Iraqi invasion of Kuwait

Summary

The occupation of Kuwait took place on 2 August 1990 when the Iraqi army invaded the tiny state of Kuwait. The invading army numbered around 100 000 soldiers and the country was quickly occupied. The Emir of Kuwait, Jabir III, fled with his family. Kuwait was annexed to Iraq a few days later as its new province. The occupation and the backlash from foreign powers led to the Gulf War.

In May 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein accused some Arab countries of selling oil at dumping prices at a meeting of the Arab League. On 17 July 1990, Saddam threatened to use force to prevent Kuwaiti oil from being overproduced and underpriced. He claimed that the actions of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had deprived Iraq of $14 billion in oil revenues. In July, OPEC raised oil prices and imposed production quotas. Yet Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said Kuwait had taken Iraqi oil from the neutral zone between the two countries. Iraq withheld $2 billion from loans to be repaid to Kuwait. Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of stealing $2.4 million in oil from the border between the two countries. The dispute involved Rumaila and the islands of Budiyan and Warban in the Persian Gulf.

On 24 July, Iraq concentrated 30 000 of its troops on the border with Kuwait. On 25 July, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the United States would not interfere in the Arab conflict but was prepared to use force to protect its friends. Iraq continued to concentrate troops on the Kuwaiti border. On 17 July, Kuwait agreed to other Iraqi demands but did not hand over the islands of Warbaj and Bubijan. A few days later, King Hussein of Jordan’s attempt to mediate failed, and bilateral talks between Iraq and Kuwait on the last day of July broke down. According to Iraq, the attack was motivated by a revolt by Kuwaiti revolutionaries against the emir. In reality, Iraq’s aim was to seize Kuwait’s oil resources in order to put pressure on Kuwait to cede territory.

Proceeding to the capital

The invasion of Kuwait, or Operation Yawm al-nida al-Azim in Iraqi, began at 04.00 on the morning of 2 August. The assault force consisted of divisions of the Republican Guard, considered to be the Iraqi army’s reserve force. On the main offensive route, from Safwan on the Iraqi side southwards, the Republican Guard Division Hammurabi was in the lead. As the divisions advanced at 0500 hours, around 100 helicopters dropped Special Forces soldiers on an offensive course towards the strategic al-Matlan ridge in the Kuwaiti capital, where they awaited the advancing ground forces. The advance from Iraq met resistance only from small Kuwaiti units.

As the ground offensive progressed, troops from the 16th Iraqi Special Forces Brigade were airlifted to the Kuwaiti capital. The troops arrived by helicopter and were tasked with cutting off communications from the capital towards Saudi Arabia to prevent the Kuwaiti royal family from fleeing the country. The Iraqi Air Force had been due to bomb Kuwaiti air bases, but bad weather had delayed the start of the air strikes. This allowed the Kuwaiti air force to strike against the Iraqis. For example, Kuwaiti Air Force fighter jets managed to strike helicopters bringing troops into the capital and a few were shot down. However, by 06:00, the special forces had begun to take over the main sites in the city, such as the Ruler’s Palace, the parliament building and other administrative buildings. In any case, the Kuwaiti ruler, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, managed to flee the country with his family to Saudi Arabia. His brother, Fahad al-Ahmad al-Jaber, was killed in fighting at the ruler’s palace. A Kuwaiti armoured brigade launched an unsuccessful counter-attack to retake the palace. After the Special Forces captured the Kuwaiti embassies, the first reports of a ‘coup’ were issued. Shortly afterwards, troops from the Hammurabi and Nebukadressar divisions also began to arrive in Kuwait City. With their support, the Iraqis took the remaining stations in the capital, as well as the adjacent international airport.

Other lines of attack

While the main assault forces took the capital, al-Faw Division advanced along the eastern coast of Kuwait from Umm Qasr on the Iraqi side to the south. They captured the bridge connecting Bubiyan Island to the mainland and several prisoners were taken on the island. An initial attempt to land troops on Failaka Island by helicopter was unsuccessful. The island was eventually occupied by the 330th Marine Brigade, which had landed. The second brigade captured the Kuwaiti naval base at al-Qulayyah, where several anchored ships were captured.

