Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
The Gulf Wars: Iraq Occupies Kuwait
Origins of Key Geographical Terms


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Saddam.JPG (39220 bytes)
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

The Gulf Wars

Iraq and Iran, 1980-1988
Iraq Occupies Kuwait, 1990-1991
Toppling Saddam, 2002-03

Coalition Provisional Authority Rule, 2003-04
 "Sovereign" Iraq, 2004-2005
Civil War in Iraq, 2006-2007
The New Iraq, 2008-2009

Benchmarks in the History of Modern Iraq

BBC Iraq pages
BBC Profile of Iraqi Insurgents
Map of Iraq (Univ. Texas)

(photo: al-Majalla)

BACKGROUND KUWAITOttoman maps from the late 1800s showed Kuwait as part of the province of Basra in southern Iraq. Kuwait had been ruled since 1756 by the al-Sabah tribe. That year, several tribes belonging to the Bani Utub confederation proclaimed the autonomous sheikhdom of "Kuwait" and appointed the head of the al-Sabah tribe as their chief. These peoples had migrated out of the central Arabian peninsula a century earlier to escape famine, settling along the shore of the Gulf and forming an alliance known as the "Unayza Confederation."

In 1899, Great Britain, seeking to protect her trade routes with India, signed a pact with Kuwait that established a British protectorate over the sheikhdom. In 1913, the border between Kuwait and Iraq was fixed in a treaty between the Ottoman Turks and the British, who, as "protectors" of Kuwait, signed the document on behalf of the al-Sabah sheikhs.

After World War I, the British partitioned Kuwait (Treaty of Uqayr). Seven thousand square miles of the territory became Kuwait as it appears on the map today, and the remainder was divided between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. No one realized at the time that Kuwait was sitting on top of one of the richest oil fields in the world. When Iraq gained its independence from the British in 1932 it formally recognized its border with Kuwait.

Two years later in 1934, the Sabah family granted Great Britain a "concession" to explore for oil. Twenty years after this, Kuwait was pumping more than 50 million gallons of oil per day.

In 1961, Great Britain granted Kuwait full independence. Iraq immediately massed troops along the border, but retreated when the British sent troops into Kuwait.

In 1963, Iraq formally recognized Kuwait’s independence for a second time. However, twice more after this Iraq occupied small sections of northern Kuwait: once in 1967 and again in 1973. The chief issues between the two countries were:

1. Sovereignty over two strategically located islands - Bubiyan and al-Warba - that block Iraqi access to the Persian/Arabian Gulf from her port at Um Qasr,

2. Sovereignty over the Rumaila oil field straddling the border.

When Iran and Iraq agreed to the ceasefire in July, 1988 that ended their eight year war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began pouring tremendous amounts of cash into rearming his depleted military arsenal. Resentment against Gulf nations like Kuwait had been growing steadily since that time after these states decided not to renew an expiring ten year pledge to supply financial relief to those nations most directly threatened by Israel, such as Jordan and Iraq. In fact by the spring of 1989, Jordan had plunged into an economic crisis featuring food riots that were a direct result of this decision.

Key Events in the Modern History of Iraq

Chronology Gulf War II:

1990   On March 15, Iraq hanged a British Iranian-born journalist Farzad Bazoft for espionage. Great Britain recalled its ambassador to Baghdad the following day.

On March 22, Gerald Bull, a Canadian ballistics expert, was murdered in Brussels. His son claimed that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad was responsible for the killing because Bull’s company had provided engineering assistance to Iraq. On March 28, the British arrested five men charged with smuggling U.S. made nuclear bomb triggers destined for Iraq. Two days later, the New York Times published a U.S. intelligence report confirming that Iraq had deployed six SCUD missile launchers to the western regions of the country putting Damascus and Tel Aviv within range. The following day, March 31, the Washington Post reported that in May, 1989, U.S. Customs officers had blocked the shipment to Iraq of 185 high-speed capacitors which could have been used to detonate a nuclear bomb.

Withering criticism of the hanging of Bazoft in the Western press prompted fear in Iraq that Israel may have been planning an air raid similar to the one it launched against Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Saddam Hussein announced that if Israel attacked Iraq, he would destroy half of Israel with chemical weapons.

On April 5, the U.S. government deported a United Nations based Iraqi diplomat accused of plotting the murder of Iraqi dissidents in the United States. Iraq retaliated four days later by expelling an American diplomat.

On April 12, British customs officials seized a shipment of forged steel tubes which Iraq had ordered and which, some suspected, were intended for use in building an Iraqi "super gun."

