For some Arab leaders, the threat of American intervention was more serious yet than the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. President Chadli Benjedid of Algeria admonished the assembly: “We have fought all our lives to get rid of imperialism and imperialist forces, but now we see that our endeavours are wasted and the Arab nation . . . is inviting foreigners to intervene.” The leaders of Libya, Sudan, Jordan, Yemen, and the PLO all shared Benjedid’s concerns, and they pressed for concerted Arab action to resolve the crisis. They hoped to negotiate an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait on terms that both sides could accept without further armed conflict or foreign intervention.
When it came to the vote on the final resolution of the Cairo summit, the divisions within the Arab world were most apparent. The resolution condemned the invasion, disavowed Iraq’s annexation, and called for an immediate withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It also endorsed Saudi Arabia’s request for Arab military support against Iraq’s threats to its territory. Mubarak curtailed the debate on the resolution after just two hours and put the text to a vote that split the Arab world into two deeply divided camps, with ten in favor and nine opposed to the final resolution. “It had taken just under two hours to create the deepest divisions the Arab world had ever seen,” Mohamed Heikal wrote. “The last slender chance for an Arab solution had been lost.”
The American government believed nothing short of a credible threat could force the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait. They had no confidence in Arab diplomacy and instead began to recruit Arab allies for military action. The first American forces had already landed in Saudi Arabia on August 8, where they were joined by Egyptian and Moroccan units. The Syrians, long-time enemies of Iraq and interested in rapprochement with the United States since the Soviets had withdrawn their support, were leaning toward joining the coalition and confirmed their participation on September 12. The other Gulf states—Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—also sided with the Saudis and offered troops and facilities to the American-led coalition.
Having split the Arab states into irreconcilable camps by his actions, Saddam Hussein next played to Arab public opinion to turn citizens against their governments in Arab states. He presented himself as a man of action who stood up to the Americans and the Israelis. He condemned the United States of double standards, of enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions on behalf of oil-rich Kuwait while turning a blind eye to Israel’s repeated violations of UN resolutions calling for withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. By his actions, Saddam Hussein put added pressure on Arab regimes by making them out to be lackeys of the Western powers who sacrificed Arab interests to preserve good relations with the United States. Hussein openly accused his fellow Arab leaders of playing by America’s rules in the new post–Cold War age. And the Arab masses rallied to the one leader who refused to bow to American pressure. Violent demonstrations broke out in Morocco, Egypt, and Syria in protest of their leaders’ decision to join the coalition. Massive rallies were held in Jordan and the Palestinian territories in support of the Iraqis—much to the chagrin of the exiled Kuwaitis, who for years had provided generous support to both the Hashemite monarchy and the PLO.
King Hussein of Jordan and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who had once enjoyed cordial relations with the Iraqi regime, now found themselves caught between Arab public opinion in support of Saddam Hussein and the international community’s demand that they side with the U.S.-led coalition against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Arafat openly threw in his lot with Saddam Hussein, whereas Jordan’s monarch limited himself to refusing to condemn the Iraqis as he pursued an increasingly unlikely “Arab solution” to the Kuwait crisis. For failing to condemn the Iraqis, King Hussein was accused by both the Bush administration and the Arab Gulf leaders of supporting the invasion of Kuwait. In the aftermath of the crisis, Jordan faced isolation from both the Arab Gulf states and the West. However, King Hussein retained the support of the Jordanian people, averting a crisis that could well have cost him his crown.
Ultimately, Saddam Hussein became a prisoner of his popularity with the Arab street. Once he had claimed the moral high ground on issues like the Israeli occupation of Palestine or withstanding American pressure, he left himself no room for compromise. Nor did arguments that generated Arab public support carry much weight with the American government. The Bush administration refused to broaden the discussion from the immediate context of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And Saddam Hussein could not afford to withdraw without some face-saving concession on the Palestine-Israel track that the Americans were unwilling to concede. Unwilling to play by America’s rules, Saddam Hussein grew increasingly fatalistic about the prospect of war.
By the time the January 15, 1991, deadline set by UN Security Council Resolution 678 had passed, the United States had mobilized a massive international coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait. American forces accounted for over two-thirds the total, with 650,000 soldiers. The Arab world contributed nearly 185,000 soldiers, with 100,000 Saudi troops reinforced by units from Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. Britain and France headed the European contribution to the coalition, though Italy and eight other European states also contributed. In all, some thirty-four countries from six continents combined to make a world war against Iraq.
The world held its breath as January 15 passed without incident. The next day, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm with a massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad and of Iraqi army positions in both Kuwait and Iraq. Saddam Hussein remained defiant, threatening his adversaries with the “mother of all battles.” The greatest uncertainty facing the coalition was if Iraq might use chemical or biological weapons, as it had done against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign. U.S. commanders hoped to beat Iraq from the air without exposing their infantry to the risk of gas warfare.
