Iraq Invades Kuwait Beginning the Gulf War

In the United States of America, it is almost beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse to address the question, why did Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait in 1990? Even to ask the question, one risks the appearance of supporting a repressive dictatorship, and to the extent that the question is entertained at all, the simplistic answer proffered by political leaders is that Saddam Hussein is an aggressive tyrant, bent on territorial acquisition and the subjugation of other nations. He is a modern day Hitler. The same answer is utilized to explain why Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. This standard answer is easy to accept, in part, because of the well-documented brutality of Saddam’s regime, including human rights violations committed by his government against the Iraqi people, and especially the Kurds.

In spite of partial truths imbedded in this standard explanation, it smacks of propaganda. Much more needs to be understood by the American public before it allows its government to wage war against Iraq. The history of Iraq, Kuwait, Britain, and the United States reveals that the reasons for the Iraqi invasions of Kuwait and Iran are far more complex and interesting than the standard answer allows. Over a period of decades, and especially in recent years, Britain and the U.S. have consciously manipulated tensions in the region and have masterfully set into motion sequences of events leading to the Iraqi invasions. The purpose of these manipulations was to increase power and control over middle eastern governments and their oil resources by elite U.S. and British interests.

This short historical outline is far from comprehensive, and even the references are sketchy. The main purpose of this essay is to offer student peace activists, and others who might be unfamiliar with Middle Eastern history, a few key talking points and an historical context from which to support their efforts to block the drive toward war. This outline is organized by historical chronology into sections. Much of the beginning of this essay relies heavily on a single reference, Iraq and Kuwait: A History Suppressed, by Ralph Schoenman [1]. Relevant web site addresses are sprinkled throughout and are provided for readers who seek a greater depth of understanding than this short outline alone provides.

Early History

The ancient civilizations of Sumer and Babylon originated in Mesopotamia (the Greek word for “between rivers”), near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Modern day Kuwait began in the eighteenth century as a small village on the Persian Gulf. “Kuwait,” the word for “small human settlement,” was so named by Iraqi rulers of that era. Throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I, Kuwait was a “Qadha,” a district within the Basra Province, and it was an integral part of Iraq under the administrative rule of the Ottoman Empire.

British Domination

As the victors of World War I, France and Britain dismantled the Ottoman Empire and the Arab nation for their own colonial purposes. The Iraq Petroleum Company was created in 1920 with 95% of the shares going to Britain, France, and the U.S. In order to weaken Arab nationalism, Britain blocked Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf by severing the territorial entity, “Kuwait” from the rest of Iraq in 1921 and 1922. This new British colony, Kuwait, was given artificial boundaries with no basis in history or geography. King Faisal I of the new Iraqi state ruled under British military oversight, but his administration never accepted the amputation of the Kuwait district and the denial of Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf. Attempts by Faisal to build a railway to Kuwait and port facilities on the Gulf were vetoed by Britain. These and other similar British colonial policies made Kuwait a focus of the Arab national movement in Iraq, and a symbol of Iraqi humiliation at the hands of the British.

Resistance to the British imposed separation of Kuwait from Iraq continued through the 1930s. In 1932, the British Agent in Baghdad forced the Iraqi leadership to enter into “correspondence” on the delimitation of boundaries for British Kuwait, but the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies repudiated these “correspondences.” A mass movement of Kuwaiti youth called the “Free Kuwaiti Movement” defied British rule and submitted a petition requesting the Iraqi government to reunify Kuwait and Iraq. Fearing an uprising, the Kuwaiti Sheik agreed to the establishment of a legislative council to represent the “Free Kuwaitis.” The first meeting of the council in 1938 resulted in an unanimous resolution demanding that Kuwait revert back to Iraq. That same year, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq informed the British Ambassador in Baghdad that:

“The Ottoman-British Agreement of 1913 recognizes Kuwait as a District under the jurisdiction of the Province of Basra. Since sovereignty over Basra has been transferred from the Ottoman state to the Iraqi state, that sovereignty has to include Kuwait under the terms of the 1913 Agreement. Iraq has not recognized any change in the status of Kuwait.” (quoted in [1])

A popular uprising within Kuwait to reunify with Iraq erupted on March 10, 1939. The Kuwaiti Sheik, with British military support and “advisers,” crushed the uprising, and killed or imprisoned its participants. King Ghazi of Iraq publicly demanded the release of the prisoners and warned the Sheik to end the repression of the Free Kuwaiti Movement. Ghazi ignored warnings by Britain to discontinue such public statements, and on April 5, 1939, he was found dead. It was widely assumed that he was assassinated by British agents. Faisal II was an infant at that time, and Nuri es-Said, a former officer of the Ottoman Army with British loyalties, became the de facto leader of Iraq.

U.S. Domination

Following World War II, British rule was gradually replaced by U.S. neo-colonial domination of the Middle East. The new state of Israel became an important instrument for U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil in the post war era. With the U.S./Israeli sponsored coup of 1953 that deposed Mossadegh, the popularly elected president of Iran, and installed the Shah in his place, the U.S. became the dominant imperial power in the region.

