On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait, triggering a series of events that would culminate in the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion, citing unfair Kuwaiti economic practices, perhaps owing to an unclear understanding of America's position.
Hussein had become president of Iraq in 1979, though he had been the power behind the scenes for many years prior. That same year saw tremendous upheaval in Persian Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor. The Iranian Revolution was rooted in Islamic fundamentalism and rejected secular influences like capitalism, communism, nationalism and liberalism. By contrast, Hussein was an Arab nationalist leader who paid lip service to Islam, but who held Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as his role models.
Afraid that Islamic fundamentalism might spread to Iraq, and wishing to expand his power in the Middle East, Hussein ordered a surprise attack upon Iran in September 1980. The resulting Iran-Iraq War proved to be one of the most barbaric in modern history. One reason why Americans feared Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in the early 2000s was because he had not only possessed but used WMDs in his war against Iran in widespread chemical weapons attacks. By contrast, the Iranians frequently used their soldiers as cannon fodder, even sending students into minefields to clear a path for their tanks.
Offering Iraq a measure of intelligence and logistical support, the United States also weapons to the Iranians, in what would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal, something even President Ronald Reagan's staunchest supporters admitted was an ill-conceived scheme. After years of strategic stalemate, the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988.
In his book, “The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988,” historian Efraim Karsh wrote: “Though the Iraqi regime went out of its way to portray the end of the war as a shinning victory, the truth was that Iraq, no less than Iran, emerged from the eight-year conflict a crippled nation. At least 200,000 Iraqis had lost their lives, while about 400,000 had been wounded and some 70,000 taken prisoner — an exorbitant price for a nation of 17 million people. In 1980, Iraq could boast a $35 billion foreign exchange reserve; eight years later it had accumulated a foreign debt of some $80 billion — roughly twice the size of its Gross National Product.”
Exact numbers for Iran's war dead are still not known, though some have suggested that they may have lost as many as half a million citizens. Iraq's debt stemmed largely from its agreements with other Middle Eastern states such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Not wishing to see a radical Shi'ite Muslim victory in the war, these Sunni states increasingly loaned Iraq the money it needed to fund its war. With the war ended, Iraq found itself heavily in debt to its fellow Arab states.
Like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states, Iraq's principle source of income came from its oil exports. With so much of its economy smashed by the war, Iraq could not meet its financial obligations during the agreed upon timetables. To make matters worse, Kuwait and the UAE began overproducing oil, driving down prices across the Middle East. For Hussein, this was an unacceptable slap in the face to a nation that had bled to protect the Arab states.
Meeting with King Hussein of Jordan and Egypt's President Mubarak in Amman in February 1990, Saddam Hussein formally stated a position he had been expressing for some time — that not only should Iraq not have to pay back its wartime debts, but that the Arab world should loan Iraq an additional $30 billion. He concluded the meeting by stating, “Let the Gulf regimes know, that if they will not give this money to me, I will know how to get it.”
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