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.”
In July, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz dramatically denounced Kuwait and the UAE to the secretary of the Arab League, historian John Keegan noted in his book “The Iraq War.” “A drop of $1 in the price of a barrel of oil leads to a drop of $1 billion in Iraqi revenues annually.” Aziz noted that Iraq had spent $102 billion in wartime costs and had lost another $106 billion because Iraq could not fully exploit its oil production during the war. Iraq had fought for the Arab world, he noted, so why were Kuwait and the UAE demanding repayment?
Aziz said, “How can these amounts be regarded as Iraqi debts to its Arab brothers when Iraq made sacrifices that are many times more than these debts in terms of Iraqi resources during the grinding war and offered rivers of blood of its youth in defense of the (Arab) nation's soil, dignity, honor and wealth?”
Increasingly, the Iraqi president verbally lashed out against his creditor nations, and even began sending troops to the border with Kuwait. In his book, “Islamic Imperialism: A History,” Karsh wrote: “As Iraqi troops were massing along the Kuwaiti border during July 1990... the Americans were fixated on Europe. This had been the case since the revolutions of 1989 had brought the East European communist regimes tumbling down. The general mood was euphoric. A brave new world was around the corner. No minor disputes between Third World autocrats would be allowed to spoil this moment of celebration.”
Like Hitler, Hussein was always a risk-taker when it came to politics and war. With his preparations for an invasion of Kuwait in place, there was just one thing he had to know — what was the position of the United States?
On July 25, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with Hussein in Baghdad, Keegan wrote. Hussein gave the ambassador a note to pass on to U.S. President George H. W. Bush, that read in part, “We don't want war... but do not push us to consider war as the only solution to live proudly and to provide our people with a good living.”
The discussion between Hussein and Glaspie has been the subject of much controversy, given what followed, according to Keeghan’s “The Iraq War.” Glaspie told Hussein that his military buildup along the Kuwaiti border was cause for concern, but she also stated incomprehensibly that “we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.” She then suggested possible intermediaries like the Arab League that could perhaps broker an acceptable solution. Hussein closed with the words, “But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq cannot accept death.”
In her official report following the meeting, Glaspie stated of Hussein that “his emphasis that he wants a peaceful settlement is surely sincere.” Apparently, she believed she had made herself clear, and that the U.S. and Iraq had an understanding. Clearly, Hussein must have seen Glaspie's statement of “Arab-Arab conflicts” as a sort of green light.
After the invasion, Glaspie told The New York Times, “Obviously, I didn't think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.”
Did she just expect Hussein to adjust the border by force and take some of Kuwait? Even that would have amounted to an enormous violation of international law. Most likely believing that America was distracted with Europe and disinterested with the Middle East, Hussein decided to launch his attack upon Kuwait on August 2. Kuwait was to become Iraq's “19th province.”
In his book “The Iraq War,” Keegan wrote, “The Iraqi army was experienced and plentifully equipped. Fully mobilized, it numbered a million men, organized into 60 divisions, including 12 armored and mechanized. Seven of the divisions belonged to the Republican Guard, better equipped and chosen for political reliability. These, however, were only paper strengths; the coalition (that eventually fought the Iraqi army) identified only 43 divisions on the ground.”
The Iraqis also boasted over 8,000 tanks and armored infantry vehicles, perhaps as many as a 1,000 mobile artillery pieces, and over 700 aircraft.
Compared to this massive force that, on paper, made the Iraqi military one of the largest on the planet, the Kuwaitis boasted an army of only 16,000 men. Decimating the Kuwaiti army, the Iraqis swiftly moved into the small nation. The elite Republican Guard units positioned themselves along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border, threatening not only Saudi Arabia, but also the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar.
Keegan wrote, “Nearly half the world's oil reserves had fallen under the shadow of Saddam's power.”1 comment on this story
Hussein's invasion of Kuwait reminded much of the world of Hitler's unprovoked and illegal attacks prior to and during World War II. Despite the delicate situation unfolding in Eastern Europe, the United States assembled a coalition of nations, including many in the Arab world, to stand up to Hussein's naked aggression. The Gulf War began in January 1991 and ended with the Iraqi army largely vanquished and Kuwait liberated a few weeks later.
After the 2003 Allied invasion of Iraq, Hussein hid from the occupational authorities. Discovered in December of that year, he was eventually tried and executed by an Iraqi court for crimes against the Iraqi people in 2006.
Cody K. Carlson has a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org