On the west side of the main offensive line, the Tawakalna Division advanced into northwest Kuwait. The division advanced towards the Ali al-Salem airbase, from where it continued towards the south of the country. On the more important lateral attack track, al-Madina Division advanced into Kuwait from the western border of the country west of Ali al-Salem Air Base. The division was forced to advance across the desert, leading to difficulties in navigation and communications. By midday, however, its forces had taken the road to al-Salmi on the Saudi border, cutting off communication with Saudi Arabia in this direction. The troops continued to advance towards al-Jahra, where they encountered substantial forces from the Kuwaiti Army’s 6th and 35th Brigades. The Kuwaitis put up fierce resistance in the direction of al-Jahra, but were eventually defeated. The Iraqis continued to advance towards the port of al-Ahmad, which was captured during the night of 3-4 August. Troops also arrived at al-Qulayah, which was already under Marine control. Al-Madina was followed by Adnan Division, which continued south along the Kuwaiti coast towards the Saudi border.

The end of the fighting

At noon on 4 August, troops from the al-Madina, Adna, Tawakalna and Baghdad divisions took the rest of southern Kuwait. They stopped a kilometre from the Saudi Arabian border. Saddam wanted to show that the Iraqis had no intention of advancing further into Saudi Arabia. The occupation of Kuwait had come to an end.

Iraqi casualties during the occupation were more than 300 killed and 360 wounded. Kuwaiti casualties were over 4 000 killed and wounded. A large number of Kuwaiti soldiers remained prisoners of war. An unknown number of civilians were also killed in the fighting. As expected, the Kuwaiti armed forces were no match for the Iraqis and were caught off guard by the rapid attack. Some Kuwaiti ground forces units moved to the Saudi side. Air force aircraft fled to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Republican Guard troops began to leave Kuwait for southern Iraq on 5 August and were replaced by regular Iraqi ground forces. The Iraqi occupation regime began, marked by abuses against the local population and attempts to crush the resistance. As early as 2 August, an announcement had been made that the Iraqis had advanced on the ground in response to a request for support from the local Kuwaiti revolutionaries who had carried out the coup. Initially it was claimed that the Iraqis would withdraw from the country at the request of the new regime, but just a few days later it was announced that Kuwait would be annexed to Iraq as its 19th province. Ali Hasan al-Majid was appointed governor of Kuwait. Iraq began to plunder Kuwait’s natural resources. The country’s population declined dramatically as foreigners fled.

The Iraqi invasion increased international tensions in the Gulf region. The United Nations Security Council met in a crisis meeting and unanimously condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and called for an Iraqi withdrawal. On 6 August, the UN adopted sanctions against Iraq, which came into force immediately. The UN set up a committee to monitor compliance with the sanctions. The committee was chaired by the Finnish Ambassador to the UN, Marjatta Rasi. On 25 September, the UN Security Council imposed a flight ban on Iraq. Previously, trade sanctions and maritime and land transport bans had been imposed, including on the port of Aqaba in Jordan, which is used by Iraq.

The leaders of the Arab League began an emergency meeting on the occupation of Kuwait on 10 August in Cairo. The Arab leaders called for an immediate Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The meeting also backed UN Security Council sanctions against Iraq. A majority of Arab countries agreed to send troops to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to protect them from a possible Iraqi invasion. However, full unanimity was not achieved. In addition to Iraq, Libya and the PLO opposed the meeting’s sanctions. Several states assumed the role of mediator. King Hussein of Jordan asserted that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was still possible. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not convinced of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait immediately affected stock markets around the world due to the threat of war and the decline in oil production. The rise in oil prices created fears of inflationary developments, causing uncertainty not only in stock markets but also in money markets.

