From 1980 to 1988, Iraq and Iran fought each other in one of the most brutal industrialized wars since World War II. The Iran-Iraq War saw the United States support Iraq and its controversial dictator, Saddam Hussein, against a vehemently anti-American Iran. Shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, however, Saddam Hussein pushed his luck by invading his smaller southern neighbor, Kuwait, to seize its oil. Instead of a temporary furor, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait sparked widespread condemnation. Against a growing coalition of opponents, Iraq refused to back down and leave Kuwait, prompting the eventual air war and land invasion known collectively as Operation Desert Storm, also known as the Gulf War.
Historical Background: Iraq After World War I
For much of modern history, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, which dissolved at the end of World War I. The largest chunk of the Ottoman Empire is today the nation of Turkey, which spans both southeastern Europe and the Middle East. Modern European intervention in Iraq can be considered to have begun on a large scale during World War I with the Gallipoli Campaign between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Although this initial campaign between the Brits and the Ottoman Turks was a failure for the British, the Allied Powers in World War I (Britain, France, and Russia) would continue to attack the Ottoman Empire.
As the Ottoman Empire was embroiled in World War I, Britain took control of the territory of Iraq in 1917 when British troops marched into the capital city of Baghdad. Three years later, the Revolt of 1920 erupted after the British, instead of “liberating” Iraq from the Ottoman Turks, appeared to be treating it as a colony with little or no self-government. Protesting Islamic groups in central Iraq demanded that the British set up an elected legislative assembly. The British instead put down the revolts with military force, including dropping bombs from airplanes. In 1921, under the authority of the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations), the British installed a hand-picked king, Emir Faisal, in Iraq and ruled the country until it was awarded independence by the League of Nations in 1932.
1930s-World War II: Iraq Dominated by Britain
During World War II, the Middle East became a hotbed of political intrigue between the Allies and the Axis Powers. Although the Axis Powers did not plan to conquer and occupy Middle Eastern territory for the land itself, they were interested in the land’s oil and the ability to block supply routes to the Soviet Union. Since all British troops had left Iraq by 1937, the region was accessible to Axis spies and political agents who hoped to make allies out of Middle Eastern countries.
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In March 1941, a year and a half after World War II erupted in Europe, a new government emerged in Iraq after a coup. Britain did not want to recognize this new government, which began seeking German support in April. Alarmed at the possibility of Iraq allying with Nazi Germany, Britain embarked on the swift Anglo-Iraqi War of May 1941. With the help of troops from India, Britain swiftly seized Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad, and installed a new government that joined the Allies. Until 1947, British troops remained in Iraq.
1950s Iraq: Western Alliance Tanked by Revolution
After World War II, Britain lacked the money to continue occupying and administering its colonies, including Iraq. Britain, however, did support the creation of a new state, Israel, that was placed on land occupied by Arabs. The British legacy of colonialism and the staunch support of Britain and the United States for Israel was seen as anti-Arab and sparked a divide between Arab states in the Middle East, including Iraq, and the West. Despite the growing sociocultural hostility, Iraq joined other Middle Eastern nations in forming the Cold War Baghdad Pact alliance in 1955 to oppose Soviet expansion. In exchange, they received economic aid from the West.
The people of Iraq were growing increasingly anti-West, while Iraq’s King Faisal II remained a supporter of Britain. On July 14, 1958, Iraqi military leaders launched a coup and executed Faisal II and his son. Political violence erupted in the streets, and Western diplomats were threatened by angry mobs. Iraq was unstable for a decade after the revolution as different political groups sought power. However, the nation was a republic and primarily under civilian control.
1963-1979: Ba’ath Party & the Rise of Saddam Hussein
A political party had been growing in power and popularity in Iraq: the Ba’ath socialist party. One young member, a man named Saddam Hussein, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate a leader of the 1958 revolution in 1959. Hussein fled into exile in Egypt, allegedly by swimming across the Tigris River. In a 1963 coup known as the Ramadan Revolution, the Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq, and Hussein was able to return. However, another coup kicked the Ba’ath Party out of power, and a newly-returned Saddam Hussein found himself imprisoned once more.
The Ba’ath Party stormed back into power in 1968, this time for good. Hussein had risen to become a close ally of Ba’athist president Ahmed Assan al-Bakr, eventually becoming the virtual leader of Iraq behind the scenes. In 1973 and 1976, he received military promotions, setting him up for full leadership of Iraq. On July 16, 1979, president al-Bakr retired and was replaced by Saddam Hussein.
1980s & the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)
Shortly after becoming president of Iraq in 1979, Saddam Hussein ordered air strikes on neighboring Iran, followed by an invasion in September 1980. Since Iran was still in the throes of the Iranian Revolution and diplomatically isolated for the seizure of American hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iraq thought it could achieve a swift and easy victory. However, Iraqi forces managed to seize only one significant Iranian city before becoming bogged down. The Iranians fought fiercely and were highly innovative, helping them overcome Iraqi heavy weaponry supplied by both the United States and the Soviet Union.
The war became a bloody stalemate. Both nations engaged in conventional and unconventional warfare for eight years, ranging from armored formations to poison gas. Iran used human wave attacks, including with child soldiers, to overwhelm Iraqi heavy weapons. Iraq admitted later to using poison gas warfare but claimed it had only done so after Iran used chemical weapons first. Iran accepted a cease-fire agreement in August 1988, and the war formally ended in 1990. Although Iran’s fierce fighting and radical determination had worn down Iraq’s military might, Iraq ended the war as a valuable geopolitical ally of the United States.
