In the mid-summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein made a decision that changed the face of the Middle East and sealed the fate of Iraq and his own rule. In the early morning hours of August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and in a lightning operation, quickly took over the country in just two days. 

The invasion and subsequent seven-month occupation by Iraqi forces were roundly condemned by the international community. They set in motion a series of events that would profoundly affect the Middle East to this day. Hussein’s decision would plunge Iraq further into violence and would trigger the first Gulf War.

Iraq and Kuwait had always had a slightly contentious relationship over border disputes, yet that was put in the background once the Iran-Iraq War began in late-August 1980. The resultant bloody war resembled World War I in its tactics. It went on for more than eight years and resulted in over 100,000 civilian deaths and over 1 million soldiers killed. 

Early in the fighting, Kuwait stayed neutral, but in 1982, fearing the rise of the Iranian Revolutionary regime, the emirs of Kuwait began to float huge loans of cash and military equipment to the Iraqis. Additionally, Kuwait opened its port for Iraqi use once Basra was rendered unusable during the war. Tehran was livid and attacked Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Gulf and launched an attack on Kuwaiti military personnel at Bubiyan Island shortly before the war ended in September 1988. 

Shortly after the war ended, Iraq was sinking under a mountain of debt and its economy was failing. Hussein asked Kuwait to forgive the enormous debt that he owed but Kuwait refused. Iraq’s argument that their war with Iran stopped Iran’s dominance over Kuwait fell on deaf ears. The two sides met several times in 1989 to no end. 

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was inevitable. Hussein coveted Kuwait’s rich oil fields and thought that seizing them would ease his financial burden. Adding to this, Iraq wanted the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to voluntarily cut oil production to raise prices on the market during a glut. Kuwait had requested through OPEC to actually increase oil production. Tariq Aziz, then the Foreign Minister of Iraq, claimed that every $1 decrease in the price of a barrel of oil cost the Iraqis $1 billion in revenues that could go to ease their debt. 

In 1989, Iraq accused Kuwait of using “advanced drilling techniques,” mainly a technique called “slant drilling” to steal oil from the Iraqi side of the Rumaila field. Iraq estimated that US$2.4 billion worth of Iraqi oil was “stolen” by Kuwait and demanded compensation. 

Iraq viewed all of these “provocations” as an overt act of aggression by Kuwait. In late July 1990, Hussein moved 100,000 Iraqi troops to the border with Kuwait and the U.A.E. The mixed signals that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie gave to Hussein further inflamed the situation. Glaspie had said to Hussein that the United States did not intend “to start an economic war against Iraq.” She also said that “we have no opinion on the Arab–Arab conflicts.”