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Economics and Trade • Oil and Geopolitics

The Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 was a coalition effort led by the United States to remove Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait. The war consisted of two main phases: Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Operation Desert Storm resulted in the liberation of Kuwait, and denied control of a large portion of the Middle East oil reserves to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It also showed that a multinational coalition could succeed in the post–Cold War world.

Causes and Factors

In early 1990, Iraq had recently ended the long Iran-Iraq War, which had left the country deeply in debt, primarily to other Arab states. The largest creditor was Kuwait, which had huge oil reserves and was just south of Iraq on the Persian Gulf. Assuming that no nation would seriously contest him, Hussein launched an invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

Iraq quickly achieved victory, but its blatant aggression and the cruel nature of its occupation of Kuwait aroused anger around the world. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher made the first major speech of condemnation, but U.S. president George Bush was not far behind. He announced that fundamental U.S. interests were involved and that Hussein could not be allowed to control Kuwait and its oil wealth. In addition, evidence was strong that Iraq was nearing its goal of acquiring nuclear military power. Western powers agreed that such weaponry in the hands of an unstable personality had to be curbed.

Acting through the United Nations (UN), the United States organized a multinational coalition to restore Kuwait's sovereignty. Under the code name Desert Shield, the coalition force was led by U.S. major general Norman Schwarzkopf. Assuming that the experienced Iraqi Army was more than ready for a long, hard fight, Schwarzkopf and his immediate superior, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, assembled a more massive force than actually proved necessary.

Air Campaign

When Hussein ignored a deadline for withdrawing from Kuwait, President Bush ordered the beginning of Desert Storm. At 3:00 a.m. on January 17, 1991, U.S. stealth bombers and fighters easily penetrated Iraqi radar and proceeded to destroy Iraq's air defense network. Soon, follow-up strikes took out peripheral radar sites as well, which gave coalition forces complete air superiority. Iraqi aircraft were destroyed on the ground, in air-to-air combat, and in their bunkers before Hussein ordered the surviving planes to flee to Iran. Hussein then responded by attempting to drive a political wedge into the coalition. With intermediate-range ballistic missiles, Russian-designed Scuds, he launched attacks on Israel hoping to bring Arab support to Iraq. Attacks on Saudi targets were intended to demoralize the Saudis and force their withdrawal from the coalition. Neither strategy worked.

For two weeks, coalition aircraft roamed at will across Iraq and Kuwait and destroyed much of Iraq's armor and personnel. Another deadline for Iraqi withdrawal came and went, and on February 24, coalition leaders were convinced that the time had come to launch the land campaign.

Expulsion of Iraqi Forces

More than 500,000 British, French, Kuwaiti, Saudi Arabian, and U.S. troops participated in the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm. The weeks of pounding from the air had taken their toll, and the Iraqi soldiers in many cases could not surrender fast enough. Kuwait City was soon in U.S. hands, and Iraqi forces streamed north, harassed by air strikes the entire way out of the country. The UN force suffered very few casualties, and within 100 hours, it had ousted the Iraqi force from Kuwait. Hussein responded by setting the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire and opening the pipelines to pour crude oil into the Persian Gulf. That first attempt at environmental warfare failed, as the pollution in the end was much more limited than Hussein had hoped.

With his military in ruins and with no outside support to aid him, Hussein asked for a cease-fire on February 28. Exact numbers of Iraqi casualties are unknown but have been estimated at 60,000 killed and 175,000 prisoners. Coalition casualties numbered fewer than 500.

Results and Reception

The long-term results were not quite as spectacular. Because the coalition had not destroyed the Iraqi Army, sufficient troops (especially the loyal Republican Guard) remained under Hussein's control, which allowed him to maintain power. He quickly employed his troops to crush uprisings of rebellious Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, and Shiite Muslims in the south. Meanwhile, U.S. troops suffered postwar illnesses. Some have suggested that these diseases are linked to chemical or biological weapons or their antidotes, although it has never been proven that Hussein actually did employ such weapons.

In sum, Desert Storm has been depicted as a huge military success with mixed or negative political results. Debates are still going on as to the wisdom of stopping the war so soon, of not capturing Baghdad, and of not ensuring Hussein's downfall.

Further Reading

Houlahan, Thomas. Gulf War: The Complete History. New London, NH: Schrenker Military Pub., 1999; Murray, Williamson. "The Gulf War as History." Military History Quarterly, vol. 10, Autumn 1997; Pelletiere, Stephen C. Iraq and the International Oil System: Why America Went to War in the Gulf. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001; Schubert, Frank N., and Theresa L. Kraus, eds. The Whirlwind War: The United States Army in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1994.

MLA Citation

"Persian Gulf War." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/309885. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2181011

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