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The 1991 Gulf War

The current US-led war drive has many parallels with the last Gulf War in 1991. Although the most obvious one is the personalities involved - Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush family, and Saddam Hussein etc. - there are also parallels in the diplomatic, political and military strategies being deployed.  A study of the last war should therefore give us some insight into what is currently going on and what is likely to develop in the post-war period.

The Invasion of Kuwait

It was Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 that precipitated the crisis that led to the war.  Although the US condemned the invasion, its initial response, in public at least, was to emphasise its desire for a peaceful resolution.  After the first dispatch of US troops to the Gulf, President George Bush stressed the limited objective of their mission - “America does not seek conflict. Nor do we seek to chart the destiny of other nations. But America will stand by her friends. The mission of our troops is wholly defensive. Hopefully, they’ll not be needed long.”  He rejected any suggestion that the US was motivated by selfish strategic interests.

Of course the claims for the honourable and peaceful intentions of the US were all false.  Despite the public statements downplaying the inevitably of conflict, the plans and preparations for war were proceeding rapidly.  These envisaged a massive military assault upon Iraq, key elements of which were a sustained aerial bombardment of Baghdad and other civilian population centres and the assassination of Saddam Hussein.  Over a period of five months the US mobilised 500,000 troops in the Gulf.  As this build went on the rhetoric of the US shifted from the need to avoid war to reasons justifying its necessity. These included confronting aggression, defending small nations, opposing dictatorship, supporting American jobs and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.  However, Bush refused to acknowledge the real motivation for war - the control of oil resources in the Gulf.
Historical Background

For many years the strategy for controlling oil resources, and preserving the wider the status quo in the Middle East, was based on support for a number of key states in the region.  These included Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah.  This strategy was dealt a blow in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran’s Islamic revolution.  The US response was to shift support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and also to increase its own capacity to intervene directly.

In 1980, with the encouragement of the US, Iraq launched an invasion of Iran.  This war, which was to last eight years, cost two million lives.  The US sought to prolong the conflict by selling arms to both sides.  However, in 1987, when it looked as if Iran was beginning to gain the upper hand, the U.S. shifted decisively towards Iraq. Under the guise of protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers sailing through the Gulf, the U.S. intervened in the war to defeat Iran. "While we want no victor, we can’t stand to see Iraq defeated," Assistant U.S. Defence Secretary Richard Armitage told Congress at the time.  The level of US support for Iraq was extensive.  In addition to millions of dollars of military equipment, the US supplied the Iraqi generals with intelligence data from its surveillance planes to help them target Iranian troops.

The most decisive intervention by the US was the movement of an armada into the Gulf, the biggest naval deployment since the Vietnam War. Its stated mission was to protect the “freedom of navigation in the Gulf", however this was just a cover for attacks on Iran’s navy.  Former Reagan National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane later admitted that the U.S. intervention  “had little to do with defending ‘freedom of the seas’ or neutrality.  When in early 1987 Iran made a strategic gain on the Faw Peninsula, we tilted blatantly in favour of Iraq as we had at similar moments before. [The Iranian leaders saw] enough bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to sustain our naval presence, which, at the end of the day, would ensure that Iraq received the supplies it needed to dominate the war.”   Iran was forced to concede defeat in 1988.

In the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, the US sought to build up Saddam Hussein as its new strongman in the Gulf.   Iraq became a major recipient of weapons, technical assistance and economic aid.   Between 1985 and 1990, U.S. firms sold almost $800 million in "dual use" aircraft–ostensibly to be used for civilian purposes, but easily convertible to military purposes. In 1988 and 1989 alone, the U.S. government approved licenses to U.S. firms to sell biological products to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency and electronics equipment to Iraqi missile-producing plants. In July 1988–two months after Saddam used chemical weapons to wipe out the Kurdish village of Halabja–the California-based Bechtel Corp. won a contract to build petrochemicals plant. Iraq planned to produce mustard gas and fuel-air explosives in the plant. Other Western allies, like Britain and France, also helped to arm Saddam.

US business was a particularly strong advocate of greater ties with Iraq.  In 1982, the US-Iraq Business Forum was formed.  Composed of executives from Amoco, Mobil, Westinghouse, Caterpillar and other major corporations, it acted as a lobbyist for Iraq in Washington.  After Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja, the Iraq-Business Forum sought to smother any condemnation, and deflect calls for sanctions.  Another lobbyist for Iraq was Kissinger Associates, the “consulting firm” founded by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  Two of Kissinger’s partners, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, later became George Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state.  Iraq also enjoyed high level political support.  In April 1990, four moths before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein received a delegation of senators who reaffirmed US support for his regime.   Bob Dole assured Saddam that President Bush would veto any threatened UN sanctions on Iraq, while Alan Simpson lamented the unfair press the regime was receiving.

