In the early morning hours of August 2 1990, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops crossed into Kuwait in a dash to occupy the oil-rich state. The shocked residents of Kuwait were the first to find out. Jehan Rajab, a school administrator in Kuwait City, recalled: “At 6:00 A.M. on 2 August I got out of bed as usual, opened the window and looked outside. To my consternation I heard the sharp staccato sounds of gunfire, not a shot or two but sustained firing, which was being answered back. The sounds resonated off the walls of the mosque beside us and it immediately and horrifyingly became obvious what was happening. Kuwait was being invaded by Iraq.”
Telephones began to ring across the Arab capitals. King Fahd was awakened with the news at 5:00 A.M. Having just seen off the Iraqi and Kuwaiti negotiators in Jidda the night before, the Saudi king could scarcely believe that Iraqi troops had invaded Kuwait. He immediately tried to contact Saddam Hussein but could not reach him. His next call was to King Hussein of Jordan, who was known to be closest to the Iraqi leader.
An hour later, aides woke the Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak, to report that Iraqi troops had occupied the amir’s palace and key ministries in the Kuwaiti capital. The Arab leaders had to wait until mid-morning for the first explanation from Baghdad: “This is just part of Iraq returning to Iraq,” Saddam’s political envoy explained to the incredulous Arab heads of state.
The international community now faced the first crisis of the post–Cold War era. News of the invasion reached the White House at 9:00 P.M. on August 1; the Bush administration issued a robust condemnation of the Iraqi invasion that same night. The next morning it referred the matter to the UN Security Council, which swiftly passed Resolution 660, calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces.
Undaunted, Iraqi forces sped into the capital, Kuwait City, in a bid to seize Kuwait’s amir, Shaykh Jabar al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and his family. Had they successfully captured the ruling family, the Iraqis would have enjoyed far more control over the country, holding the amir and his family hostage to secure their objectives. However, the amir had been warned that the Iraqis were on the move and left with his family to take refuge in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Kuwaiti crown prince, Shaykh Saad, returned from his Jidda meeting with the Iraqi vice president to learn that the invasion was already underway. He immediately called the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait and officially requested American military support to repel the Iraqi invasion, before joining the rest of the royal family in exile in Saudi Arabia. By these two simple acts—the request for American assistance, and taking exile—al-Sabah managed to foil Saddam’s invasion just as it was starting. Yet the Kuwaiti people would face seven months of horror before the ordeal of occupation would end.
Given the authoritarianism and political double-talk of the Ba’thist regime, the first days of the occupation seemed to emanate straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. The Iraqis preposterously claimed to have entered Kuwait on the invitation of a popular revolution to overthrow the ruling al-Sabah family. “God helped the free people from the pure ranks in Kuwait,” a communiqué issued by the Iraqi government explained. “They have swept away the old order and brought about a new order and have asked for the brotherly help of the great Iraqi people.” The Iraqi regime then installed what it called the Provisional Free Kuwait Government.
With no obvious Kuwaiti revolutionaries to support Iraq’s claims, however, Saddam Hussein’s government quickly abandoned the pretense of liberation and announced the annexation of Kuwait. On August 8 it was declared the nineteenth province of Iraq. The Iraqis went to work erasing Kuwait from the maps, and even redesignated the capital Kuwait City by a name of their own coining—Kazimah.
By October, new decrees were issued that required all Kuwaitis to change their identity papers, as well as the license plates on their cars, to standard Iraqi issue. The Iraqis tried to force compliance by denying services to Kuwaitis without Iraqi papers. Ration cards for basic foods like milk, sugar, rice, flour, and cooking oil were only issued to people with Iraqi papers. People had to present Iraqi identification to get medical service. Gas stations would only serve cars with Iraqi license plates. Yet the majority of Kuwaitis resisted these pressures and refused to take Iraqi citizenship, preferring to trade for essentials on the black market.
The invasion of Kuwait was accompanied by the wholesale looting of shops, offices, and residences by Iraqi forces, much of it for reshipment to Baghdad. Watching the truckloads of stolen goods depart for Baghdad, one Kuwaiti official questioned an Iraqi officer:
“If you are saying that this is part of Iraq, why are you taking everything away?” “Because no province can be better than the capital,” the officer replied.
The brutality of the occupation grew more intense with each passing day. Toward the end of August, Saddam Hussein appointed his notorious cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid, grimly nicknamed “Chemical Ali” for his use of gas warfare against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign, as military governor of Kuwait. “After the arrival in Kuwait of Ali Hassan Al Majeed,” Kuwait resident Jehan Rajab noted in her journal, “the reign of terror intensified, as did the rumours of possible chemical attacks.” Those who could, fled. “Escape was on everyone’s mind,” reflected Kuwaiti banker Mohammed al-Yahya. He described cars from Kuwait four abreast at the Saudi border, backed up for 30 kilometers (about 19 miles). Al-Yahya, however, chose to remain in Kuwait.