August 1990: Iraq Invades Kuwait
Eight years of intense warfare–the longest and most brutal conventional war since World War II–had drained Iraq’s economy. The nation was almost $40 billion in debt, a large chunk of which was owed to Iraq’s geographically tiny and militarily weak but extremely wealthy southern neighbor. Kuwait, and other nations in the region, refused to cancel Iraq’s debt. Iraq then complained that Kuwait was stealing its oil through horizontal drilling and blamed the United States and Israel for allegedly convincing Kuwait to produce too much oil, lowering its price and hurting Iraq’s oil-centered export economy.
The US sent dignitaries to visit Iraq in April 1990, which did not have the desired effect. In a surprise move, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with roughly 100,000 soldiers on August 2, 1990. The small nation was quickly “annexed” as Iraq’s 19th province. Hussein may have gambled that the world would largely ignore the seizure of Kuwait, especially due to the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, the dictator was surprised by a rapid and almost unanimous international condemnation. In a rarity, both the United States and the Soviet Union–former allies of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War–condemned the seizure of Kuwait and demanded Iraq withdraw immediately.
Autumn 1990: Operation Desert Shield
The Gulf War consisted of two phases, the first being to surround and isolate Iraq. This phase was known as Operation Desert Shield. Led by the United States, a large coalition of allied nations used air and naval power, as well as bases in nearby Saudi Arabia, to surround Iraq with an armada of firepower. Over 100,000 US troops were rushed to the region, preparing to defend Saudi Arabia against a potential Iraqi strike, as it was worried that a threatened Saddam Hussein might try to seize another wealthy, oil-rich, militarily weak target.
Instead of backing down in the face of a growing coalition of opponents, Hussein took a threatening posture and claimed that his million-man army, built up during the Iran-Iraq War, could wipe out any opponent. Even as up to 600,000 US soldiers took up positions close to Iraq, Saddam Hussein continued to gamble that the coalition would not act. In November 1990, the US moved heavy armor from Europe to the Middle East, signifying an intent to use force to attack, not just defend.
Planning the Gulf War
UN Resolution 678 authorized the use of force to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait and gave Iraq 45 days to respond. This gave both Iraq and the coalition time to prepare their military strategies. The US generals in charge, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, had significant challenges to consider. Although Iraq was surrounded by a vast coalition, it had a huge army and ample amounts of armor. Unlike previous deposed regimes like Grenada and Panama, Iraq was geographically large and well-armed.
However, the US, Britain, and France, which were most likely to conduct any ground invasion, had the advantage of full diplomatic support in the region. The coalition could strike from many places along Iraq’s borders, as well as from aircraft carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf (hence the name “Gulf War”). New technology like satellite navigation was put into use, as well as thousands of carefully-made maps. Unlike the invasion of Grenada in 1983, the US would not be caught unprepared when it came to navigation and target identification.
January 1991: Operation Desert Storm Begins by Air
On January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began with airstrikes after Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait. The coalition conducted thousands of airstrikes, with the US using attack helicopters, fighter jets, and heavy bombers to target Iraq’s military infrastructure. The US conducted a new, high-tech war using “smart” weapons that incorporated computer guidance and heat-seeking technology. Against this new tech, Iraq’s air defenses were woefully insufficient.
For six weeks, the air war continued. Constant strikes and an inability to match the coalition’s newest fighter jets weakened the morale of Iraqi forces. During this time, Iraq made a few attempts to strike back, including launching ballistic rockets at Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, the obsolete Scud missiles were frequently intercepted by the new US-built PATRIOT missile defense system. In an attempt to make air strikes more difficult, Iraq began setting fire to oil wells, filling the skies over Iraq and Kuwait with thick, toxic smoke. Instead of weakening the coalition’s resolve, the burning of oil wells only added to international anger toward Iraq due to the growing environmental and humanitarian crisis.
February 24-28, 1991: Desert Storm Ends by Ground
Despite six weeks of airstrikes, Iraq refused to withdraw from Kuwait. During the pre-dawn hours of February 24, 1991, American and British forces invaded Iraq on the ground in Operation Desert Sabre. Again, technology was a decisive factor: superior American and British tanks had the upper hand over older, Soviet-designed T-72 tanks used by Iraq. Worn down by the air war, Iraqi ground forces began surrendering in droves almost immediately.
On February 26, Saddam Hussein announced that his forces would withdraw from Kuwait. The next day, US President George Bush, Sr. responded that the US would end its ground assault at midnight. The ground war had lasted only 100 hours and shattered the large Iraqi army. On February 28, with the ground war having ended, Iraq announced that it would comply with the United Nations’ demands. Controversially, the quick end of the war allowed Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime to remain in power in Iraq, and coalition troops did not proceed toward Baghdad.
Aftermath of the Gulf War: A Great Political Victory, but Controversial
The Gulf War was a tremendous geopolitical victory for the United States, which was seen as the de facto leader of the coalition against Iraq. Militarily, the US had exceeded expectations and won the war with relatively few casualties. A formal victory parade was held in Washington DC, marking the latest such victory parade in US history. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the swift Gulf War victory helped herald the United States as the sole remaining superpower.
However, the end of the Gulf War was not without controversy. Many thought the war ended without sufficient punishment for Saddam Hussein or a plan for peace afterward. The Gulf War prompted a rebellion against Hussein’s regime by the Kurds in northern Iraq. This pro-coalition ethnic group apparently acted under the belief that American support would help them overthrow Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Controversially, this support did not occur, and the US later allowed Iraq to resume using attack helicopters, which it promptly turned against the Kurdish rebels. The 1991 Uprisings in Iraq failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein, and he remained in power for another twelve years.