It was at this time that Iraq’s “dispute” with Kuwait was developing.  Left almost bankrupt by the war against Iran, Iraq was desperately trying to earn cash through oil exports.  But Kuwait, Iraq’s biggest financial backer during the war against Iran, continued to dump its oil on the world market.  This depressed the world price, making Iraq’s position increasingly difficult.  Iraq claimed that Kuwait was poaching Iraqi oil from the Rumallah oil field, which straddled their border, and threatened military action.  The US expressed little concern over the aggressive posturings of Iraq.  Indeed, its Ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait."  The US appeared to be giving a green light to Iraq taking over a few oil fields along its border with Kuwait.  However, the position of the US and other western states changed dramatically after Iraq invaded and annexed the whole of the country in 1990.  The sanctity of the Iraq-Kuwait border, which didn’t even warrant an opinion a few mouths earlier, was now a point of principle.  Of course the primary concern was to prevent Iraq gaining control over as much as a quarter of the Gulf’s oil.

As long as Saddam Hussein acted in the interests of the west, repressing his own people and confining his aggression to its enemies, he could be assured of support. Once he developed ambitions that threatened those interests, such as the invasion of Kuwait, he was branded a “new Hitler” who had to be stopped at all costs.


In the wake of the invasion the US set about constructing a “coalition” of states opposed to Iraq.  This was achieved through a combination of threats, bribery and intimidation. To dampen Arab protest, the U.S. made a special effort to bring Arab governments on board.  This included the forgiveness of Egypt’s $14 billion debt to the World Bank, and support for Syria to install a puppet government in Lebanon and crush the opposition to its military pretence there.   Iran was bought off with a US promise to drop its opposition to a series of World Bank loans. The Bank approved the first loan of $250m on the day before the ground attack on Iraq.  To win over the USSR and prevent it using its veto in the UN Security Council, the US pushed Saudi Arabia to make a $1 billion “gift” to Moscow.  This was followed by another $3 billion from other Gulf States.  The US also remained silent when Soviet tanks rolled into Lithuania to quell pro-independence unrest. To court China, the U.S. offered loans and helped bring the Chinese government back from the international pariah status it had earned with its 1989 repression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.  Zaire, which held rotating chair of the Security Council during that period, was offered undisclosed “debt forgiveness” and military equipment, in return for silencing any protests.

When it came to voting on resolution 678, which authorised the use of force if Iraq did not withdrawal from Kuwait by 15th January 1991, only two numbers of the Security Council voted against - Yemen and Cuba.   This was to prove a costly decision for Yemen.  After casting a no vote, Yemen’s ambassador to the UN was told by a US official: “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.”  A few days later, the US cut off millions of dollars in aid to Yemen. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemeni "guest" workers.

The role of the United Nations

The role of the UN in the crisis is often held up as an example of the body working successfully.  But the fact is that it worked in this case only because the US wanted it to.  There had been many earlier examples of aggression, such as Indonesia’s invasion and annexation of East Timor, when the UN proved to be totally ineffective.  The reason the UN responded so quickly to the invasion of Kuwait was because it posed a threat to the interests of imperialism.  Throughout the build up to war it was the US which dictated the actions of the UN. Each of the 12 anti-Iraq UN Security Council resolutions passed between August 1990 and April 1991 followed unilateral US action.

During the months of build up to the war the US priority was to block any possibility of a negotiated settlement that would allow Iraq to pull out Kuwait.   Within a few weeks of the invasion the basic outlines for a possible political settlement were already emerging. This involved an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, alongside negotiations over any outstanding border issues between the two states.  These issues were very minor: fist, the lease over two uninhabited mudflats to give Iraq greater aces to the Gulf; and second, the resolution of a dispute over an oil field that extended two miles into Kuwait over an unsettled border.   The US rejected the proposal, or any negotiations.   The New York Times reported that the Bush Administration was determined to block the "diplomatic track" for fear that it might "defuse the crisis".  It was only in early December 1990, when there was a shift in US public opinion away from support for war, that the Bush administration announced a “last-ditch” effort for peace with a meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.  Although this was presented as the US going “the extra mile” for peace, it was no more than a sop to public opinion.  The US did not want a negotiated settlement, also sabotaging French, Russian and Arab attempts to mediate a settlement.

The last reported offer called for total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. There were no qualifications about borders, but the offer was made in the context of agreements on other "linked" issues: weapons of mass destruction in the region and the Israel-Arab conflict.  The latter issues included Israel's illegal occupation of southern Lebanon, in violation of Security Council resolution 425 of March 1978, which called for its immediate and unconditional withdrawal from the territory it had invaded. However, the US rejected diplomacy and any attempt to link Kuwait to wider issues in the Middle East.  Just hours before the 15th January deadline expired, French representatives proposed a four-point peace plan, which garnered the support of the majority of the Security Council.  This was vetoed by the US and Britain.

Desert Slaughter

The military operation named Desert Storm commenced on the 16th January 1991 with a massive aerial bombardment of Iraq.  During the 43-day air war, more tonnage of ordnance was dropped on Iraq faster than in any other aerial bombardment in the history of warfare.   The main targets of this bombardment were Iraq’s civilian infrastructure.  Although the Pentagon released videos of smart bombs hitting their target, on the ground it was Iraqi civilians and conscript army which bore the brunt of the assault.  The only indication of this in the mainstream media was the report of the deaths of 400 civilians when the US dropped a  "bunker buster" explosive into an underground Baghdad bomb shelter.  Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated bluntly what the US was going to do to the Iraqi army:  “First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”  This army of poorly paid and equipped Iraqi conscripts, two-thirds of whom were oppressed Shiites and Kurds, were under attack 24 hours a day.

