Arab-Israeli Conflict #7: The 1991 Gulf War
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Arab-Israeli Conflict #7: The 1991 Gulf War

Arab-Israeli Conflict #7: The 1991 Gulf War

As Saddam rained scuds on the Jews, political realities prevented a counter-strike.

by

The United States believed for some time that its interests in the Middle East could best be served by cultivating Iraq, because Iraq possessed the largest and most powerful Arab military force, it had substantial oil reserves, and it served as a counterbalance to Iran in the region. To carry out this policy, the Reagan Administration engaged in a covert program to aid Iraq's war effort against Iran. Starting in 1984, for example, Reagan authorized the CIA to share intelligence with Baghdad.

Reagan's successor, George Bush, encouraged friendly Arab regimes – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait – to transfer U.S.-supplied arms to Iraq. In October 1989, Bush signed a National Security Directive that "the President wished to improve relations with Iraq." This led U.S. officials to look the other way in many instances.

For example, the Commerce Department approved the shipment of industrial furnaces to Iraq, despite the knowledge that they could be used on nuclear weapons-related projects. And as early as 1989, officials in the U.S. Energy Department began to warn that Saddam was engaged in an effort to build a nuclear bomb. But the Bush Administration was reluctant to take steps to impede him.

Believing the Unbelievable

Saddam Hussein believed his campaign against Iran helped protect the Gulf States from Khomeini. Well, maybe he didn't really believe it, but that's one way he justified demanding $30 billion from the Gulf Cooperation Council in February 1990 to cover what he said was their share of the war's costs. When the Council refused to pay, Saddam became more belligerent.

In May, Saddam claimed that oil overproduction by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates amounted to "economic warfare" against Iraq. Later he accused Kuwait of stealing oil from an oil field along their shared border.

The United States was concerned about the developments in the Gulf, but was led to believe Saddam's threats were all bluster. In July 1990, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, reported that Hussein would not use force against Kuwait. Later, the Egyptian president gave Bush the same assurance.

Despite these promises, Iraq massed nearly 30,000 elite troops on Kuwait's border in an effort to force the emirate to reduce oil production. Kuwait had provided $10 billion in "loans" to Iraq during its war with Iran, but Saddam was now accusing that country of participating in an "imperialist-Zionist plan" to reduce oil prices.

Oil Slips Through Saddam's Fingers

On August 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The Emir fled, and his army was quickly overpowered. It took only 24 hours for Iraq to take control of the small sheikdom.

In these first days of the invasion, Saddam made a critical decision that may have changed history. His troops were also massed along the Saudi border, in position to quickly capture the largely undefended Saudi oil fields. Since Iraq owns 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and had captured the 10 percent controlled by Kuwait, had Saddam grabbed the 25 percent in Saudi territory, he would have been in a position to control nearly half the world's oil.

At the time, the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia was too small and unprepared to have prevented Iraq from seizing the oil fields. The Saudis had consistently refused to allow the United States to base a large force in the country, because of the fear this would give the appearance of weakness, dependence on the Americans, and reliance on Western infidels, all of which the royal Saudi family feared might provoke a rebellion.

U.S. Defends The Saudis

Instead of launching an attack, however, Saddam kept his troops on the Iraqi side of the border. This threat was sufficient to galvanize the United States and to force the Saudis to overcome their reluctance to allow American troops onto their soil.

The Saudis formally requested U.S. assistance on August 7, and the cavalry began to arrive two days later.

Despite what Bush would say at the time or afterward, it was the threat to the Saudis that motivated the U.S. to go to war in the Gulf. The stated objective was to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, but the United States had no strategic or moral reason to restore the Emir of Kuwait, whose regime Senator Patrick Moynihan called one of the most anti-Semitic and anti-democratic on earth.

Line in the Sand

On August 6, the United Nations imposed a trade embargo on Iraq. Three days later, it condemned Iraq's aggression and called for an immediate withdrawal. On August 12, a naval blockade was imposed by the United States to stop all shipments of Iraqi oil. Since Iraq is almost entirely landlocked, it was very susceptible to quarantine. Roughly 60 percent of the country's imports arrived by sea, and almost 90 percent of those came via the Red Sea. After the embargo was imposed, Iraq relied heavily on goods smuggled from Jordan.

Still, Saddam paid little attention to the UN or threats from the United States. He announced he was annexing Kuwait and making it the country's 19th province.

The United States responded by launching Operation Desert Shield under the command of General Norman Schwarzkopf. The operation had two objectives:

  1. To get U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia to ensure that it could defend the kingdom in the event that Iraqi forces were to push beyond Kuwait.
  2. To establish a sufficient force to deter Iraq from attacking the Saudis.

By October, the United States had mobilized sufficient force in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to shift the emphasis from a defensive to an offensive posture.

