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The invasion of Kuwait by neighboring Iraq on August 2, 1990, triggered the first major international crisis of the post–Cold War era. The United States had uneasily supported Iraq during its eight-year war against Iran (1980–1988), a conflict known in the region as the First Gulf War, but Iraqi president Saddam Hussein misinterpreted certain diplomatic signals about whether the Unites States would acquiesce over this latest military action. Kuwait had also sided with Iraq against Iran, but Kuwait and Iraq had fallen out over war debts, border disputes, and competing oil prices. When Iraq invaded in 1990, Kuwaiti defenses were quickly overrun and its government fled into exile. Because Iraq now threatened the Saudi Arabian oilfields, the United States spent the next six months assembling an international coalition of thirtyfour nations, including regional Arab and Muslim states. The United States also secured ten United Nations resolutions to isolate Iraq and prepare for “all necessary means” to expel Iraq from Kuwait by force if it did not withdraw voluntarily. On the night of January 16 to 17, 1991, the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” launched massive air strikes against Iraq’s command-and-control infrastructure and its antiaircraft defenses. This conflict began under the title Operation Desert Storm.
For the next five weeks, coalition aircraft and missiles degraded the occupying Iraqi army’s capacity to resist a land-war offensive. Iraq tried to expand the conflict and split the Arab members from the coalition by firing Scud missiles at Israel. The Iraqi air force fled to Iran after the loss of thirty-eight of its planes, giving the coalition air superiority for the rest of the war. Iraq released crude oil into Persian Gulf waters and even, briefly, occupied the Saudi coastal town of Khafji. Coalition “strategic” bombing missions were largely confined to Iraqi military forces and targets, while a new generation of “smart” missiles hit their military targets with unprecedented accuracy. Some “collateral damage” did occur, when some missiles missed their intended targets, causing unintentional damage and casualties and also causing intense media debate in the new age of real-time reporting around the clock by the Cable News Network (CNN). The two most controversial incidents were the bombings of an alleged baby-milk plant and the Al Firdos installation in Baghdad. The coalition insisted the baby-milk plant was really a chemical weapons facility and the Al Firdos installation was a command and control facility rather than a civilian bomb shelter as the Iraqis maintained. Around 400 civilians were killed on the occasion of the latter. The presence of journalists from coalition countries in the enemy capital while Iraq was under fire was unprecedented and made the propaganda war more complex.
The ground war began on February 24 and lasted barely a week, with Iraqi commanders agreeing to a “cessation of hostilities” at Safwan air base in southern Iraq on March 3. Although Saddam Hussein had promised “the mother of all battles,” the Gulf War was one of the most one-sided conflicts in military history. An unknown number of Iraqi soldiers and civilians died (estimates vary from 25,000 to 200,000) and almost 70,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the coalition, which suffered fewer than 350 dead, the majority of them Americans. Television images of bombed-out Iraqi convoys fleeing Kuwait may have had an impact on the decision to end the war.
In the long term, the war had disastrous consequences: It marked the arrival of Western military forces into the Muslim holy land of Mecca, which prompted the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden to turn against the United States, which had sponsored him during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
- Atkinson, Rick. 1993. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh. 1993. The Gulf Conflict, 1990–1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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