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Gulf War
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Gulf War

Alternate uses: 2003 invasion of Iraq and Gulf War (disambiguation)

The Gulf War was a conflict between Iraq and a coalition force of 34 nations led by the United States. The war started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The result of the war was 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 of the immediate Iraq/Kuwait/Saudi border region, although Iraq fired missiles on Israeli cities.

Other common names for the conflict include: the Persian Gulf War, War in the Gulf, Iraq-Kuwait Conflict, UN-Iraq conflict, Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert Sabre, and 1990 Gulf War (for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), 1991 Gulf War (1990-1991), and Gulf War Sr.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Onset
3 Air Campaign
4 Ground Campaign
5 Canadian Involvement
6 Casualties
7 Cost
8 Media
9 Consequences
10 Technology
11 Important Individuals
12 Films
13 Related Legislation
14 Related articles
15 Bibliography
16 Further reading


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 monarchy. However, Iraqi officials did not accept the legitimacy of Kuwaiti independence.

In the 1960s, the United Kingdom deployed troops to Kuwait to deter an Iraqi invasion.

Following the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iraq was extremely indebted to several Arab countries, including a $14 billion debt to Kuwait (Hiro, 1992). 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 charged that Kuwait had taken advantage of the Iran-Iraq War to drill for oil and build military outposts on Iraqi soil near Kuwait. Furthermore, Iraq charged that it had performed a collective service for all Arabs by acting as a buffer against Iran and that therefore Kuwait and Saudi Arabia should negotiate or cancel Iraq's war debts.

During the war, Iraq enjoyed good relations with the United States: the United States tilted towards supporting Iraq, despite (or perhaps because of) earlier Soviet influence in Iraq, and supplied it with weapons and economic aid (with the only aberration being the Iran-Contra affair, where some American officials secretly and illegally sold arms to Iran). Following the war, there were moves within the United States Congress to isolate Iraq diplomatically and economically over concerns about human rights violations. These moves were disowned by high-ranking US senators like Robert Dole, who told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that "Congress does not represent U.S. President George H. W. Bush or the government" and that Bush would veto any move toward sanctions against Iraq. (From the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, as published in Sifry et al, 1991.)

In late July, 1990, as negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait stalled, Iraq amassed troops on Kuwait's borders and summoned American ambassador April Glaspie for an unanticipated meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In that meeting, Saddam outlined his grievances against Kuwait, while promising that he would not invade Kuwait before one more round of negotiations. Although Glaspie expressed concern over the troop buildup, some people perceived her answers as giving tacit approval for an invasion, by saying that the US "[has] no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait" (from the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, as published in Sifry). To emphasize this point, she also said at the meeting, "James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction." Although ambassador Glaspie shortly after left the foreign service, US sources say that she had handled everything "by the book" and had not signaled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein any approval for defying the Arab League's Jeddah crisis squad which conducted the negotiations. However, Saddam's expectations may have been preoccupied by the perception that the US just at this time was approving the reunification of Germany, another act that he considered to be nothing more than the nullification of an artificial, internal border.

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 this 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 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.

William Blum argues in his book, Killing Hope, that Iraq was right about the CIA-Kuwait plot. The plot, Blum argues, was in response to increasing Iraqi warnings about American hegemony in the Gulf region, as well as to help stanch expected cuts in defense spending and boost President Bush's domestic popularity.

The Onset

Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait with armor and infantry, occupying strategic posts throughout the country, including the Emir's palace, on August 2, 1990. The Kuwaiti Army was quickly overwhelmed, though they bought enough time for the Kuwaiti Air Force to flee to Saudi Arabia. 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. Iraq initially established a puppet "liberated" Kuwaiti government


Within hours of the initial invasion, the Kuwaiti and US 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 come from within the Arab League, and warned against foreign intervention. On August 6, the Security Council passed Resolution 661, placing economic sanctions on Iraq.

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 [PRES], 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.

There is no evidence that Iraq ever intended to invade Saudi Arabia, as even General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr, the allied commander during the conflict, admitted. Iraq claimed all throughout that its only intent was to reclaim its "province" Kuwait. The Department of Defense claimed to have satellite photos of a large troop buildup in Kuwait along the Saudi border, but never made them public for security reasons. Other satellite photos purchased from Soviet satellite sources apparently showed no such buildup.

The United States navy mobilised two naval battle groups, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Independence, to the area [NAVY], where they were ready by August 8. 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 soldiers from 34 countries: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Honduras, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, The Netherlands, 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; others feared increasing American influence in Kuwait. In the end, many nations were persuaded by offers of economic aid or debt forgiveness. (Blum)

The United States went through a number of different public justifications for their 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 [PRES]. However, some Americans were dissatisfied with these explanations and "No Blood For Oil" became a rallying cry for domestic peace activists, though opposition never reached the size of opposition to the Vietnam War and demonstrations in the United States were often overwhelmed by people protesting the protesters. 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 [against Kuwait] will not stand."

Shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the organization Citizens for a Free Kuwait was formed in the US. 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 fake 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. [MCA] (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, Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon.

On January 12, 1991 the United States Congress authorized the use of military force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Air Campaign

On January 16, 1991, one 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. Weapons used included smart bombs, cluster bombs, daisy cutters, and cruise missiles (see below). Iraq responded by launching 8 Scud missiles into Israel the next day. Air superiority in the theatre was quickly achieved; coalition air forces flew sorties largely unchallenged.