At an extraordinary meeting in Vienna on 29 August, OPEC decided to increase oil production to compensate for the shortage caused by the Gulf crisis. Of the 13 member states, 11 attended the meeting and 10 voted in favour, with Iran voting against. Iraq and Libya did not attend. The Kuwait crisis caused a shortage of 4.6 million barrels of oil a day. This shortage was expected to be resolved by an OPEC decision. The world market price of crude oil fluctuated from USD 25 to over USD 30 per barrel. OPEC had set a minimum price of USD 21 per barrel in July. International analysts believed that a drop in the oil price to USD 21 would require a resolution of the Gulf crisis. Oil prices rose even as Saudi Arabia increased production. The price of a barrel of oil rose to 35 dollars in September and 40 dollars in October.

The United States immediately raised its combat readiness and sent its warships to the Persian Gulf. The Soviet Union stopped its military aid to Iraq. Britain sent twelve fighter planes to Oman in case of a possible Iraqi invasion. Japan and West Germany supported the troops with billions in aid.

The Kuwaiti royal family stayed in a five-star hotel in the port city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Emir of Kuwait sought to control the financial interests of his country as Kuwait had invested large amounts of money abroad.

On 2 September, United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar concluded two days of talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in the Jordanian capital Amman. Perez de Cuellar said he was disappointed with the talks. Aziz made no promise of an Iraqi withdrawal. Iraq did, however, promise to release all female and child hostages. Foreign Minister Aziz made it clear during the talks that this was an Arab dispute in the Gulf and that there was no reason for other states to get involved.

The situation in Kuwait was the main topic of discussion between US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev when they met in Helsinki on 9 September 1990. Helsinki was chosen as the venue for the meeting with only one week’s notice, and the meeting was hosted by President Mauno Koivisto. The declaration issued at the end of the meeting called for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait and the release of foreign hostages, but gave priority to a peaceful solution to the crisis. The statement did not directly address the question of what would happen if UN sanctions against Iraq proved insufficient, but George Bush did not rule out the possibility of the use of force.

During the autumn of 1990, the opponents of the war also became active. Chronic anti-Americanism began to rear its head in Western Europe, especially in France. Questions were raised as to whether Kuwait was really a country worth saving. Critics argued that it was like a large family business whose wealth was being squandered by the emir and his extended family. In the United States, too, there was criticism of President Bush’s policies and fears that Kuwait would become a ‘new Vietnam’ for the United States. General Colin Powell, a veteran of the Vietnam War and commander of the US armed forces, was of the opinion that the war should not be launched until there was certainty that it would end soon.

In a television interview on 5 September 1990, President Mauno Koivisto called for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait and the unconditional release of Iraqi hostages, and stressed the role of the UN in resolving the Kuwaiti crisis. Koivisto’s statement was seen as exceptionally strong. Earlier in August, Mr Koivisto had already described the situation in the Middle East as extremely serious and said that Iraq was committing an arbitrary act by holding foreign hostages as pawns. In September 1990, the Finnish government began printing fuel rationing coupons in anticipation of a possible fuel shortage caused by the Kuwaiti crisis.

Iraqi troops invaded the Belgian, Dutch, Canadian and French embassies in Kuwait City. UN Resolution 7 condemned the incursion and Iraqi diplomats were expelled from the country.

During the first weeks of the occupation of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein proved himself to be a ruthless and coldly calculating politician. Saddam refused almost all Westerners entry and declared them “his guests”… Iraq closed its borders to Westerners on 9 August and announced that prisoners would be placed in strategic locations as human shields. There were 100,000 foreigners in Kuwait and Iraq, mostly technicians and engineers. Unlike Westerners, Arabs and Asians were allowed to leave Iraq and Kuwait immediately. The Indian government evacuated some 150 000 Indian citizens by air.

Delegations from various countries arrived in Baghdad to negotiate the release of hostages. Among them were former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange. The Iraqi leadership released hostages in small groups. Saddam Hussein promised that all Western hostages would be released within three months from Christmas Day. Austrian President Kurt Waldheim personally arrived in Iraq on 26 August and negotiated an exit permit for Austrian citizens held hostage in Iraq. Mr Waldheim was criticised by the Member States of the European Community for what was seen as a departure from the line agreed by the European countries.