At the end of May, an Arab summit meeting in Baghdad called to address the problem of Soviet Jewish immigration into Israel closed with Saddam Hussein threatening to retaliate against Kuwait if it continued to exceed oil production quotas (a practice that forces the price of oil down).

Throughout the spring and summer, Saddam Hussein, now an anathema in the West, was subjected to a blistering series of attacks in the press, chiefly in the United  States and culminating in a U.S. News and World Report, June 4, 1990 cover story about him entitled, "The World’s Most Dangerous Man."

On July 16, a meeting of OPEC ("Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries") in Geneva ended with Iraq once more threatening military force against Kuwait for exceeding production quotas and for violating the agreement on drilling rights in the Rumaila oil field, a banana shaped area spanning both sides of the common border. Iraq charged Kuwait with cheating: taking more than its fair share of the oil in the field by using slant drilling techniques. Iraq further complained that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had refused to cancel Iraq’s debts from its war with Iran.

The next day, July 17, Saddam threatened to use force against any Arab oil exporters who refused to abide by their production quotas. The day after this threat, July 18, Saddam massed 30,000 Iraqi troops on his border with Kuwait. The U.S. Senate voted sanctions against Iraq.

On July 25, Egypt reported that Saddam was willing to settle his differences with Kuwait peacefully. The same day, Saddam was told by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, in a meeting in Baghdad that the United States had "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."

Iraqi and Kuwaiti emissaries held talks in Jedda, Saudi Arabia on July 31 and August 1, but the talks collapsed when Kuwait reportedly refused to write off billions of dollars of Iraqi war debts and relinquish disputed territory.

On August 2, 1990 at two in the morning, Iraqi forces swept into Kuwait. Resistance from Kuwait was minimal. The ruling al-Sabah family fled and Kuwait fell under Iraqi control. The next day, Iraqi forces massed along the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in an area called the "Neutral Zone." Saddam later claimed that his positions there were "defensive" only, and that he had never intended to invade Saudi Arabia with whom he had signed a mutual non-aggression pact.

The same day at the United Nations, the Security Council voted 14-0 to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Iraqi forces (Resolution 660). Yemen abstained. It would later be revealed that U.S. President George Bush had decided then and there (August 3) to send American forces to war against Saddam Hussein but further decided he would keep his intentions secret until later in the fall.

On August 6, the United Nations Security Council voted 13-0 to set up a trade and financial boycott of Iraq and of occupied Kuwait. Cuba and Yemen abstained (Resolution 661). At the same time, Iraq sharply reduced the flow of oil it normally exported to tanker ports at Yumurtalik, Turkey, and Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. The next day (August 7), U.S. troops began deployment to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Fahd to help defend his country against a possible Iraqi attack, the opening phase of what Bush administration officials began referring to as "Operation Desert Shield." (In the late nineties and early years of the new millennium, it was the ongoing presence of U.S. "infidel" troops on Saudi soil and so near the holiest sites in Islam that extremists like Osama bin Laden pointed to as justification for attacks on American attacks anywhere in the world.)

Meanwhile in Iraq, hundreds of foreigners were reported "restricted" from leaving the country. The same day Saddam proclaimed the "annexation" of Kuwait in "an eternal merger." The United Nations Security Council (Resolution 662) of August 9 declared the annexation of Kuwait null and void under international law. The vote was 15-0.

The Saudi dominated OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) had been meeting when Saddam invaded Kuwait. The conference voted to condemn the Iraqi invasion and to express its solidarity with Kuwait.  However, five members (Iraq naturally, but also the PLO, Jordan, and the Sudan, with Libya abstaining) did not vote for the resolution.  Saddam was later seen as having driven a wedge deep within  Sunni Muslim unity provoking the crisis in Saudi Arabia that eventually led to the rise of radicals like Osama bin Laden.  Saddam himself exploited Islamic rhetoric in his claim that annexing Kuwait had been a religious duty, a jihad, since the al-Sabah family (Kuwait's rulers) had ruled over an artificial state set up by the British.  Saddam claimed that his jihad had liberated Kuwait from dominance by Western infidels.  (see Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press, 2002), 208f.)