As the full repression of Iraq’s political system took root in Kuwait, its people rose up in nonviolent resistance. “Within the first week of the invasion,” Jehan Rajab wrote, “Kuwaiti women decided to demonstrate on the streets against what had happened.” The first demonstration was held on August 6, just four days after the invasion. “There was a feeling of tension and expectancy: it was almost as if the crowd subconsciously realized that even peaceful demonstrations would not be countenanced by the Iraqis.” As many as 300 people took part in the march, carrying banners, posters of the exiled amir and crown prince, and Kuwaiti flags.
The protesters combined chants in honor of Kuwait and the amir with condemnations of Saddam Hussein: “Death to Saddam” and, incongruously, “Saddam is a Zionist.” The first two demonstrations met with no Iraqi reaction, but by the third consecutive day of protests, the swelling mass came face to face with armed Iraqi soldiers who fired straight into the crowd. “Pandemonium broke out,” Rajab recorded. “Car engines roared as they tried to back wildly down the road, people screamed and the shooting continued.” Dead and wounded demonstrators littered the ground outside the police station in downtown Kuwait City. “That was the last of such marches in our district, and probably the last anywhere, for the Iraqis shot to kill or maim. Kuwaitis were beginning to understand just how ruthless the invaders were.”
Yet nonviolent resistance activities continued throughout the Iraqi occupation. The resistance movement changed tactics to avoid the risk of Iraqi gunfire. On September 2, the Kuwaitis marked the end of the first month of the occupation with a show of defiance. The plan spread by word of mouth for all residents of Kuwait City to climb to their roofs at midnight and cry out “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” At the appointed hour, thousands joined in a chorus of protest against the occupation. For Jehan Rajab, it was a shout of “defiance and fury at what had taken place—at the invasion, the brutality that had followed, the killings, and the torture centres that had been set up in various places around Kuwait.” Iraqi soldiers fired warning shots to the rooftops to silence to protest, but for one hour the people of Kuwait successfully defied the occupation. “Some say Kuwait was born anew that night,” the banker al-Yahya claimed.
Many Kuwaitis mounted armed resistance against the Iraqis as well, led by former police and soldiers who were trained in the use of firearms. They ambushed Iraqi troops and ammunition stores. The road that ran past Jehan Rajab’s school was a main thoroughfare for Iraqi military vehicles and became the focus of many resistance attacks. In late August, Rajab was shocked by an enormous explosion from the main road, followed by a random volley of rocket fire. She soon realized that the resistance had struck Iraqi ammunition trucks and detonated the ordinance they were carrying. She only dared to leave her apartment when the explosions died down. She found fire engines dousing the flaming wreckage of the Iraqi army trucks. “There was little left to be seen other than scattered and blackened skeletal remains,” she noted in her journal. “Anything human must have been blasted into infinity.”
The attacks placed the residents of her neighborhood at grave risk, both from the fallout of the attacks and from the retaliation of the Iraqis. “After this particular incident,” she noted, “in which a few houses had been hit and, worse, the Iraqis had threatened to kill everyone in the area if anything like it happened again, the Resistance tried to protect ordinary civilians by keeping its explosions further away from residential districts.”
The residents of Kuwait took Iraqi threats very seriously. The stench of death hung heavy over the occupied country. Death had literally come to the doorsteps of many Kuwaitis: one of the Iraqis’ tactics was to return a detainee to his home and gun him down before his family. To compound the horror, the authorities threatened to kill all members of the household if the body was moved. The dead were often left for two or three days in the heat of summer to serve as a grisly warning to others who dared to resist.
Yet in spite of Iraqi efforts to intimidate the Kuwaitis into submission, resistance continued unabated throughout the seven months of occupation. Jehan Rajab’s claims of “continued resistance during the long months” of the occupation are corroborated by Iraqi intelligence documents, seized after the liberation of Kuwait, that tracked resistance activities through the seven months of the occupation.
In the early days of the occupation, there was no reason to believe that Iraq would confine its ambitions to Kuwait. None of the Arab Gulf countries had sufficient military strength to repel an Iraqi invasion, and following the fall of Kuwait, both the Americans and the Saudis were concerned that Saddam Hussein might attempt to occupy nearby Saudi oil fields.
The Bush administration believed a large American presence to be the only deterrent against Saddam Hussein’s ambitions. It wanted base rights for U.S. troops in the event of military action to displace the Iraqis; however, the administration would need a formal request from the Saudi government for military support before any troops could be dispatched. King Fahd demurred, fearing a negative domestic public reaction. As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia has always been particularly uncomfortable with a non-Muslim presence on its soil. Furthermore, never having been subject to foreign imperial control, the Saudis guard their independence from the West jealously.
The prospect of American troops flooding into Saudi Arabia rallied the country’s Islamists to action. Saudi veterans of the Afghan conflict, flushed with their successes against the Soviets, were adamantly opposed to an American intervention in Kuwait. Osama bin Ladin had returned from the Afghan jihad and had been placed under house arrest by the Saudi government for his outspoken speeches, which were enjoying wide circulation by cassette recording.
