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1991: The War Before the War

The Persian Gulf war ended with an allied victory—and Saddam Hussein still in power

By Bernard Gwertzman

To understand why the U.S. decided to invade Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein, it helps to go back 13 years, to the war that added "Operation Desert Storm" and "the mother of all battles" to the American vernacular.

The Persian Gulf war seemed like a rout for the U.S. at the time, but it left Hussein still in power in Baghdad. The war had its origins in July 1990, when Hussein openly threatened to invade Kuwait if it did not change its policy of selling oil below market prices, which the Iraqi dictator claimed was costing Iraq revenue. Hussein also claimed that Kuwait, with its huge oil reserves, was actually part of Iraq.

'Don't Overreact.'

On the day he issued his threat, U.S. spy satellites began to detect the lead elements of Iraq's Republican Guard—some of the country's most elite troops—heading to the Kuwait border. Iraq was economically in very bad shape, having only recently ended a costly eight-year war with Iran, which Iraq had launched in the hope of seizing Iran's oil fields.

Hussein's statements and actions were not taken seriously by the administration of President George H.W. Bush, or by major Arab governments, such as Egypt's and Jordan's. They simply did not believe Iraq would invade another Arab state so soon after its war with Iran.

Richard Haass, who was then the Director for Middle Eastern Affairs on the National Security Council (and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations), remembers Arab leaders saying: "Don't you Americans overreact. This is just Arab rhetoric. We will take care of it in our own Arab diplomatic way."

On July 25, Hussein summoned April Glaspie, the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, for a lengthy discussion, in which he implied that diplomacy could still head off an invasion. Her cable to Washington reporting on her meeting was titled, "Saddam's Message of Peace." She counseled the Bush administration to ease up on its rhetoric against Iraq.

Kuwait Attacked

Seven days later, on August 1, Iraq attacked Kuwait, and quickly occupied the country. The administration was caught flat-footed. Many key officials in the administration of the current President, George W. Bush, were also deeply involved in national security affairs in 1990. Dick Cheney, now Vice President, was then Defense Secretary. Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was Deputy Secretary of Defense until recently becoming head of the World Bank, was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. And Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State in George W. Bush's first term, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. had no treaty obligations to defend Kuwait. But it did have longstanding close ties with Saudi Arabia, which suddenly had Iraqi troops on its border. In the first hours after the invasion, President Bush said he had no plans to send troops to the region. But a few days later, he told reporters: "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait." Clearly, the U.S. calculation was that any threat to Saudi Arabia—and its vast oil reserves—was too dangerous to contemplate.

At first, the U.S. priority was to send enough troops and air power to Saudi Arabia to deter any further moves by Hussein, leaving undecided the issue of whether the U.S. should also seek to liberate Kuwait.

By October 31, the U.S. had enough forces in Saudi Arabia—about 250,000—to defend that country. At a White House meeting, the President was shown his options. Powell told the President that if the decision were made to liberate Kuwait, U.S. forces would need to be doubled.

UN Support

Bush decided to go to war in three months if sanctions did not work and the Iraqis were still in Kuwait.

Unlike the 2003 debate at the United Nations before the current Iraq war, when many of the world's major powers opposed the use of force, there was widespread support, even among Arab states, for forcing Iraq from Kuwait. Secretary of State James Baker had spent weeks making the case for war. On November 29, the Security Council voted 12-2 authorizing "all necessary means" to liberate Kuwait.

On Jan. 9, 1991, Iraq rejected an ultimatum from Bush to leave Kuwait. And on January 16, the U.S. launched the first round of air strikes on Iraqi targets and troop concentrations in Iraq and Kuwait. The Bush administration dubbed the war effort "Operation Desert Storm."

Live On CNN

On February 24, the ground invasion began. Hussein had promised "the mother of all battles," but by then Iraqi troops were dispirited by the bombing campaign. Instead of the bitter fighting predicted by General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, the war was essentially over in a few days. Kuwait was liberated. The White House called it "the 100-hour war"—all carried live by CNN, then a fledgling all-news channel. It was the first war with instantaneous coverage.

The UN mandate only called for the liberation of Kuwait, and there was no enthusiasm in the administration for pushing on to Baghdad, with the ensuing carnage sure to be shown in real time to viewers around the globe.

After the war—with Bush's encouragement that Iraqis "take matters into their own hands" and overthrow Hussein—Shiites in southern Iraq started an uprising. Hussein and his Sunni-led military responded with a vengeance on both the Shiites and the Kurds in the north. Thousands were murdered.

'Regime Change'

The slaughter in places like Basra, a Shiite stronghold, and in Kirkuk in the Kurdish north left many U.S. officials upset that Hussein's defeat had been limited to Kuwait. Bush and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, in an article they wrote for Time in 1998, said: "While we hoped that [a] popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state."

The failure to eliminate Hussein in 1991 contributed to the current President Bush's decision, in the aftermath of 9/11, to go to war again against Iraq, this time with the goal of "regime change."

Other reasons were cited, such as the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, which later was found to be erroneous, and alleged ties to terrorism, but underlying it all was the feeling that the first war had left the job unfinished.