were fleeing from Saddam Hussein's forces across the border into Turkey and Iran. But the occupation by American and British forces was short and they withdrew in mid-July 1991 leaving behind a "no-fly" zone, patrolled by US planes. No assistance was given to the Shi'ites who fled into the marshes of southern Iraq.

(The US is believed to have feared that the Shi'ites would ally themselves closely with Iran and preferred to maintain Iraq even at the expense of massacres). In practice no government will do anything for the Kurds, as this would annoy the Turks.

By February 1993 Saddam was still in power, UN sanctions were still operative and the people were still suffering from lack of food and health care. A "no-fly" zone was declared over the southern provinces to prevent Saddam's troops bombing the Marsh people, but his troops continued to attack them, even diverting the river in order dry up the marshes where the people have lived since Sumerian times.

The UN carried out a frontier revision, giving some territory, including Iraq's naval base at Umm Qasr, to Kuwait. But even Iraqi opponents of Saddam are likely to resent this change. This led to further disputes and bombing of Iraqi sites by American, French and British planes and missiles in January 1993. These bombardments continued until the war of 2003.

The author taught in Iraq before the Kuwait invasion.

Last revised 1/08/10


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