When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, Bin Ladin wrote to the Saudi minister of interior, Prince Nawwaf bin Abdul Aziz, to suggest mobilizing the mujahidin network that he believed had been so effective in driving the Soviets from Afghanistan. “He claimed he could muster an army of 100,000 men,” recalled Abdul Bari Atwan, one of the few journalists to interview Bin Ladin in his hideout in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan. “This letter was ignored.”
On balance, the Saudis believed the Iraqis to pose the greater threat to their country’s stability, and opted for American protection in spite of domestic Saudi opposition. Bin Ladin denounced the move as a betrayal of Islam. “Bin Laden told me that the Saudi government’s decision to invite U.S. troops to defend the kingdom and liberate Kuwait was the biggest shock of his entire life,” Atwan recorded.
He could not believe that the House of Al Saud could welcome the deployment of “infidel” forces on Arabian Peninsula soil, within the proximity of the Holy Places [i.e., Mecca and Medina], for the first time since the inception of Islam. Bin Ladin also feared that by welcoming U.S. troops onto Arab land the Saudi government would be subjecting the country to foreign occupation—in an exact replay of the course of events in Afghanistan, when the Communist government in Kabul invited Russian troops into the country. Just as bin Laden had taken up arms to fight the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, he now decided to take up arms to confront U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula.
His passport confiscated by the Saudi authorities, Bin Ladin had to exploit his family’s close ties with the Saudi monarchy to secure travel documents and go into permanent exile. In 1996 he declared jihad against the United States and declared the Saudi monarchy “outside the religious community” for “acts against Islam.” Yet his alienation from the United States and the Saudi monarchy, his former allies in the Afghan jihad, dated to the events of August 1990.
The Kuwait crisis opened a new chapter of Soviet-American cooperation in international diplomacy. For the first time in its history, the Security Council was able to take decisive action without being undermined by Cold War politics. Over the four months following the swift passage of Resolution 660 on August 2, the Security Council passed a total of twelve resolutions as the crisis deepened without the risk of a veto. On August 6 it imposed trade and economic sanctions on Iraq and froze all Iraqi assets abroad (Res. 661); the UN tightened the sanction regime again on September 25 (Res. 670). On August 9 the Security Council declared the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait “null and void” (Res. 662). A number of resolutions condemned Iraqi violations of diplomatic immunity in Kuwait and upheld the rights of third-state nationals to leave Iraq and Kuwait. When on November 29 the Soviets joined with the Americans in passing Resolution 678, authorizing member states “to use all necessary means” against Iraq unless it withdrew fully from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, the Cold War in the Middle East came to a formal end.
What most surprised Arab statesmen—and the Iraqis in particular—was the Soviet position. “Many in the Arab world assumed that even if Moscow refused to help Iraq after the invasion it would at least remain neutral, and they were surprised when the Soviet Union helped the Americans to pass resolution after resolution through the UN Security Council,” Egyptian analyst Mohamed Heikal recalled. What the Arab world had not reckoned on was the weakened state of the Soviet Union and its concern to preserve good relations with Washington. Given America’s geostrategic interests in the Gulf, the Soviets knew they could either support the U.S. or confront it, but they could not deter it from action. With nothing to be gained from confrontation, the Soviets opted for cooperation with the United States and left their former Arab ally totally exposed.
The Arab world was slow to recognize the reorientation of Moscow’s policies in the post–Cold War age. As Iraq turned a deaf ear to the UN, and as the United States began to mobilize a war coalition, the Arab world still expected the Soviet Union to prevent the United States from taking military action against its ally Iraq. Instead, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze worked closely with U.S. secretary of state James Baker in drafting the very resolution that authorized military action. “To the amazement of Arab delegations,” Heikal claimed, “it became clear that Moscow would give Washington a license to act.”
Whereas the Americans and the Soviets enjoyed a moment of unprecedented cooperation over the Kuwait crisis, the Arab world had never been so fragmented. The invasion of one Arab state by another, and the threat of outside intervention, provoked deep divisions among Arab leaders.
Egypt, recently rehabilitated after a decade’s isolation for its peace treaty with Israel, took the lead in organizing an Arab response to the Kuwait crisis. President Mubarak convened a snap Arab summit, the first to be held in Cairo since the Camp David Accords, on August 10. The Iraqis and Kuwaitis faced each other for the first time since the invasion. It was a tense moment. The amir of Kuwait gave a conciliatory speech, trying to mollify the Iraqis and to advance a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. He hoped to return to where negotiations had left off in the August 1 meeting in Jidda. The Iraqis, however, took an intransigent line. When the amir finished his speech and sat down, the Iraqi delegate Taha Yassin Ramadan protested: “I don’t know on what basis the sheikh is addressing us. Kuwait does not exist any more.” The amir stormed out of the hall in protest.