During the 5-month troop build-up of Desert Shield, before it escalated into Desert Storm, U.S. forces had the opportunity to train, test their equipment, and adapt to the harsh desert environment.

Besides the weather, troops had to learn to respect Saudi sensitivities. Soldiers were told to hide crosses and Stars of David, refrain from overt displays of religion, and they were prohibited from drinking alcohol. The Pentagon also gave them an extensive list of subjects they were not permitted to discuss, including just about anything related to Israel.

Among those who had to adapt to these conditions were more than 35,000 women, the largest number of servicewomen ever to be deployed in a U.S. war.

Building the Coalition

Despite the military might of the United States, Bush was unwilling to fight Iraq alone. He was convinced that the UN had made it clear that driving Iraq from Kuwait was an international position, not just an American one, and he wanted to have the broadest support possible. By building a coalition of forces, he could mute opposition to war in the United States, and in the Middle East, where Arab leaders were hypersensitive to Western interference in their affairs.

First, however, he had to overcome Arab insistence that they settle the issue themselves. Led by Egypt, various Arab countries attempted to cajole Saddam into withdrawing, but without success. The most Saddam would do was offer to withdraw after being given control of parts of Kuwait – something unacceptable to the United States. This then gave the Arab states the domestic cover they needed to join the Western-led coalition.

Another key supporter ultimately was the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been longtime allies of Saddam and persuaded Bush to let them try to resolve the crisis. They failed, too, and joined the alliance.

One country that did not join the coalition was Jordan. King Hussein was regarded as one of America's closest allies, but his country was economically dependent on Iraq, and Saddam was not only his closest ally, but an intimidating presence on his border. Throughout 1990, cooperation between the two countries grew.

In addition, the king had to worry about the attitude of the Palestinians who made up the majority of his subjects. They overwhelmingly supported Iraq. Ultimately, Jordan proved to be the main source of support for Iraq, and King Hussein suffered a brief backlash in the United States, which he later overcame through his involvement in peace talks with Israel.

Outnumbering Iraqi Forces

Over the course of five months, Bush succeeded in building a coalition of three dozen nations, which contributed a combined 670,000 troops. In reality, the bulk of the forces was American (roughly 75 percent of the total), British and French. The United States also deployed 127 ships, including six carrier battle groups, while allied navies contributed an additional 72 ships.

Initially, the Iraqis were believed to have had more than half a million troops, but once the fighting began, it became clear the number was considerably lower, perhaps less than 200,000. Anticipating a possible military strike, Saddam announced that citizens of aggressor countries were being imprisoned at vital military installations as human shields in the hope of deterring attacks.

The UN authorized the use of "all necessary means" to evict Iraq from Kuwait if Saddam did not withdraw his troops by January 15. On January 9, Secretary of State James Baker met Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, but they failed to reach an agreement. The U.S. Congress subsequently voted to grant President Bush the authority to wage war to enforce the UN resolutions against Iraq.

Thunder and Lightning

Desert Storm, as the operation was called, began at 3:00 a.m. Baghdad time on January 17, when nine warships began firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at early-warning radar control stations throughout Iraq. These were followed by F-117 Stealth planes that dropped laser-guided smart bombs on Iraqi communications centers. These Stealth fighters were the only aircraft used against Baghdad because of the city's heavy anti-aircraft defenses. The planes flew more than 1,200 sorties (combat flights) against the toughest targets without a single plane being lost.

In the first 24 hours, allied planes flew more than 1,000 sorties, wiping out Iraq's command and control capability and anti-aircraft batteries. From that point on, Iraqi commanders could not gather the intelligence they needed to respond to U.S. air attacks.

After its war with Iran during the 1980's, Iraq was still very strong militarily. It had the world's fourth largest army and sixth largest air force in 1991. The coalition forces so dominated the skies, however, that only 25 Iraqi aircraft managed to get off the ground in the first two days of fighting. During the war, coalition forces shot down 35 Iraqi planes in air-to-air combat.

While the stealth planes were designed to be unseen deliverers of destruction, B-52 bombers were impossible to miss. These behemoths dropping tons of bombs were frightening, intimidating, and deadly. These aircraft were used to destroy and demoralize Iraq's elite Republican Guard ground troops and their heavy weapons in and around Kuwait.

At the beginning of 1991, the U.S. Defense Department imposed censorship on the war coverage by the 1,400 authorized reporters in Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon arranged for rotating groups of journalists to provide "pool" reports from the kingdom, limiting their access to military officials and the battlefield.

Throughout the war, the Allied forces held tightly controlled press briefings to disseminate information about the war. The most impressive displays were usually video clips taken from aircraft that had dropped smart bombs, showing them landing precisely where they were targeted.

