Thirty years ago, Operation Desert Storm (January 17, 1991 to February 28, 1991) — which followed Operation Desert Shield (August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991) designating the buildup period of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia — marked the beginning of both over a quarter-century of American unipolar power and the decay of the Iraqi state.
By any standard the combat phase of the Gulf war of early 1991 – a one-sided affair whose brevity reflected the enormous imbalance between its protagonists – was a watershed: it ended the fleeting dream of Iraqi regional power, isolating Baghdad for a decade before its final conquest in 2003. It also heralded a generation of American dominance in both the post-Cold War global arena and in the Persian Gulf region; and it practically unravelled the Iraqi state into a vacuum over which the United States, Iran, and the Gulf states have competed since. This article will trace the background, course, and aftermath of the conflict.
By the year 2000, a decade of international isolation, economic ruin, and internal upheaval had rendered Iraq a shadow of what it had seemed a decade earlier. The 1980s had ended with Iraq the toast of much of the Arab world. It commanded an enormous million-men strong army that had fought, and ended on a triumphant note, a gruellingly bloody war against Iran. That de facto “first” Gulf war — known as the Iran-Iraq war — was portrayed as the shield of the Arab world’s “eastern gates” against Persian imperialism. The Gulf states funded Saddam Hussein’s effort because they had long feared Iranian expansionism, both during the clerical takeover and its preceding imperial regime in the 1970s. The Iraqi dictator’s mistake was to assume that their fear would translate into gratitude. Saddam Hussein was outraged in particular when Kuwait refused to economically assist Iraq after such a costly war.
The de facto “first” Gulf war — known as the Iran-Iraq war — was portrayed as the shield of the Arab world’s “eastern gates” against Persian imperialism.
Yet from the Gulf states’ viewpoint, it was Iraq’s initial invasion of post-revolutionary Iran in the early 1980s – which failed in its primary aim of encouraging an anti-clerical uprising in Tehran and capturing Arab-majority Ahwaz – that had endangered them by escalating the conflict with Iran. It was no coincidence that the Gulf Cooperation Council was founded a year after the war began. Gulf unease was also illustrated in spring 1982, when a massive Iranian counterattack expelled the Iraqi army from its territory; the newly crowned Saudi monarch Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz offered to pay Tehran war reparations if they would refrain from invading Iraq – an offer that Ruhollah Khomenei refused, ordering his forces to invade Basra instead.
The Iranian capture of Al-Faw peninsula in 1986 escalated Gulf unease into outright panic. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait strongly lobbied the United Sates on Iraq’s behalf. Washington, torn between its anti-Iran Arab allies and anti-Iraqi Israeli lobby, ended up with an ugly compromise, arming Iraq overtly and Iran covertly. Hence, from the Gulf states’ perspective, a bloodied Iraq had only itself to blame. As a counterweight to Iran they would support it, but they would go no further. Saddam’s mistake was to overestimate his value to the Gulf states once the Iranian threat had receded.
There was also the troubled history between Kuwait and Iraq, which long preceded the Baathist regime in Baghdad. Successive Iraqi regimes had viewed Kuwait as a colonially constructed barrier to prevent Baghdad from reaching the strategic Persian Gulf. On its independence in 1961, the pre-Baath junta had unsuccessfully threatened to annex it. This troubled history resurfaced 30 years later after Kuwait refused to cancel Iraq’s financial debt. Such a refusal was maddening to Saddam in a period when Iraq required postwar construction, especially given his enormous military.
Saddam, taking a leaf out of Iran’s “Revolutionary Guards,” had expanded a separate praetorian corps, the so-called “Republican Guards,” to insulate his regime against a military coup – yet unlike its Iranian counterpart, the Iraqi corps comprised career soldiers on whom the Baath regime did not want to depend too heavily. Military unrest in the absence of a common Iranian enemy was beginning to unnerve Saddam, whose security forces claimed to have thwarted two suspected coups in 1989-90. Thus an easy campaign against Kuwait – a “Splendid Little War” – to take what Iraq viewed as its rightful 19th province would secure access to the economically profitable Gulf straits, give the Iraqi military a better target, and entrench Saddam’s personal legitimacy as Iraq’s unquestionable leader. These imaginings, which the United States did nothing to discourage, were soon to be crushed.
The Buildup to the War
In August 1990, Saddam had his “Splendid Little War” when his Republican Guards, led by Iyad Futaih, seized Kuwait with barely a ripple. Kuwaiti Emir Jabir bin Ahmed only escaped by the skin of his teeth. His brother Fahad was killed fighting the invaders at the palace. At first Iraq installed a puppet junta, led by the Baathist officer Alaa Ali, in Kuwait City but saw no reason to maintain the charade and annexed the “19th province” within four days. This blow was sharpened with the promotion of Saddam’s ruthless cousin, “Chemical” Ali Majid of Kurd-crushing fame, to governor; within months half the Kuwaiti populace had fled.