On August 10, the Arab League meeting in Cairo voted to join the United States in sending Arab forces to defend Saudi Arabia. Only Iraq, Libya, and the PLO voted against the resolution. Algeria and Yemen abstained. Twelve Arab nations voted for the resolution. However, Mauritania, Jordan, and the Sudan petitioned to be listed in a separate category as having "expressed reservations." The Cairo daily Akhbar al-Yom quoted President Mubarak of Egypt in his opening remarks as saying,

"The choice before us is clear: between Arab action to preserve the solidarity of the Arab nation ("umma") and maintain both Iraq and Kuwait on the original basis which we agreed to according to the criterion of lawfulness versus that which is not lawful, between what is right and what is not, or the entry of a foreign element which will say to us that we have no authority ("la sayatra") over it and that we are merely its agents in guarding the lives of Arabs and their rights."

On August 12, Saddam announced his conditions for peace and an end to the crisis: withdrawal of Israel from Arab Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 war, Israeli withdrawal from territories in southern Lebanon occupied since the 1982 invasion, and Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The PLO welcomed these remarks. Both PLO Chief Yasser Arafat and PLO Foreign Affairs Chief Salah Khalaf announced that the PLO fully supported Iraq’s "enterprise" (mubadara) in Kuwait.

On August 16, Iraq announced it would "play host" to the 11,000 foreign nationals from "aggressive nations" whom it had prevented from exiting the country. The following day, the U.S. press began referring to the detained persons as "hostages." President Bush called up the reserves. Iraq, calling the detainees its "guests," began spreading them out all over the country to deter any rescue attempt or attack.

In Kuwait, defying an Iraqi deadline to vacate their embassies by August 24, the compounds belonging to Great Britain and the United States were surrounded by Iraqi troops and water, electricity, and telephone service were briefly cut off.

On August 28, Iraq announced it had redrawn the map of Kuwait and renamed it  "Province 19." Kuwait City, the capital, was renamed "Qadima." Meanwhile, in Syria the most serious violence since the Hama uprising in 1982 broke out as mass pro-Iraqi demonstrations erupted. On September 10, Iraq and Iran restored diplomatic relations (severed when their eight year war broke out in 1980).

On September 23, 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker testified before a congressional committee that the United States sought a "permanent military presence" in the Gulf. What was not elaborated at the hearing was the fact that the United States had been trying for years to establish a permanent center for military operations in the Gulf region, an effort which naturally had been rebuffed by the Arabs. Part of the plan had been fulfilled with the re-flagging of Kuwaiti tankers, a 1987 initiative that put them under the protection of the U.S. Navy during the first phase of the Gulf Wars.  Baker also left unsaid a long-term strategic interest of the United States:  to control the flow of Gulf oil, not solely because of American domestic needs (7%) but more importantly because Europe and Japan were almost completely dependent on this oil. The United States, declining in power economically relative to other world powers, sought ways to stay in the game and maintain a competitive edge. The impetus for a major American role in the Gulf actually stemmed from the "Carter Doctrine," which was promulgated in 1980.

In spite of the relatively meager U.S. dependence on Gulf oil, a little perspective was in order. In 1973, the year of the Arab oil boycott, the United States was dependent on Arab oil for only 6% of its domestic consumption. In 1990, American dependence on Arab oil overall (from other Arab countries as well as the Gulf) had swelled to 30%.

On October 26, U.S. troop levels in Saudi Arabia rose to 300,000. President Bush’s advisors stopped referring to the operation as "Desert Shield," and began calling it "Desert Sword." On October 29, the Security Council passed Resolution 674 stipulating that if Iraq continued to disregard previous resolutions on the matter, the U.N. would take "further measures under the charter," measures that could include military force. The resolution further held Iraq responsible for all damages and personal injuries caused by its incursion into Kuwait and called for Iraq to pay reparations.

On November 8, one day after congressional elections, President Bush ordered an additional 150,000 American troops to the Gulf, including reservists, stating that his aim now was to achieve an "adequate offensive option." Saddam responded on November 19 by ordering an additional 250,000 Iraqi troops to Kuwait. Six days later Saddam ordered 150,000 more reservists to Kuwait as the threat of war now began to mount steadily.

On November 28, in hearings before Senate committees, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Heads Admiral William Crowe and General David Jones urged that military action against Iraq be delayed in order to give more time for U.N. sanctions against Iraq to work. They were joined in that advice by former Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara, Harold Brown, Frank Carlucci, Caspar Weinberger, and Eliot Richardson, along with the other eight out of nine living former Joint Chiefs of Staff Heads. A year and a half later, President Bush’s own Joint Chiefs Head, General Colin Powell admitted that he, too, favored delaying military action, although he remained silent at the time. President Bush rejected the advice.

How well had the sanctions been working? As of early December, according to Former National Security Advisor Zbigniev Brzezinski in an interview on CNN, since sanctions were imposed, Iraq had suffered a 97% drop in exports, a 90% drop in imports, a 43% drop in its GNP (Gross National Product), while prices had soared 700%. The sanctions were said to be costing Saddam $100 million a day.