In 1955 the U.S. and Britain inaugurated the Baghdad Pact, an anti-Soviet security agreement for Middle Eastern nations, including Iraq. The Baghdad Pact was widely perceived in the Arab world as alliance of regimes subordinate to British and U.S. power, and it was greeted with popular protests and riots. Nuri es-Said responded to the protests by jailing opposition leaders who demanded that Iraq withdraw from the pact. However, he also began secret negotiations with the U.S. and Britain for the return of Kuwait to Iraq in order to placate Iraqi national sentiment.

For two years, appeals for the return of Kuwait to Iraq intensified. In January 1958, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri es-Said addressed a meeting of the Baghdad Pact and publicly urged the return of Kuwait to Iraq. All pact members agreed with the proposal, with the sole exception of Britain. Further diplomatic gestures from Iraq to Britain were rebuffed, and finally Iraq informed Britain that it was preparing documents and copies of secret understandings together with a formal memorandum, to be published before the world in July 1958. The British Ambassador responded to the Iraqi government that Great Britain had “approved in principle” the unification of Kuwait and Iraq, but requested a meeting in London with the Iraqi and British Prime Ministers and other government officials. But this meeting never took place, because the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown on July 14, 1958 in a revolution led by General Abdel Karim Qassim. King Faisal II and Nuri es-Said were executed, and Britain immediately thereafter abrogated the agreement to return Kuwait to Iraq.

News of the coup triggered an uprising of the poor and dispossessed in Baghdad. The crowds attacked the British embassy and other targets. The U.S. did not initially respond to the coup, but the political upheaval of the subsequent popular uprising pushed the new regime further to the left than it had originally intended. The new government lifted the ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, and that modest step toward democracy in turn mobilized the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. CIA director Alan Dulles assigned the job of incapacitating Qassim to the euphemistically named Technical Services Division (TDS) of the CIA. The head of the TDS in 1960, Stanley Gottlieb, initiated a program to assassinate Qassim. One failed assassination attempt in this context was made by Saddam Hussein.

Qassim continued to alienate the U.S. and Britain, and Britain further exacerbated relations by declaring its Kuwait colony free and independent in 1961. Qassim held a press conference on June 19, 1961 at which he declared that “Iraq regards Kuwait as an integral part of its territory.” Following that press conference, Britain quickly massed troops in Kuwait with naval support in the Gulf. Kuwait gained admission to the United Nations in 1963, the same year that Qassim was killed and his government overthrown in a CIA supported coup led by the Baath Party.

Saddam Hussein’s Rise to Power

By 1965, Saddam Hussein’s cousin became Secretary General of the Baathist Party. In 1968 Saddam Hussein was made Deputy Secretary General and Saddam and his Baathist supporters succeeded in seizing state power, all with CIA backing. What followed was a slaughter of the left, including the murder and torture of Iraqi Communist Party members and trade unionists.

Throughout the 1970s, Iraq offered compromises to Kuwait’s rulers that would enable Iraq to gain access to its former islands in the Gulf. But no agreements were reached, and the floating border separating the two countries crept northward.

In mid-July, 1979, Saddam replaced Al Bakr as president of Iraq. He reportedly uncovered a conspiracy against his government with the result that twenty-one high government and Baath Party officials were executed. The armed forces and the Baath Party were purged and there were widespread arrests. A short time later, in August 1979 a general amnesty was announced that resulted in the release of Kurdish prisoners, members of the Iraqi Communist Party, and others. However, Amnesty International reported continual human rights abuses from that period.

That same year, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, proposed to Saddam Hussein that he invade Iran and annex Khuzistan, thereby providing Iraq access to the Gulf through the narrow waterway, Shatt-al Arab. The U.S. hoped to use Iraq to counter the radicalism of the Khomeini regime in Iran from spreading to oppressed peoples of the Emirates and to Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein was guaranteed financial backing in the form of loans from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other nations.

About half a million Iranians and Iraqis were killed in the Iran Iraq war, and unbeknownst to Hussein, the U.S. and Israel also secretly armed the Iranians so as to weaken both Iran and Iraq. President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld visited Saddam Hussein once in late December 1983 and again in March 1984. These visits paved the way for the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iraq at a time when Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons in his war against Iran. Iraq had been removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of alleged sponsors of terrorism in 1982, and Iraq went on a buying spree to purchase weapons from U.S. and German companies. These weapons were used in 1988 for attacks against the Kurds. (see: and the Democracy Now! piece at:

Prelude to the 1991 Gulf War

The war with Iran left Iraq in ruins. When Saddam Hussein launched his eight year war against Iran, Iraq had $40 billion in hard currency reserves. But by the end of the war, his nation was $80 billion in debt. Iraq was pressed to repay the $80 billion to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with interest. While Iraq was distracted by its war, Kuwait had accumulated 900 square miles of Iraqi territory by advancing its border with Iraq northward. This was presented to Iraq as a fait accompli and it gave Kuwait access to the Rumaila oil field. The Kuwaiti Sheik had purchased the Santa Fe Drilling Corporation of Alhambra, California, for $2.3 billion and proceeded to use its slant drilling equipment to gain access to the Iraqi oil field.

