The Iraq Report: The invasion of Kuwait still haunts Iraq

Kuwait after Iraqi occupation on February 28, 1991 - Allied forces on the road from Kuwait City to Basra. [Getty]
6 min read
03 August, 2021
The invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 was a quick victory for Saddam Hussein, with devastating long-term consequences for Iraq.

It has been 31 years since former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of neighbouring Kuwait, triggering decades of international isolation and misery for the Iraqi people.

While the dispute with Kuwait and other wealthy oil-monarchies stems back to the manipulation of crude oil prices and attacks against Iraq's recovering economy, Saddam Hussein's decision to use military force to resolve the quarrel had consequences that Iraqis still feel to this day.

Though Iraq's short-lived occupation was ended by a joint military effort of dozens of nations led by the US in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq's long-term defeat was not achieved without resorting to numerous war crimes and a sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of children in just a few short years.

"Saddam Hussein's decision to use military force had consequences that Iraqis still feel to this day"

The invasion of Kuwait 

In 1988, the Iraqi economy was fragile after emerging from a brutal eight-year war with neighbouring Iran. Not only did Iraq have to borrow substantial sums from Gulf Arab states, but it had spent much of that on weapons and its economy was almost totally reliant on oil exports. 

Baghdad was also fielding one of the largest armies in the world, with more than a million men under arms. While this sounds impressive - and it certainly demonstrated the Iraqi mobilisation capabilities that allowed it to barely clinch the war against Iran - it is also prohibitively expensive.

Saddam is commonly blamed for harbouring aggressive, expansionist agendas, and there is certainly merit to that argument.

However, Iraq also had significant grievances with its Arab neighbours whom it deemed to be ungrateful, as Iraq had fought against Iran partially to prevent then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini from exporting his Islamist revolution across the Arab world - something which modern Iran is arguably achieving across the region.

A demonstration in Kuwait, following the country's invasion by Iraq at the start of the Gulf War, 4th-6th August 1990. [Getty]
A demonstration in Kuwait following the country's invasion by Iraq at the start of the Gulf War in August 1990. [Getty]

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were all producing oil in excess of OPEC quotas, pushing down prices, which meant that Iraq's war-ravaged economy had no hopes of recovery. It also meant that its very large army could not be demobilised without causing mass unemployment, discontent, and political instability.

Kuwait was targeted for a number of reasons, but primarily these relate to Iraq's strategic weakness and the threat it felt to its national security. Without a healthy oil market, Iraq would never recover, and so, not only was Kuwait helping to depress oil prices, but it also began slant-drilling and relieving Iraq of its own oil stocks, something that was described as "economic warfare".

This, and a meeting with then-US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie who said that the US had "no opinion" on Arab-Arab disputes, led Saddam to believe there would be no consequence to an invasion of Kuwait, as he effectively perceived he had a green light to invade.

By way of justification, Iraq reignited territorial claims over Kuwait that it had made since independence from British colonial rule in 1932. According to Iraqi claims, Kuwait had always been administered as part of the historic Ottoman vilayet (province) of Basra and, therefore, the diminutive Arab state ought to be pressed into modern Iraq.

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The Iraqi invasion began in the early hours of 2 August 1990 and most of the military objectives the Iraqi high command had set were achieved later that same day. The rest of Kuwait was subdued completely in under three days, and their royal family, the Al Sabah clan, fled across the desert into Saudi Arabia for protection.

While this may have resulted in a celebratory mood for an exultant Saddam Hussein, it also spelt the beginning of a series of catastrophes to afflict the Iraqi people.

Catastrophic results with no gain 

Though Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait was illegal, the methods used by the US-led coalition to dislodge his forces from the oil-rich Arab state were likewise marred by significant criminality.

In events that would later be mirrored in the run-up to the US-led invasion in 2003, the coalition built their case against Saddam and rallied public support against Iraq by relying on lies and dramatic subterfuges.

One particularly glaring example was a Kuwaiti Al Sabah princess pretending to be a nurse when testifying before Congress and crying on camera as she lied about Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies by removing them from incubators.

"The capture of Kuwait may have resulted in a celebratory mood for an exultant Saddam Hussein, but it also spelled the beginning of a series of catastrophes to afflict the Iraqi people"

Although this was later exposed as the "Deception on Capitol Hill", its net effect led to the deaths of Iraqi babies. The American dehumanisation of Iraqis was made readily apparent when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded to a question from CBS News in May 1996 about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children over five years of sanctions following the war by saying: "We think the price is worth it."

Though the above is an example of the possible crimes against humanity post-war that have cost millions of lives, in addition to the corrupt UN-sponsored oil-for-food programme that saw Iraq give up its treasures for substandard medicines and food, plenty of crimes occurred during Desert Storm itself. 

Former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, famous for having also acted as part of Saddam's defence team after the 2003 Iraq War, wrote a book called The Fire This Time, presenting a ghastly accounting of US war crimes in the Gulf.

A Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over oil well fires still burning in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, August 1991. [Getty]
A Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over oil well fires still burning in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, August 1991. [Getty]

The most notable incident was the mass killing of Iraqi troops who had surrendered and were attempting to withdraw back to Iraq. As Iraqi forces were withdrawing along Highway 80 connecting Kuwait to Iraq, American and Canadian air power unleashed a devastating attack on the already beaten troops who were actively complying with international demands.

Footage from the incident showed mile after mile of mangled vehicles, bodies burnt to a crisp, and ghastly images of Iraqi soldiers with the skin burnt off their faces, their teeth exposed in a final, anguished grimace. Such was its ferocity that the incident became known as the "Highway of Death", where thousands of soldiers lost their lives to so-called civilised powers.

Though there are numerous incidents, including the Amiriyah bomb shelter massacre in Baghdad where the US killed hundreds of civilians on 13 February 1991, it is clear that the liberation of Kuwait cost Iraq its future.

"While Saddam Hussein is to blame for initiating the Gulf War, it is clear that the US's objective was to curb growing Iraqi power, secure American oil interests, and weaken Iraq"

It is certainly arguable that the US and its allies could have forced Saddam out without making extensive use of depleted uranium rounds and poisoning the environment, attacking civilian targets, and committing what appear to be widespread war crimes.

The US could have also sanctioned the regime rather than the people, and encouraged groups seeking freedom from dictatorship to mobilise political action, rather than settling for the unpopular leaders it has installed to rule Iraq post-2003.

However, while Saddam Hussein is to blame for initiating the Gulf War, it is clear that the US's objective was to curb growing Iraqi power, secure American oil interests, and weaken Iraq.

The US was so successful on this front that it was able to easily invade in 2003, leading to millions more dead and displaced and without hope of a dignified future for them or their children.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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The Iraq Report