The Iraqis responded to the air war by firing long-range Scud missiles at Israel and against American positions in Saudi Arabia. Without warning, eight Scuds struck Haifa and Tel Aviv in the early morning hours of January 18, inflicting material damage but no fatalities. As sirens blared, Israeli radio stations advised citizens to don gas masks and take shelter in sealed rooms for fear that the Iraqis might deploy chemical warheads on the Scuds.
Yitzhak Shamir’s government met in emergency session to decide how to retaliate, but the Bush administration managed to persuade the Israelis to stay out of the war. Saddam Hussein clearly hoped to transform the war for Kuwait into a broader Arab-Israeli conflict that would confound the American-led coalition. Mohamed Heikal recounted how Iraq’s missile strikes against Israel confused the loyalties of Arab soldiers in the coalition. When a group of Egyptian and Syrian soldiers encamped in Saudi Arabia heard that Iraq had fired Scud missiles at Israel, they celebrated with shouts of Allahu Akbar—“only to remember an instant later that they were supposed to be against Iraq. Too late—seven Egyptians and several Syrians were disciplined.”
In all, some forty-two missiles were fired at Israel, some falling short and striking Jordan and the West Bank, others intercepted by Patriot missiles. The Scuds provoked more fear than casualties. Many Palestinians in the Occupied Territories cheered Saddam Hussein’s strikes against Israel. Frustrated by the stalemate of the Intifada and Israeli iron-fist policies to break the popular uprising, and now confined to home by a strict twenty-four-hour curfew, the Palestinians were glad to see the Israelis under attack for a change. When journalists filmed Palestinians dancing on their rooftops, cheering on the Scuds, Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh explained their reaction to a British newspaper: “If Palestinians are happy when they see a missile going from east to west, it is because, figuratively speaking, they have seen missiles going from west to east for the last 40 years.” Nusseibeh was to pay for his missile-spotting comments; a few days later he was arrested on the spurious grounds of helping the Iraqis guide their Scuds against Israeli targets, for which he was given three months in Ramle Prison.
The Iraqis fired forty-six Scuds against Saudi Arabia. Most were intercepted by Patriot missiles, though one Scud struck a warehouse in Dhahran used as a barracks for American soldiers, killing 28 and injuring over 100, the highest number of casualties sustained by American forces in any single incident in the war.
Analysis of missile wreckage reassured American commanders that the Iraqis were not using biological or chemical agents. The failure to deploy unconventional weapons emboldened coalition forces to take their war from the air to the ground, and on February 22, President George H. W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein a final ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait by noon the following day or face a ground war.
By February, Iraq and its army had suffered more than five weeks of unprecedented aerial bombardment, which dwarfed the impact of its crude Scuds on Israel and Saudi Arabia. Coalition aircraft sustained a rate of up to 1,000 sorties a day, deploying laser-guided precision weapons with high explosives and cruise missiles against Iraqi targets. Baghdad and the cities of southern Iraq endured extensive bombing raids that destroyed power stations, communications, roads and bridges, factories, and residential quarters.
Though there are no official statistics for civilian deaths in the Desert Storm Gulf War—estimates range from 5,000 to 200,000—there is no doubt that thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and wounded by the intense bombardment. In the worst single incident of the war, the U.S. Air Force dropped two 2,000-pound “smart bombs” on an air-raid shelter in the Amiriya district of Baghdad, killing over 400 civilians, most of them women and children taking refuge from the intense bombardment of the city. The Iraqi army too had suffered heavy casualties from the sustained bombardment, and morale was low by the third week of February.
Facing imminent eviction from Kuwait, the Iraqi government responded with acts of environmental warfare intended to punish Kuwait and the neighboring Gulf states. Already in late January, Iraqi forces deliberately pumped four million barrels of oil into the waters of the Persian Gulf, creating the world’s greatest oil slick, a lethal mass 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 kilometers long by 24 kilometers wide). Given the fragility of the Gulf as an ecosystem, and coming after years of damage inflicted by the Iran-Iraq War, the oil slick was an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented scale.
On the eve of the ground war, the Iraqis detonated charges in 700 Kuwaiti oil wells, creating an inferno. Jehan Rajab witnessed the explosions from the roof of her home in Kuwait. “We can hear for ourselves that the Iraqis have been setting off more of the dynamite placed around the well heads,” she recorded in her journal. “The sky is a throbbing, burning red. Some of the flames rise and fall steadily, others shoot straight into the air to a great height and, I imagine, let out a mighty roar of theatrical proportions. Yet others are almost palpably alive: they spurt out in a swollen ball that pulsates steadily with evil intensity.” The next morning, the blue skies of Kuwait had been blotted out by the smoke of 700 burning oil wells. “The entire sky this morning was black. It blotted out the sun.”
The Iraqis’ environmental war added urgency to the ground campaign, which began in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 24, 1991. The ground war proved brief and brutally decisive. Coalition forces swept into Kuwait and forced a complete Iraqi withdrawal within 100 hours. The intense fighting was terrifying for the inhabitants of Kuwait and the Iraqi invaders alike. Jehan Rajab described massive explosions and heavy fires across Kuwait City, against the background noise of blazing oil wells and hundreds of aircraft crowding the skies. “What an unbelievable night!” she wrote on February 26, two days into the ground assault. “The barrage lit up the lower sky with a blinding white light and blood red flashes.”