Advocates of air power were convinced they could bomb Iraq into submission, force Saddam's troops out of Kuwait, and drive the dictator from power. Despite the devastation of the air campaign, however, Saddam was unbowed and proclaimed his determination to defeat his enemies in the "mother of all battles."

Israel Under Fire

One of the critical elements from the beginning of the crisis was how to prevent the conflict from engulfing Israel. Iraq had been a leader of the rejectionist front (the Arab states most hostile toward Israel) for decades, and Saddam's anti-Israel rhetoric had grown more heated in the months immediately before and after the invasion of Kuwait.

Israel was frustrated by the fact that the United States did not take Saddam's threats to attack Israel seriously in the early part of 1990. When Bush began to assemble the allied coalition during the time of Desert Shield, however, his attitude changed and one of his top priorities was to keep Israel out of the conflict.

The Bush Administration was convinced the Arab states would not support a war against Iraq if Israel were involved, regardless of the justification. Consequently, he urged the Israelis to stay out, even if provoked or attacked.

At this time, U.S.-Israel relations were already strained because of differences between Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir concerning the peace process. Nevertheless, Shamir realized that it was crucial for the future of the relationship that Israel cooperate with the United States at a time when American soldiers were being sent in harm's way.

In preparation for a missile attack, Israelis were given gas masks and told to prepare sealed rooms.

The decision to cooperate with the coalition was an extremely painful one, however, because it meant Israel would have to absorb a first strike and almost certainly suffer casualties that might be avoided by preemptive action. The Israelis' experience had taught them two things over the decades: one, that it was far better to preempt than to wait to be attacked; and two, the failure to respond to an assault would be interpreted by their enemies as weakness.

Israel's concerns grew when it found out that Saddam had long-range Scud missiles capable of delivering chemical weapons into the heart of Israel. In preparation for a possible missile attack, Israelis were given gas masks and told to prepare sealed rooms in their homes to stay in during a possible assault. Special enclosures had to be used for cribs to protect infants. Hotels acquired gas masks for their guests.

Israeli Restraint

Israel hoped to be spared in the fighting, but Saddam consistently issued threats. If the U.S. moves against Iraq, he said in December 1990, "then Tel Aviv will receive the next attack, whether or not Israel takes part." At a press conference following his January 9, 1991 meeting with Secretary of State James Baker, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was asked whether Iraq would attack Israel if the war started. He replied bluntly, "Yes. Absolutely, yes."

On January 19, Iraq fired its first Scud missiles at Israel. Initial reports confirmed Israel's worst fears, that Saddam had indeed used his chemical warheads. This proved untrue, but the possibility of future attacks remained.

Israel desperately wanted to respond and had plans in place to take out the Iraqi missile sites. But Bush pressured Shamir to let the coalition forces handle the problem, and he promised to make the destruction of the missile launchers his top priority. The Israelis were skeptical of the coalition's ability to do the job and were reluctant to rely on someone else for their protection, but they held their fire and were applauded by American officials for their restraint.

To partially compensate Israel for its decision to hold its fire, Bush offered to send Patriot missiles to Israel. The first batteries arrived on January 20. These proved only marginally effective, however, because Patriots that did intercept incoming Scuds (and fewer than half did) caused them to explode over population centers, sending debris that caused extensive damage.

The PLO Backs Saddam

The PLO, Libya, and Iraq were the only members who opposed an Arab League resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Throughout the crisis, the Palestinians were Saddam's most vocal supporters. The intifada leadership, for example, sent a cable of congratulations to Saddam Hussein, describing the invasion of Kuwait as the first step toward the "liberation of Palestine." In Jenin on the West Bank, 1,000 Palestinians marched, shouting: "Saddam, the hero, attack Israel with chemical weapons."

PLO leader Yasser Arafat played a critical role in sabotaging an Arab summit meeting that was to have been convened in Saudi Arabia to deal with the invasion. He also worked hard to water down any anti-Iraq resolution at the August 1990 Arab League meeting in Cairo.

According to some sources, the PLO also played an active role in facilitating Iraq's conquest of Kuwait. The logistical planning for the Iraqi invasion was at least partially based on intelligence supplied by PLO officials and supporters based in Kuwait.

Once the war began, Arafat sent a message to Saddam hailing Iraq's struggle against "American dictatorship" and describing Iraq as "the defender of the Arab nation, of Muslims, and of free men everywhere."

Saddam's Mother Cries Uncle

Though reeling from the air campaign, Saddam employed a new tactic by starting an "environmental war." On January 22, he ordered that Kuwaiti oil wells be blown up. A few days later, Iraq began to pump oil into the Persian Gulf. Later, when the Iraqis started to retreat, they destroyed nearly half of Kuwait's 1,300 oil wells, many of which continued to burn uncontrollably long after war's end.