Led by George Bush Senior, the United States made sure to build up a broad coalition of opposition to Iraq at the United Nations.
This conquest threw the other Gulf states into panic; where once they had feared Iranian expansion, it was instead their emboldened Arab neighbor that had set a frightening precedent. Their fear gave the United States an ideal pretext to sail in as the savior of a geopolitically key region. Led by George Bush Senior, a more careful diplomat than his son would prove to be a decade later, the United States made sure to build up a broad coalition of opposition to Iraq at the United Nations.
This included not just the Gulf states, that helped Bush drum up domestic support by spreading exaggerations of Iraqi atrocities, but also other long-standing Saddam rivals such as Hafez Assad of Syria. When Yemen bucked the trend by voting against the impending US-led incursion, the Yemeni ambassador Abdullah Ashtal received a snarling threat from his American counterpart: “That was the most expensive no vote you ever cast”—and the United States promptly pulled aid from the impoverished country. Nonetheless, Yemen was very much the exception as most Arab states, for one reason or another, supported the military campaign and even supplied military forces. Bush portrayed this as an early example of post-Cold War international politics: the United States, he informed his citizenry, would herald in a “new world order,” whose first point of order was the humbling of Iraq.
If Bush could thus claim multilateral legitimacy for what was still a very much American-dominated campaign, Saddam now presented Iraq as a bold maverick resisting the United States on behalf of Arabs and Muslims. Given that the war would undoubtedly involve American military forces against Muslims near the cradle of Islam, his messaging found a fertile audience among many Muslims across the world, and not only among ordinary citizens: political leaders as far-flung as Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Afghan commander Gulbadin Hikmatyar, Sudanese party ideologue Hassan Turabi, Palestinian commander Yasser Arafat, Pakistani army commander Aslam Beg, and Algerian opposition leader Abbasi Madani bewailed the invitation of non-Muslim American troops to the Arabian Peninsula.
The concession of most Arab states to this move exacerbated a legitimacy crisis with regard to their citizens. Most radical was the break of Saudi tycoon Usama bin-Laden, a child of the Saudi establishment, with the ruling family. Having vainly offered his own assistance to Riyadh, he concluded that they were traitors to Islam and mounted an anti-American campaign with major consequences for the world.
Saddam was similarly encouraged by the abstinence of his old rival Iran from supporting the campaign. This led to another major blunder; in a gesture of goodwill, he loaned off about a 150 military aircraft to Iran for safekeeping until the impending war was over. A gleeful Tehran never returned them. Nor was this Saddam’s only blunder: his airforce had performed with deadly efficiency in the 1980s; now, however, under the command of his crony Muzahim Saab, it would be a virtual bystander in the face of American bombardment.
The Mother of All Battles
None of that was as obvious as it would soon become when Saddam grandly began the new year with the proclamation of Umm al-Maarik, “The Mother of All Battles,” after which undoubted successful conclusion he would sweep west and reconquer Jerusalem. The trusty Republican Guards were withdrawn to a rear line in southern Iraq, and replaced in Kuwait with no less than six corps of the regular army. Given their skillfull performance in the last years of the war against Iran, they could at least be expected to punch their weight.
Yet these expectations collapsed with dizzying speed. The war began in January 1991 with an unrelenting bombardment of the Iraqi army with state-of-the-art American missiles. Overwhelming airpower was ever the favored weapon of the American military, and rarely did any army offer as open a target as the Iraqis in Kuwait. Drunk on his own rhetoric, Saddam’s response was symbolic; he ordered his own missiles commander, Hazim Ayyubi, to not only fire off a far smaller spate toward the American bases in the Gulf, but also westward toward Israel. This was widely celebrated in the Arab world as a demonstration of Iraqi technical skill as the first Arab state to fire such missiles at Israel, but it made minimum impact on the war, and failed to deter the Americans as Saddam had expected.
After a fortnight of bombardment, Iraq ordered a cavalry corps, led by Salah Abboud, to cross the border and sweep into Saudi Arabia, heading for the border town of Khafji. The town was briefly occupied, but soon American tanks lumbered into the fray and forced the Iraqis back. The Americans advanced from the south and west into Kuwait; the westernmost Iraqi corps, led by Ibrahim Ismail, had already been forced to withdraw after being battered beyond repair. By mid-February 1991, the entire Iraqi force in Kuwait was ordered to pull out, along with the Iraqi governor Aziz Nouman, while the naval force on Failaka island was quickly overrun. Its commander, Abboud Qanbar, would later serve as army second-in-command during the 2000s occupation of Iraq. Kuwait was evacuated less than six months after its occupation.