The panicked Iraqi forces began a disorganized retreat. Soldiers sought rides on trucks and jeeps heading north to the Iraqi border, and commandeered whatever vehicles were still in running order (the Kuwaitis had sabotaged their own cars to deter theft). Many of those who found a ride out of Kuwait perished at Mutla Ridge, an exposed stretch of Highway 80 running from Kuwait north to the Iraqi border. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers in army trucks, buses, and stolen civilian vehicles caused a massive traffic jam on Highway 80. Coalition aircraft bombed the front and rear of the retreating column, trapping thousands of vehicles in between. Some 2,000 vehicles were destroyed in the ensuing carnage. It is not known how many Iraqis managed to flee their vehicles and how many were killed. Yet the images of the “Highway of Death” exposed the American-led coalition to accusations of using disproportionate force, even of war crimes. Concerned lest such atrocities jeopardize the international support they had built for their campaign, the Bush administration pressed for a complete cease-fire on February 28, bringing the Gulf War to an end.
Liberation came at a high price. The Kuwaitis expressed profound joy at the restoration of their independence, but their country had been utterly destroyed by the Iraqi invasion and the war. Hundreds of oil wells burned out of control, infrastructure had been shattered, and much of the country had to be rebuilt from scratch. The population of Kuwait was deeply traumatized by occupation and war, with thousands killed, displaced, or missing.
The wider Arab world also came out of the conflict divided and traumatized. Arab citizens strongly opposed their governments’ decision to side with the coalition and fight against a fellow Arab state. Those governments that joined the coalition ostracized those who did not. Jordan, Yemen, and the PLO were condemned for having been too supportive of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All three were heavily reliant on financial support from the Gulf, and they suffered economically for the stance they had taken. Many Arab analysts expressed deep mistrust for the United States and concerns for American intentions in the new unipolar world. America’s single-minded pursuit of a military solution, and perceived obstruction of efforts to secure a diplomatic resolution to the Gulf crisis, led many to believe that the United States used the war to establish its military presence in the Gulf and to dominate the region’s oil resources. The fact that thousands of American troops remained in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states years after the liberation of Kuwait only deepened these concerns.
Withdrawal from Kuwait brought no respite to Iraq. The Bush administration, believing it had destroyed Saddam Hussein’s prestige along with his military, encouraged the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow their dictator in early February, 1991. American radio stations broadcast messages into Iraq promising U.S. support for popular uprisings. Their message fell on receptive ears in both the Kurdish districts of northern Iraq and the Shiite regions of the south that had suffered most from Saddam Hussein’s rule. Uprisings broke out in both regions in early March 1991.
It was not the outcome the United States had hoped to achieve with its propaganda. The Americans wanted to see a military coup in Baghdad overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish and Shiite uprisings both threatened American interests. Turkey, which was an ally to the United States under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), had been combating a bitter separatist insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known by the Kurdish acronym, the PKK) since 1984 and opposed any measure that might give rise to an Iraqi Kurdish state on Turkey’s eastern frontier. The Americans for their part feared that a successful Shiite revolt would only strengthen the regional influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Americans offered no support to either the Shiites or Kurds, despite having encouraged the Iraqis to rise up. Instead, the Bush administration turned a blind eye while Saddam Hussein reassembled the remnants of his forces to suppress the rebellions with ruthless brutality. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites are believed to have been killed in the suppression of their revolt, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled Iraqi retaliation to take refuge in Turkey and Iran.
Faced with a massive humanitarian catastrophe of its own making, the United States responded by imposing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. U.S. and British aircraft patrolled the region north of the 36th Parallel to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces. Ironically, the no-fly zone created precisely the sort of autonomous Kurdish enclave that Turkey had most opposed. Elections to a regional assembly independent of Saddam Hussein’s state were held in May 1992, setting in motion the creation of what would become the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
Having failed to unseat Hussein by military means or domestic uprising, the Bush administration returned to the United Nations to secure a resolution stripping Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, establishing Iraq’s responsibility to pay wartime reparations, and reinforcing economic sanctions imposed by earlier resolutions. Saddam Hussein recognized that these measures were designed to provoke his overthrow, and he responded with defiance. He commissioned a mosaic portrait of George H. W. Bush in the entrance of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad so that all its customers would tread on the face of his adversary. In November 1992, Hussein celebrated Bush’s defeat in the presidential elections. Bush had fallen; Saddam was still in power.
The Americans could claim an outright military victory in the Gulf War, but only a partial political victory. The survival of Saddam Hussein meant Iraq remained a source of instability in a region of heightened volatility. And, much against the wishes of the Bush administration, Saddam set the agenda for regional politics after the Desert Storm Gulf War. By drawing parallels between Iraq’s position in Kuwait to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the Iraqi leader forced the international community to address some of the outstanding conflicts in the Middle East.