The Gulf War in brief: USA and allies against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

In 1990, Iraq invaded and conquered the small emirate of Kuwaitone of the richest territories in petrolium in the world. The international reaction was very decisive and in January 1991 a coalition of 35 countries, led by the United States, attacked Iraq and forced its army to withdraw from all the territory it had occupied. Italy also participated with its own expeditionary force. The war lasted just over a month and was characterized by the use of highly technological weapons and for them atrocities committed by Iraqi troops.

The victory of the coalition contributed to the affirmation of the United States as the world’s only superpowerbut it did not bring stability to the area of the Gulf. Iraq, emerging from the conflict in dire conditions, it would be attacked again by the Americans a few years later.

The Persian Gulf before the war

The Persian Gulf, located between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, has been the scene of conflicts for many years, partly caused by local tensions and partly by external interference. The Gulf, in fact, is one of the richest oil-rich areas of the world and has often been the object of the economic and political aims of Western countries.

The Persian Gulf.  Arab countries in red, Iran in blue (credit Palosirkka)

In the 1980s tensions increased. Iraq, led by the dictator Saddam Husseinin 1980 unleashed a war against Iranwhich lasted until 1988 and ended with neither losers nor winners, but with a tragic toll of civilian victims.

Iraq invades Kuwait: why and when

The war against Iran had bled Iraqi finances. Saddam hoped that oil could provide him with the funds necessary to revive the country’s economy and, to this end, he put pressure on the other Gulf states to neither they increased the price. The dictator, however, got less than he asked for and directed accordingly her attention to Kuwait, to which Iraq was heavily indebted. In the summer of 1990, Saddam accused the emirate of having extracted Iraqi oil on the border between the two countries, requesting, as compensation, the extinction of debts and the transfer of some territories. Faced with the Kuwaiti government’s negative response, the August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait for the control of petroleum resources.

Saddam Hussein

The conquest was completed in two days. The emir fled to Saudi Arabia and all the Kuwaiti territory was annexed by Iraq.

Reactions to the invasion

At the time of the invasion, the international balance of power was in a phase of profound change. The Soviet Union was seriously weakened (it would dissolve in December 1991) and the United States they were establishing themselves as the world’s only superpower. Washington, therefore, could act as arbiter of the situation.

President George HW Bush he immediately condemned the invasion. Many countries, including all those of Europethey agreed with the Americans and the UN imposed harsh measures economic sanctions to Iraq. Saddam, who until a few years earlier had been supported by the West in the war against Iran, became the public enemy number one. Alone few countrieslike Gaddafi’s Libya, took up his defense, arguing that the hostility of the United States was motivated by desire to control Kuwaiti oil.

President Bush and American soldiers in Saudi Arabia

In November the UN issued a ultimatumordering Iraq to liberate the emirate by January 15, 1991. President Bush managed to form a coalition of 35 statesof which Western countries and some Arab states were part, and took sides a powerful army in the Gulf area. Me too’Italy gave its contribution, sending air and naval forces. Bush also guaranteed himself the neutrality of the Soviet Union.

The first phase of the war: the air campaign

Diplomatic pressure did not convince Iraq to withdraw and on the night between 16 and 17 January 1991 the coalition began its attack, called operation Desert Storm (storm in the desert). The first phase of operations involved only aerial bombing and missile launches, which were aimed at destroying Iraqi military and industrial infrastructure. Saddam’s soldiers managed to shoot down some aircraftbut they could not resist the clear coalition superiority. The United States and its allies did well 2,250 aircraft (1,800 of them Americans) and used high-tech weaponslike the stealth bombers (invisible to radar) and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

An American F-117 Nightwalk aircraft

The second phase: land operations and the liberation of Kuwait

After forty days of bombing, the land attack began. The February 24 coalition soldiers they entered Kuwaiti territory from Saudi Arabia and they advanced rapidly. The Iraqi army resisted little resistence and in many areas he retreated without a fight.

After four days the whole of Kuwait had been liberated. Coalition forces they did not enter Iraqi territoryif not for short stretches, because the UN mandate provided for only the liberation of Kuwait and not the occupation of Iraq. Therefore Saddam, despite having lost the war, was able to remain in power.

Vehicles on the highway between Iraq and Kuwait

Casualties and characteristics of the war

There were victims numerous especially on the Iraqi side: 35,000 people, including soldiers and civilians, lost their lives and over 150,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The coalition, however, had just over 1,000 dead and 70 prisoners.

War crimes were numerous. The Iraqi army committed numerous atrocities against the people of Kuwait and provoked serious environmental damage, setting fire to some Kuwaiti oil wells and spilling large quantities of oil into the sea. Saddam’s troops also committed prisoner abuse and they threw missiles against Israel, ancient enemy of Iraq, but neutral in the Gulf War. The coalition, for its part, made use of depleted uranium shellswhich caused health damage both among his own soldiers and among the Kuwaiti and Iraqi populations.

Oil wells on fire

The conflict also had a great media impact all over the world, because television showed military operations almost live. In many countries, the population followed the progress of the war on a daily basis and was emotionally involved in events.

The consequences of the Gulf War

After the war, Kuwait regained its independence. Iraq, however, found itself in a disastrous situation. The United States and other countries decided to leave the sanctions in placewith the aim of creating economic difficulties and making Saddam lose consensus, but the blockade of trade and the consequent shortage of food and medical care caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (The exact figures are up for debate.) Iraq had to face also serious internal conflicts due to the presence of hostile ethnic and religious groups to Saddam’s government. The war, therefore, did not guarantee stability in the Gulf area. In 2003 the United States and some other countries they will attack Iraq again and they will overthrow Saddam’s government.