The air campaign targeted military targets like the Iraqi Republican Guard in Kuwait, air defense systems, Scud missile launchers, air forces and airfields, weapons research facilities, and naval forces. In addition, it targeted facilities useful for both the military and civilians: electricity production facilities, telecommunications equipment, port facilities, oil refineries and distribution, railroads and bridges. [RCCPGW] Two live nuclear reactors were bombed (see Washington Post article by Atkinson & Devroy), in violation of the recently passed UN Resolution 45/52 banning such attacks. Electrical power facilities were destroyed across the country. At the end of the war, electricity production was at 4% of its pre-war levels; months later, it was still only at 20-25%. (Bolkom) Bombs destroyed the utility of all major dams, most major pumping stations, and many sewage treatment plants. Sewage flowed directly into the Tigris River, from which civilians drew drinking water, resulting in widespread disease (Arbuthnot, Felicity). Documents released by The Pentagon indicate that "increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease" were anticipated and perhaps intended. (See the leaked memo: Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities). In most cases, the Allies avoided hitting civilian-only facilities. However, on February 13, 1991 two laser-guided "smart bombs" destroyed an air raid shelter in Baghdad killing hundreds of Iraqis. U.S. officials claimed that the bunker was a military communications center, but Western reporters have been unable to find evidence for this. (See Is Iraq coming in from the cold? by Allan Little, linked below. This strike is also discussed in Killing Hope.)

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. On January 29, Iraq attacked and occupied the abandoned Saudi city of Khafji with tanks and infantry. However, the Iraqis were driven back by Saudi forces over the following two days.

Ground Campaign

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 US began Operation Desert Sabre, the ground portion of its campaign. US forces pulled plows along Iraqi trenches, burying their occupants alive. Soon after, a convoy of Marines penetrated deep into Iraqi territory, collecting thousands of deserting Iraqi troops, weakened and demoralised by the extensive air campaign. The US anticipated that Iraq might use chemical weapons; General Colin Powell later suggested that a US response to such an act might have been to destroy dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, drowning Baghdad in water, though this was never fully developed as a plan. [PBS]

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--along with Iraqi and Palestinian civilians--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. Journalist Seymour Hersh has charged that, two days after the ceasefire was declared, American troops led by Barry McCaffrey engaged in a systematic massacre of retreating Iraqi troops, in addition to some civilians. McCaffrey has denied the charges and an army investigation has cleared him. (Forbes, Daniel)

A peace conference was held in allied-occupied Iraq. At the conference, Iraq negotiated use of armed helicopters on their side of the temporary border. 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 a people's 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 in both the North and the South (see below). In Kuwait, the Emir was restored and pro-democracy forces were attacked along with suspected Iraqi collaborators, especially Palestinians. Eventually, over 400,000 people were expelled from the country. [PBS]

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

Canadian Involvement

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. When the UN authorized full use of force in the operation Canada sent a CF18 sqaudron 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 combat operations.

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


Gulf War casualty numbers are controversial. Coalition military deaths seem to be around 378, with US forces suffering 148 battle-related and 145 non-battle-related deaths (included in the 378). The UK suffered 47 deaths. 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. Iraqi casualty numbers are highly disputed. Some claim as low as 1,500 military killed, some 200,000. Many scholars believe a number around 25,000 to 75,000. The number of military wounded is equally unknown. 71,000 Iraqis were taken as prisoners of war by US troops. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from just 100 persons to 200,000 excess deaths as a result of the war.


The cost of the war to the United States was calculated by Congress to be $61.1 billion; two-thirds of that amount was paid by Kuwait, Japan and Saudi-Arabia..


The Gulf War was a "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 "pin-point" accuracy of their weapons.
The US policy regarding media freedom was much more restrictive than in the 
Vietnam War. 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.


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
Shiite and Kurdish minorities in South and North Iraq, respectively. These no-fly zones (originally north of the 36th parallel and south of the 32nd) were monitored mainly by the US and the UK. 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.

Economic sanctions were kept in place following the war, pending a weapons inspection regime with which Iraq never fully cooperated. Iraq was allowed to import certain products under the so-called oil-for-food program. A 1998 UNICEF report found that the sanctions resulted in an increase in 90,000 deaths per year [IAC]. The sanctions on Iraq and the American military presence in Saudi Arabia contributed to the United States' increasingly negative image within 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 US members of the inspection team, alleging that the United States was using the inspections as a front for espionage, which the U.S. later admitted was true. The team returned for an even more turbulent time period between 1997 and 1999; one member of the weapons inspection team, US Marine Scott Ritter, resigned in 1998, alleging that the United States 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 inside Iraq. In 1999, the team was replaced by a new team which began inspections in 2002. For more on these inspections, see Iraq disarmament crisis. 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. There has been widespread speculation and disagreement about the causes (and existence) of this syndrome. Some factors considered as possibly causal include exposure to depleted uranium, oil fires, or the anthrax vaccine.

Palestinian support for Iraq caused some discontent among its Arab supporters and this had the effect of causing the Palestinians to begin secret negotiations with Israel which led to the Oslo Accords. The People's Republic of China was surprised by the swiftness of the Coalition victory and this led to the start of a high technology change in the People's Liberation Army.


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, supposedly, a minimum of civilian casualties. 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". (Walker)

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 US 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: their effectiveness was probably somewhere between 0% to 10%. The US Army maintains the Patriot delivered a "miracle performance" in the Gulf War.

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

Important Individuals

United States:

Iraq: Others:


Related Legislation

Related articles


Further reading