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. 

On this day in history: Iraq invades Kuwait

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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.” 

Hussein no doubt interpreted these statements as the U.S. giving him a diplomatic green light to invade Kuwait. Glaspie admitted that the U.S. government thought Hussein was only going to coerce them into debt forgiveness, not invade the country. The U.S. never asked the clear question and bears much of the responsibility of what was to follow. 

At 0200 hours on August 2, four Republican Guard divisions of the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. Special Operations units raced in by helicopter to seize airfields, airports, and Kuwait City. Kuwait military units, despite all the clear signs of an impending conflict, were caught woefully underprepared. Most of their overmatched units were quickly brushed aside or fled to Saudi Arabia. In less than two days, Kuwait was overrun and Hussein declared that it was now the 19th province of Iraq. 

Kuwaitis organized a resistance movement. Iraq brutally executed hundreds of Kuwaiti civilians accused of being a part of it. By October, Iraq would open the border with Saudi Arabia and allow anyone who wanted to leave to do so. That would take a toll on the resistance movement. 

On August 3, 1990, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and demanding that Iraq unconditionally withdraw all forces deployed in Kuwait. Iraq refused. Economic sanctions were enacted on August 6. Hussein would not allow westerners to leave Kuwait and on August 23, he appeared on television with Western hostages, including a young English boy. 

Now within easy striking distance of Saudi Arabian oil fields, Hussein began rattling the saber against the Saudis. But he overplayed his hand. The U.S. began a massive deployment of troops after being requested by King Fahd. Two Navy battle groups, massive amounts of Air Force aircraft, and a steady stream of combat troops began filling Saudi Arabia. 

Oil field fires in Kuwait.

By late November, the U.N. Security Council had authorized the use of “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait if its troops did not withdraw by January 15, 1991. President Bush and General Norman Schwarzkopf assembled a coalition from 34 countries. These included Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Spain, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. It was the largest coalition since World War II

When the deadline passed in January, the coalition forces, consisting of mainly U.S./U.K. airpower began a devastating air campaign against Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq which lasted 43 days. Finally, the coalition led an intensive 100-hour ground invasion of Kuwait that decimated the Iraqi army. Iraqi armored formations were completely destroyed, specifically, the 3rd Armored Division (U.S.), destroyed nearly 300 armored vehicles in a short amount of time. Overall, Iraq lost over 3,000 tanks and over 2,000 other combat vehicles during combat with coalition forces. 

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Seeing the hopeless situation, Iraq instituted a “scorched earth” policy. It set 737 oil wells on fire and then gathered every kind of vehicle imaginable for the inevitable retreat into Iraq. On the main highway, the long convoys were mercilessly bombed by the coalition air forces leaving behind such carnage that it was called “the Highway of Death.”

Casualties for the coalition were 190 killed in action (113 U.S.), with another 776 wounded (458 U.S.). The Iraqis considered the U.S.-led bombing campaign as “near-apocalyptic.” Iraq lost between 25,000-35,000 soldiers killed and 75,000 more wounded. 

Highway of Death, Iraqi forces decimated on the road to Iraq.

The end of the conflict did nothing to deter the suffering of the Iraqi people. Hussein refused to comply with U.N. directives. That led to the 2003 U.S. invasion and eventually, the arrest and execution of Hussein. A bloody sectarian war followed and allowed the Islamic State to rise and take control of a large area of the country. 

Some 30 years later, Iraq still suffers from the consequences of its invasion of Kuwait. A lack of basic human services exists, bloody conflict still rages, and the country is more divided than ever before. The sectarian violence has allowed Iran, Iraq’s archenemy from the 1980-88 war, to have an unusually high sway over the inner workings of the Iraqi government. 

The invasion of Kuwait by Hussein also inadvertently allowed the United States to have a much greater role and influence in the region. The U.S. now has much better military relations with many of the countries it the region than it did 30 years ago. Washington has used its military clout to push its own agendas on the region. 

With the fall of Hussein and the resultant ISIS-led destruction of much of Iraq and parts of Syria, many of the Gulf countries are easing their long-held feelings against the Iraqis. Some, even Kuwait, have pledged billions of dollars to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people and help rebuild the country. But years of corruption and mismanagement continue to plague the country. Things have not been the same since August of 1990.