The main source of earnings for Iraq was petroleum whose price fluctuated depending on international production levels. By 1990, Kuwait, under U.S. tutelage had increased its oil production to undermine OPEC quotas thereby driving the price of Iraqi oil down from $28 per barrel to $11 per barrel and further ruining the Iraqi economy. Appeals from Iraq, Iran, Libya, and other countries to the Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to stick to OPEC production levels were met with increased naval activity in the Persian Gulf by the United States. In February 1990, Saddam Hussein spoke at the Amman summit on the relationship between oil production and the U.S. navy buildup and warned that the Gulf people and the rest of the Arabs faced subordination to American interests.

Following this speech the Western press carried stories of Saddam’s missiles, chemical weapons and nuclear potential. The Israeli press speculated about pre-emptive strikes such as the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear power plant in 1981. In spite of Iraqi diplomatic appeals, Kuwait and the Emirates increased oil production, harming their own economic interests, but damaging Iraq’s even more so. Kuwait refused to relinquish Iraqi territory it had acquired during the Iran Iraq war which Kuwait had helped finance. Kuwait also rejected production quotas and rejected appeals to cease pumping oil from Iraq’s Rumaila oil reserve. It refused to forgo any of Iraq’s debt.

On September 18, 1990, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry published verbatim the transcripts of meetings between Saddam Hussein and high level U.S. officials. Knight-Ridder columnist James McCartney acknowledged that the transcripts were not disputed by the U.S. State Department. U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie informed Hussein that, “We have no opinion on…conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” She reiterated this position several times, and added, “Secretary of State James Baker has directed our official spokesman to emphasize this instruction.” A week before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Baker’s spokesperson, Margaret Tutwiler and Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly both stated publicly that “the United States was not obligated to come to Kuwait’s aid if it were attacked.” (Santa Barbara News-Press September 24, 1990 cited in [1]).

Two days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that the United States has no defense treaty relationship with any Gulf country.” The New York Daily News editorialized on September 29, 1990, “Small wonder Saddam concluded he could overrun Kuwait. Bush and Co. gave him no reason to believe otherwise.” (quoted in [1]).

The 1991 Gulf War

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and quickly gained control of the country. The United States, along with the United Nations, demanded the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces. Attempts by Iraq to negotiate withdrawal were rebuffed by the United States. U.S. military forces in the region had already rehearsed battle plans to repel an Iraqi invasion.

On January 16, 1991, U.S. and other allied forces launched a devastating attack of Iraq and its armed forces in Kuwait. The Allied bombing was intended to damage Iraq’s infrastructure so as to hinder its ability to prosecute war by lowering both civilian and military morale. The United States led the allied forces, but 34 nations also provided troops and/or financial support for the military operations. Among these are: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Honduras, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, The Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, and The United Arab Emirates. (See: or

U.S. media portrayed the Iraqi military as a global threat and as a formidable military opponent to the United States. Nevertheless, the military outcome of the war was one-sided in the extreme. Of the more than 500,000 U.S. troops engaged in the war, 148 died in battle, many from “friendly fire.” Total allied losses were minimal. By contrast, in June 1991, the U.S. military reported more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers killed, 300,000 wounded. Some human rights groups claimed a higher number of Iraqis killed in battle. According to Baghdad, civilian casualties numbered more than 35,000. However, after the war, some scholars report that the number of Iraqi soldiers killed was significantly less than 100,000. Whatever the numbers, the Iraqi army was completely routed, and all surviving Iraqi military units withdrew to Iraq. “Desert Storm,” as the war was called, destroyed 80% of Iraq’s weaponry, and the international monitoring and inspections that followed the war (see the next section), resulted in at least 90% of Iraq’s pre-invasion weaponry eliminated.

Former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, and International Action Center have reported devastating effects of the U.S. and British bombing on the Iraqi civilian population, including the use of depleted uranium from U.S. bombs that have led to cancer and unprecedented levels of birth defects in Iraq. More than 600,000 pounds of depleted uranium was left in Iraq after the war (See the International Action Center web site:

The war also had negative repercussions for U.S. soldiers. Some have reported the effects “Gulf War Syndrome” and other debilitating health consequences from exposure to harmful chemical and/or biological agents (see e.g. HERE)

U.S. Disinformation Campaigns

It is difficult to document or even estimate the extent of psychological operations, propaganda projects, and disinformation propagated by the U.S. government to enlist public support for military campaigns against Iraq. However, two examples have been documented and are well known: false reports of an Iraqi troop buildup threatening Saudi Arabia, and a manufactured story recited in congressional hearings about Iraqi soldiers killing newborn babies in a Kuwaiti hospital. The film “Hidden Wars” [2] and Pacifica National Radio have presented coverage of these stories.

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