On November 29, 1990, the U.N. Security Council (Resolution 678) voted to authorize the United States and its allies to expel Iraq from Kuwait by force if Saddam refused to withdraw by January 15, 1991.

On December 6, Iraq released all foreign hostages.

1991    Saddam Hussein refused to heed the Security Council’s warning of November 29 to withdraw his forces from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. And so, on January 16, at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (3 a.m. January 17, Baghdad time) U.S. bombers began air attacks on Baghdad. "Operation Desert Storm," as U.S. officials now began calling it, was underway.

On January 18 and 19, Iraq fired SCUD missiles into Israel killing three and injuring seventy. On January 28, the Pentagon admitted that after more than 22,000 sorties by American bombers, 65% of Iraq’s airfields were still operational. Initial euphoria and support for the war inside the United States began to wane.

On February 1, the PLO announced its intention to open a "second front" in southern Lebanon against Israel and in support of Iraq. On February 13, an American "Stealth" bomber fired two rockets at a bomb shelter in a civilian neighborhood in Baghdad. Iraq claimed hundreds were killed, including women and children.

On February 22, Iraq accepted an eight point Soviet plan calling for the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The United States rejected the plan. Iraqi troops set more than 150 oil wells inside Kuwait on fire. (It would take an international team of firefighters more than a year to extinguish the blazes.)

The U.S. then presented Iraq with an ultimatum: begin pulling out of Kuwait by noon, Saturday, February 23 with evacuation to be completed within one week. Iraq failed to accept the terms and the following day, February 24, the allied forces, numbered at 700,000 troops, initiated a ground attack against 545,000 Iraqi forces. On February 26, President Bush announced that it was his intention now not only to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but also to drive Saddam from power.  That day an Iraqi SCUD missile hit a U.S. barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia killing 27 and wounding 98.

On February 27, 1991, the 42nd day of the war, and three days after the beginning of the ground assault, Kuwait City was liberated. A temporary ceasefire was arranged on February 28. On March 3, 1991, the permanent ceasefire was signed with Iraq agreeing to all U.S. and U.N. demands. Iraqi war dead were estimated at  between 60,000 and 100,000. U.S. combat losses were 99 dead and 213 wounded.  Meanwhile, during the first two weeks of March, retreating Iraqi troops sparked a rebellion in the south against Saddam's regime among the mostly Shiite population.  The rebels captured Basra and the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.  By the end of the month, Saddam's forces had quashed the rebellion and mass executions of the rebels had begun.  In the north, Kurdish forces, at the instigation of the Americans, also rose up against Saddam during March.  However, when the Iraqi army finished putting down the uprising in the south and turned its attention toward the problems in the north, the Kurdish rebellion likewise fell apart. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to the mountains where at least 20,000 died of exposure and malnutrition. 

On March 6, 1991, U.S. President Bush, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, proclaimed that the era of a "new world order" had begun. The official U.S. meaning of this phrase was that America, since the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, saw itself as the sole "righter of wrongs around the world." (see Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p. 5). Arabs were more skeptical and believed that the phrase was a ruse designed to mask America's true interest in the Middle East: to maintain the flow of relatively cheap oil from the region to other parts of the world. Typifying this view among Arabs, Qasam Khadir Abbas later described the 'new world order' in a 1997 study, as, "a tyrannical system of rule which the United States imposed after the breakup of the Soviet Union giving it authority over those world powers which endeavor to resist it." (quoted in the literature supplement of al-Majalla, no. 933, December 28, 1997, p. 6).

On April 7, 1991, the so called northern "no-fly zone" over Iraq, located north of 36 degrees latitude, was established by the United States, France, and Great Britain to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.  A similar "no-fly zone" in the south was established on August 27, 1992 to protect Iraq's Shia (two thirds of Iraq's population).  This zone ran south of 32 degrees latitude, and was later extended to 33 degrees latitude after France and several other NATO countries ceased patrolling these zones. Some raised questions about the legality of the zones arguing that they had not been authorized by the United Nations.  The U.S. countered that the zones were in line with Security Council Resolution 688 of April 5, 1991 which condemned Iraq's repression of its civilian population.  (BBC, Nov. 18, 2002)  . 

On April 11, 1991, Iraq gave its assent to U.N. Resolution 687, which had been passed on April 3. Under its terms, Iraq agreed to destroy or remove all long-range ballistic missiles and all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. 


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Last Revised: January 12, 2007