On 15th February, a month into the air war, Iraq’s government announced that it would accept UN resolutions and withdraw from Kuwait.  But this surrender was rejected by the US and Britain.  President Bush called for Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam: "[T]here’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam to step aside."  The clear message was that the US wanted not just an Iraqi withdrawal, but also the destruction of its army in Kuwait, and also the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  It appeared that the US would back an uprising in Iraq.

Despite Saddam Hussein’s surrender, the US forged ahead with a ground offensive.   In just six days, the US and allies swept across Kuwait and southern Iraq, forcing Iraqi troops into a desperate retreat.   There was a relentless assault upon these fleeing troops.  The road leading from Kuwait to Basra became known as the "Highway of Death."   Iraqi soldiers, who had fled Kuwait in any vehicle they could find, including family cars, were cut off by allied tanks and the then attacked from the air.  One US pilot described it as “like shooting fish in a barrel”, as helicopter gun ships mowed down thousands of Iraqi conscripts.   The bodies of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were deposited into mass graves.  Although described as a war, the vast military superiority of the US made the “Gulf War” a one-sided slaughter.   Many of the actions of the US, such as the massacre on the Basra Road, served no military purpose whatsoever.  However, they did have a political purpose.  The scenes of destruction served as a powerful demonstration of the ruthlessness with which the US would defend its interests, and also an example of what would happen to any state that dared challenge it.

The cynicism of the US campaign was revealed in its response to the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s regime that followed in the wake of Iraq’s defeat.  The Iraqi government lost control of huge swathes of the country to the rebels, and seemed to be on the brink of collapse.  There were expectations that the US would back the rebellion.  However, this hope proved to be unfounded.  When George Bush called for Saddam Hussein to “step aside” he was calling not for a popular uprising put a military coup.  The rebellion by the Kurds and Shiites was a dangerous development for the US as it threatened to break up Iraq and destabilise other dictatorships in the region.  The US did not want an independent Kurdistan which could act as inspiration to Kurds in other states, especially in Turkey, a key NATO ally.  The Shiite rebellion in the south could have lead to expansion of Iranian influence in the Gulf.  Faced with the choice of the Saddam Hussein regime continuing, or being overthrown in a popular uprising, the US preferred the former.  By allowing Saddam to violate the terms of the cease-fire agreement, to mount a counterattack, and denying the rebels access to captured arms, the US actively collaborated in the crushing of the rebellion.  The US also used the continued “threat” posed by Iraq to establish permanent military bases in the Gulf.

Unending war

The Gulf War was supposed to usher in a New World order of peace and democracy.   However, the reality was very different.  Despite the talk of liberation for Kuwait, the US restored to power the al-Sabah dynasty.  Under this feudal monarchy only 3 percent of Kuwaitis had any political rights at all.   Women continued to be denied the vote.  On their return the al-Sabah’s launched a campaign of terror against Palestinian immigrants, who they accused of supporting Iraq.  Thousands of Palestinians were imprisoned, and hundreds summarily executed.   Around 400,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait and the other Gulf States.   Support for those fleeing after Iraq had put down the Shiite/Kurdish rebellion was minimal.  There was a humanitarian disaster as 3 million Kurdish refugees fled into Iran and Turkey.  Relief for these refugees from the US was minimal; the total from the US only equivalent to the amount needed to keep the war going for eight hours.   The major victims of the Gulf War and its aftermath were the people, of Iraq.  It is estimated that 250,000 died in the war itself.  However, since the end of the war another 1million, mostly children, have died as a result of the UN sanctions regime.  The Iraqi economy has shrunk and people are forced to live on a fraction of the nutritional requirements they need.   Iraq also continues to be subject to weekly bombing raids by British and US aircraft as they patrol their self-declared no-fly zones.   In many ways the slow strangulation of the last twelve years has been much worse than the brutal but brief onslaught of 1991.

The experience of the Gulf War of 1991 and its aftermath is a clear illustration of the barbarity of imperialism.  It should also dispel any myths about the UN or the possibility of last-ditch peace efforts.   Over the last number of months we have gone through a similar charade, with claims that the US is only upholding the will of the “international community”, and is seeking to avoid conflict.  The experience of 1991 shows that the decision to go to war is made many months before the actual commencement of military action.  The US is now set in a course of war from which it will not be diverted.   Despite the talk of “liberating” Iraq, the experience of 1991 gives us a more reliable guide to what is likely to follow the war.  That is the installation of a US puppet dictatorship and the military occupation of Iraq.  Its population will not achieve democratic rights or control over its own resources, and self-determination will continue to be denied to its nationalities.   The coming war will not be an exact re-run of 1991, but there will be a great deal of continuity.

J M Thorn



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