Less than two years after the war with Iran finally came to an end (following a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in August 1988), Saddam ordered Iraqi troops to invade neighboring Kuwait under various pretexts. Saddam claimed that Kuwait was an Iraqi territory before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He also asserted that Kuwait was piping crude oil from the fields along with their common border and then colluding with Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices low to pander to Western clients.

Kuwait demanded that Iraq pay back its crippling $14 billion debt, an expense that Iraq had incurred during its devastating war with Iran.

Furthermore, Kuwait demanded that Iraq pay back its crippling $14 billion debt, an expense that Iraq had incurred during its devastating war with Iran. After a few attempts to renege on the debt because the war ostensibly had been fought to defend the eastern gateway to the Arab world, Iraq turned to invading Kuwait.

Kuwait Under Saddam’s Hegemony

In a matter of hours, Saddam’s forces had invaded and laid siege to Kuwait. He then declared the “liberation of Kuwait from the rule of Al-Sabah,” appointing Colonel Alaa Hussein Ali as the head of a new government that lasted only four days. In response, the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency special session, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq and demanding its unconditional withdrawal.

To prevent a potential foreign intervention, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—who strongly opposed the Iraqi invasion—initiated an emergency meeting in Cairo with Arab leaders and pleaded for a unified solution. “If we don’t react quickly, we will not have a [common Arab] entity. We will be like a dead body,” Mubarak implored. He insisted that Iraq and Kuwait’s failure to reach an agreement would give the U.S. an excuse to intervene to expel Saddam from Kuwait, leading to serious regional repercussions.

Meanwhile, George H. W. Bush and administration officials in Washington expressed concern that Arab leaders might align with Saddam and welcome his invasion of Kuwait.

Ambiguous American Policy toward an Intransigent Saddam

Following his war with Iran, which was perceived as a victory for Iraq, Saddam proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the eyes of the Bush administration, who took that opportunity to normalize its relations with Baghdad. The U.S. government’s goal was primarily to secure access to the Iraqi oil market for American companies.

When negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait stalled, Saddam met with American ambassador April Glaspie for an impromptu meeting. The ambassador had presented the U.S. in a neutral light, telling Saddam that the U.S. had “‘no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.’” From the meeting, Saddam assumed that the U.S. would not oppose his invasion of Kuwait. He then quickly amassed his troops along the Kuwaiti border and invaded his neighbor. What he had not anticipated was that his aggression would be met with widespread international outcry. It prompted Bush to retract his former neutral stance and immediately condemn the assault, declaring in a speech: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

Saddam, however, stood his ground, inciting Saudi Arabia to seek reinforcements from the U.S. to defend its borders with Kuwait and Iraq.

Saddam, however, stood his ground, inciting Saudi Arabia to seek reinforcements from the U.S. to defend its borders with Kuwait and Iraq. Despite the tepid support he received among the Arab populations, Saddam branded himself as an Arab strongman. He stated that his withdrawal from Kuwait was conditional upon the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and Israeli troops from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. In a series of tactical miscalculations, Saddam wrongly presumed that the U.S. would not intervene given the outcome of its military involvement in Vietnam. Finally, in a last blow, Saddam did not expect Saudi Arabia to also seek Soviet alignment with the coalition. This ultimately led to the establishment of the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield.

On November 29, 1990, the UNSC adopted Resolution 678, authorizing the use of “all necessary means” to forcibly oust Iraq from Kuwait if Saddam did not withdraw by January 15, 1991. Saddam, however, was undeterred, refusing to bow either to the UNSC’s resolution or the warnings of the U.S.-allied coalition. Two days later, the coalition launched an all-out campaign of air and missile attacks, destroying Iraq’s air defenses, military, and oil infrastructure. Saddam then took to the Iraqi airwaves, declaring that the “mother of all battles had begun.”

After the air assault, the coalition went on a large-scale ground offensive against Iraqi forces, in both Iraq and Kuwait. The war finally ended on February 25, when Iraq conceded and announced its unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. On February 26, 1991, while retreating from Kuwait, the Iraqi troops were bombed by the coalition, causing hundreds of fatalities. A day later, Bush gave a speech, declaring the ceasefire and the “liberation of Kuwait” after a seven-month offensive.  

Kuwait Back Home

Bush declared victory over Iraq and the resumption of Kuwait’s full sovereignty, saying: “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated . . .  Kuwait is once more in the hands of Kuwaitis in control of their own destiny. We share in their joy, a joy tempered only by our compassion for their ordeal.”

Firefighters immediately mobilized to extinguish around 605 to 732 oil-well fires caused by retreating Iraqi forces, and repairs of the damaged wells began, paving the way for a new stable nation. Following their liberation, the Kuwaiti people flooded the streets. Their cars filled the highways alongside the coalition forces’ tanks, with drivers honking their horns and shooting their guns in the air in celebration.

A few days later, Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who had been exiled in Saudi Arabia, returned home to resume his rule. The Kuwaiti government made February 26 a public holiday, a day after Kuwait National Day. It is proudly celebrated every year by the Kuwaiti government and people alike. Parades are organized and the victims of the war are commemorated.  

A Middle East yet to be Liberated

Although the premise of the U.S.’s policy was to overthrow Saddam in order to stabilize the region, and today’s Kuwait commemorates its freedom while enjoying internal stability, ongoing turmoil continues to unsettle the region, making it a fragile geopolitical zone subject to intervention by global powers.

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by acute distrust between the U.S. and Iraq.

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by acute distrust between the U.S. and Iraq. In 2002, a year after the September 11th attacks, President George W. Bush erroneously claimed that Iraq owned and was manufacturing “weapons of mass destruction.” His administration went so far as to claim with suspicious evidence that Saddam was supporting terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. This gave the U.S. the pretext to invade Iraq in 2003, causing untold death and destruction and initiating protracted instability in the country. Since then, the region has been marred by endless deadly sectarian and civil conflict.

Today, while some countries in the Middle East enjoy relative independence and sovereignty, others, such as Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, not to mention Libya, are still in the midst of political and social crises; as such, stability in the region still seems far out of reach.