After Iraq ignored another ultimatum to withdraw, the U.S.-led coalition initiated the ground campaign, Operation Desert Sabre, on February 24. Iraqi defenses along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border reminded the Western nations of the Maginot Line in World War Two. Saddam had left the flanks of his positions exposed in such a way that the easiest way into Kuwait was through Iraq.

The outcome of the war was not in doubt, so the Iraqis tried a new tactic by turning their Scud missiles that were terrorizing Israel on the United States. The Patriots were more effective in defending the military bases than civilian targets – in part because the debris from the missiles didn't fall in civilian neighborhoods – and they shot down most of the incoming missiles. On February 25, however, a Scud slammed into the U.S. barracks at the Dhahran base in Saudi Arabia, killing 25 Americans.

Military operations ceased on February 28, 1991, after 43 days of fighting – 100 hours after the ground war began. On April 6, Iraq accepted a cease-fire and agreed to pay reparations to Kuwait, destroy its stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and also destroy non-conventional weapons production facilities.

The Emir of Kuwait returned from exile and resumed his autocratic rule while fulfilling a pledge to reconvene a parliament. The Sheikh also expelled 400,000 Palestinians who worked and lived in Kuwait to punish them for supporting Iraq during the war.

Israeli Loses

Israel benefited from the destruction of Iraq's military capability by the United States-led coalition, but the cost was enormous. Even before hostilities broke out, Israel had to revise its defense budget to maintain its forces at a heightened state of alert. The Iraqi missile attacks justified Israel's prudence in keeping its air force flying around the clock. The war required the defense budget to be increased by more than $500 million. Another $100 million boost was needed for civil defense.

During the war, Israel was hit by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles. The damage caused by those that landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa, two of Israel's three largest cities (Jerusalem was spared), was extensive. Approximately 3,300 apartments and other buildings were affected in the greater Tel Aviv area alone.

Beyond the direct costs of military preparedness and damage to property, the Israeli economy was also hurt by the inability of many Israelis to work under the emergency conditions. The economy functioned at no more than 75 percent of normal capacity during the war, resulting in a net loss to the country of $3.2 billion.

The biggest cost was in human lives. A total of 74 people died as a consequence of Scud attacks. Two died in direct hits, four from suffocation in gas masks, and the rest from heart attacks.

Israeli Aid

Even though it stayed out of the fighting, Israel helped guarantee Jordan's security by warning that it would take military measures if any Iraqi troops entered Jordan.

The United States also benefited from the use of a wide variety of Israeli-made weapons systems, including Have Nap air-launched missiles used on its B-52 bombers, Pioneer pilotless drones for reconnaissance in the Gulf, mine plows used to clear paths for allied forces through Iraqi mine fields, mobile bridges employed by the Marines, a helicopter night-targeting system used to increase the Cobra helicopter's night-fighting capabilities, and night-vision goggles used by U.S. forces.

Israel also offered the United States the use of its military and hospital facilities, and American ships utilized the Haifa port shipyard maintenance and support on their way to the Gulf.

[Israel's biggest help may have been in June 1981, when Menachem Begin made the decision to attack Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak, where Saddam's nuclear weapons program was under development. The Iraqis were caught by surprise, and it took only one minute and 20 seconds for Israeli jets to destroy the reactor.

Immediately after the raid, Israel was universally criticized. The UN passed a resolution condemning Israel, and U.S. President Reagan even ordered the suspension of F-16 deliveries to Israel. It would be a decade later, as peace-loving nations joined in a Gulf War coalition, that the world would appreciate Israel's resourcefulness and foresight in neutralizing a potentially deadly Iraqi threat.]

Saddam Still in Power

By stopping when they did, military leaders failed to destroy the Iraqi army or its non-conventional weapons capability. The campaign left Saddam militarily weakened, but still in power. As a result, Saddam has remained a thorn in the side of the U.S. and the international community, and a threat to his neighbors until this day.

In 1993, the United States was twice provoked into attacks on Iraq. The first occurred when Saddam moved missiles into southern Iraq and refused to remove them. The U.S. responded by attacking the missile sites and also a nuclear facility in Baghdad. A few months later, a plot to assassinate former President Bush was disclosed, and President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack against Saddam's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

Since the Gulf War, a nearly constant battle has been fought between UN-appointed inspection teams and Iraqi officials, who have prevented these teams from visiting suspected weapons sites. Iraq accused the inspectors of being spies and expelled those who were Americans in November 1997. Then the rest of the team was withdrawn. After renewed military threats from the coalition, Saddam agreed to allow the inspectors to return, but refused to give them access to palaces and official residences, which was precisely where many of Iraq's weapons were believed to be hidden.

It is clear that despite UN sanctions and inspections, Saddam rebuilt his forces and continued his efforts to produce nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons without ever having destroyed all those he had earlier possessed.

Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books – Macmillan USA)

Published: October 5, 2002


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