But the Iraqis were not permitted to leave quietly; the Gulf War was intended foremost as an overwhelming display of American power in the new age. The main route to Iraq, from Kuwait City to Basra, was so ferociously pounded and littered with Iraqi tanks and corpses that it became known as the “highway of death”. American forces on the ground found some resistance as they pursued the Iraqis across the border, and fought against both Iyad’s Republican Guards and the flanking Iraqi corps led by Ahmad Hammash. In the end, however, there was no denying the rout. The fact that the attack ceased owed less to their battlefield performance – as Saddam boasted – than to the calculations of the Gulf states on whose purported behalf the war had started.
Aftermath: A Deadly Equilibrium
The now-secure Gulf states proved sore winners as Kuwait expelled its Palestinian and Yemeni populace in a pique at their leaders’ support for Iraq. However, they stopped short of twisting the knife in the Iraqi corpse, primarily because they realized that their larger and more potent enemy, Iran, could take advantage of the situation. They preferred a weakened regime in Baghdad, unable to challenge them but strong enough to keep Iran off, and so prevailed upon Bush to desist from ousting Saddam. A ceasefire was hammered out between American expeditionary commander Norman Schwarzkopf and Saudi commander Khalid bin Sultan on one hand, and Iraqi army second-in-command Sultan Hashim and Salah Abboud on the other; the regime lived to fight another day.
This marked an awkward about-turn for Bush, who before the war’s climax in mid-February 1991 had urged the Iraqi peripheries in north and south – respectively inhabited by a majority of Kurds and Shias – to revolt against Saddam. Such a revolt soon followed. Though contrary to stereotypes about Iraq’s ethnosectarianism, it was begun by army officers in the predominantly Sunni town Zubair. But the revolt soon spread like wildfire in both the north – led by the seasoned Kurdish peshmerga, who sliced off the northern quarter of Iraq – and the south, where Shia exiles in Iran soon tried to assert themselves as potential leaders in the revolt. The United States eventually provided the former with aerial protection via a no-fly zone; the latter, however, was brutally crushed by Saddam’s forces.
Though the Baathist regime survived another decade, the 1991 war and its aftermath had broken it beyond repair.
Though the Baathist regime survived another decade, the 1991 war and its aftermath had broken it beyond repair. Following the 1991 revolt, Saddam survived no less than six military coup attempts and three more revolts. Significantly, every such coup and one uprising were led mostly by the Sunni Arabs whom he had often claimed to champion. Consequently, the regime’s formidable security apparatus swelled into a veritable labyrinth of interlocked organs, controlled with brutish efficiency by Saddam’s family.
But the regime was not solely to blame. The northern Kurdish protectorate soon spiraled into a civil war, while the growing army of Iraqi exiles who lobbied for the regime’s ouster in the United States proved equally fractious. Meanwhile an overblown concern over Iraq’s weapons program prompted a blockade and sanctions whose effects led to widespread famine with hundreds of thousands dead. Though the exact number is uncertain, Washington’s callous willingness to tolerate a half-million deaths halfway through the sanctions bespoke the cynicism behind the move. As in the 1980s, the conflicting agendas of the United States’ major regional allies – the Gulf states, who favored Saddam’s survival as a bulwark against Iran, and Israel, who sought his overthrow – prompted Washington to choose the worst of both worlds. Iraq was isolated, occasionally raided by Turkey and Iran, and sporadically bombed when it suited the United States’ domestic purposes, but on the whole a ghostly equillibrium, with Saddam the undisputed big fish in a drained pond, remaining as head of state until an even more cataclysmic war in 2003.
The 1991 war proved an unmitigated disaster for Iraq, catalyzing a period of instability, suppression, subversion, and ultimately invasion which made even the pre-1990s dictatorship look palatable. But its implications abroad were equally grave. It catalyzed a legitimacy crisis for a number of Arab states, the majority of which saw no other option but to nestle closer under Washington’s wing. The punishing assault had shown that the United States was the unchallenged super power on the world stage, which, entering the new millennium, no government would dare challenge head-on for fear of meeting Saddam’s fate. This hegemony would not begin to recede until the 2010s.
Bush’s “New World Order” was pointedly built on the remnants of the Iraqi state; the conflict in the Gulf had indeed proven a “Splendid Little War” – but for the United States, not Iraq.