Saddam Hussein announced unexpectedly on 6 December that all foreign hostages would be released. Hussein’s announcement meant that over 2000 Western and Japanese hostages and over 3000 Soviet hostages would be released. The release decision was justified, inter alia, by the fact that several Arab leaders had made positive statements to US Congressional representatives and that the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, had been invited to address the European Parliament. It was also believed to have been influenced by the fact that the day before the UN had announced that the US was in favour of organising a Middle East peace conference. Iraq was thought to have taken this to mean that the Palestinian issue would be addressed, which would be Hussein’s objective. However, the US rejected the peace conference.

Of the nine Finns held hostage in Iraq for four months, five were released and arrived in Finland on 30 November. The Finns left Iraq with 53 released Swedes. The release of the hostages was negotiated by a Finnish delegation including Paavo Väyrynen MP, bank manager Ulf Sundqvist and Mikko Lohikoski of the Arab Friendship Association.

US President George H. W. Bush announced on 8 November that more American troops would be brought to the Gulf. The US was preparing to send 100 000 troops to the Gulf. There were already 22 000 troops in Saudi Arabia and surrounding areas. The number of tanks would be increased to 2,000. It was expected to take a couple of months to bring in the troops. The aim was to put pressure on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

US Secretary of State James Baker discussed the situation in the Gulf with both President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow. The Soviet Union fully supported the US action. Baker had earlier negotiated with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia on improving military defences along the Kuwaiti border.

The military presence in the Gulf increased as France sent supplies, 4,000 troops, the aircraft carrier Clemenceau and helicopters… Syria, which had previously opposed US action in the Middle East, also sent troops to Saudi Arabia. Morocco also sent troops.

On 30 November, the UN Security Council adopted a historic resolution threatening Iraq with military action unless it withdrew from Kuwait by 14 January 1991. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 12-2, with Yemen and Cuba voting against.

A couple of weeks before the expiry of the 15 January deadline set by the UN, the situation in the Gulf was unresolved and tense. On New Year’s Eve, Iraq insisted sharply that Kuwait was an Iraqi province and Iraq was not going to withdraw. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appealed to Saddam Hussein to listen to the UN in his New Year’s speech. Mubarak said the decision on war and peace was in Hussein’s hands.

Iraq announced that 60 divisions (about 900 000 troops) were concentrated on the Saudi border. The concentration of ground forces was in preparation for a possible US invasion. Iraq also announced that it was preparing for battle with “oil weapons”, i.e. tankers loaded with oil had been assembled on the Kuwaiti border; they would be set on fire if the US attacked. At the same time, preparations were being made for a meeting between Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz and US Secretary of State Baker. Negotiations were held right up to the end to prevent war. The negotiations between US Secretary of State Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz in Geneva failed.

In Baghdad on 12 January, UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar tried to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Hussein declared that Kuwait is Iraq’s 19th province and that he has no intention of withdrawing from Kuwait. US President Bush received a mandate from Congress to use US military force against Iraq.

On the night of 17 January, allied forces attacked the Kuwaiti border. Operation Desert Storm began, with the aim of ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. The attack involved 2 500 attack aircraft and heavy bombers operating from bases in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. At the same time, cruise missiles were launched from submarines and battleships in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

The first bombs were dropped on the Iraqi capital Baghdad at 00.35. In total, 180 000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on strategic targets in Iraq. The aim was to cripple and destroy Iraq’s defence and military industries. Saddam Hussein declared a holy war against the infidels. The Iraqi air force suffered heavy losses. Missile bases were also decisively damaged.

Several Arab countries supported the invasion militarily. Syria and Egypt had sent troops against Iraq. Allies included Denmark and Norway from the Nordic countries. Iraq was supported by Jordan, Yemen and the PLO. Iran remained outside the conflict.

Iraq announced that it had shot down many American, British and Italian aircraft. Iraqi television showed prisoners of war openly declaring that the war should end. Later, Iraq used the prisoners of war as human shields. The US filed a complaint alleging that Iraq violated Article 17 of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war.

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