On August 2, 1990, Iraq launched an invasion of Kuwait, setting in motion a long chain of events which have reshaped the Middle East and have changed the dynamic of relations between the western and Arab worlds.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm were just the start
In 1990, Iraq was a very different place to the one it is now. The country was under the control of the dictator Saddam Hussein who, at the time, enjoyed good relations with many of the western nations who would later repel his forces from Kuwait, isolate his country through military and legal force, and finally depose him. Iraq was also a respected nation in the region, although one which smaller Arab nations were wary of.
"Iraq was seen as the regional bulwark against the spread of revolutionary political Islam from Iran, which was an important point for the conservative Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, who recalled the overspill of Iranian attempts to export its revolution in the immediate aftermath of 1979," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, deputy director of the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.
"Although most of the Gulf Cooperation Council states had supported Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran - Saudi Arabia was a particularly strong ally - the smaller GCC states were wary of Iraqi power and ambitions in the Gulf."
Kuwait itself was also a close Iraqi ally before the events of August 1990. It was one of Iraq's staunchest supporters in its war with Iran, heavily financing the Iraqi side of the conflict and acting as a military hub when the fighting knocked out strategic cities like Basra. When the war was over, however, relations turned sour. Kuwait wanted its money back. Iraq refused to pay, arguing that its war with Iran had prevented the rise of Tehran's influence over the Arab world.
"The Arabs knew that Saddam had brought ruin and misery to the region, and he was a dangerous bully who might do even more dreadful things, but they had to be pragmatic," Hazhir Teimourian, a Middle East analyst and commentator with the Limehouse Group think-tank, told Deutsche Welle.
"His invasion of Iran had ended in a stalemate but he presented it as a triumph. He expected the whole world, let alone the Arabs, to be grateful to him that he had stopped the tide of Iranian fundamentalist expansionism."
In early 1990, the arguments over the war debt expanded, with Iraq first accusing Kuwait of stealing from its oil supplies and then claiming that Kuwaiti over-production of its own oil was driving down the price of Iraqi crude. The stage was set for military action after a series of emergency meetings between the two Arab neighbors failed to find a solution.
US initially stood aside and took neutral position
The US withdrew its support for Saddam over the Kuwait invasion
Before Kuwait was over-run and occupied for seven months by the Iraqi military, the United States, in a response which now seems difficult to imagine, announced that Washington "inspired by friendship and not by confrontation, does not have an opinion" on the increasing tensions. "We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts," a White House statement read.
"The United States had provided indirect support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, had turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein's regime's actions against Iraq's Kurdish population in 1988 and against the bombing of the USS Stark in 1987," Dr. Ulrichsen said.
"The US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, appeared to adopt a tacitly neutral position toward Iraqi-Kuwait border issues during her meeting with Saddam Hussein on July 25th,1990, which was interpreted by Saddam as giving him an indication that the US would not intervene if Iraq took military action against Kuwait."
Less than three weeks later, after the elite Iraqi Republican Guard backed by Iraqi Special Forces had captured Kuwait City, the country's airports and military airbases, Saddam Hussein abolished the State of Kuwait, announced the creation of the 19th province of Iraq and forced the Kuwaiti Royal Family into exile, installing his own self-appointed prime minister and governor to rule.
Unanimous international condemnation of the invasion followed. Even traditionally close allies such as France and India joined the voices calling for an immediate withdrawal. The Soviet Union and China placed an arms embargo on Iraq while the UN Security Council passed 12 resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The pressure, however, had no effect.
"There was a lot of admiration for Saddam's daring in the Arab world," said Hazhir Teimourian. "The ordinary Arab on the street hoped he would go on to unite the whole Arab world behind him. The Palestinians loved him in particular and felt sure he would go on to destroy Israel. But the governments felt otherwise, As a result, some Arab countries sent token forces to be part of the coalition to evict him from Kuwait once it became clear that the US would do so anyway. The feared the financial wrath of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait if they didn't."
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After issuing an ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait by January 15, 1991 or face war, the United States and Britain led a 34-nation, UN-authorized coalition force in a massive military assault against Iraqi forces in Kuwait. By February 25, Operation Desert Storm had decimated Iraqi forces and pushed them out of Kuwait, officially liberating the country.
Coalition forces pursued the retreating Iraqi army into Iraq but called off the advance four days into the ground assault, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) from Baghdad. In the days which followed the ceasefire, a peace summit was held and an agreement to end hostilities was signed by all parties. Coalition forces slowly retreated from Iraq and by the end of March 1991, the majority of US troops had left the Persian Gulf.
Some US troops stayed, however. Many of those who had been sent to Saudi Arabia to protect the country before the invasion of Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Shield remained there. About 5,000 US military personnel continued to be stationed at the base in Dhahran and were involved in enforcing the no-fly zone over Southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch, a coalition air patrol mission sanctioned by the UN in 1992 to prevent continuing air attacks by Iraqi forces on Shi'ite Muslims.
"The US had an access-to-facilities agreement with Oman dating back to 1980 as well as small-scale agreements with Bahrain and the wide range of military agreements it had with Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1940s, but it was nothing like the visible and large-scale military footprint that it assumed post-1990," Dr. Ulrichsen said.
"In this sense, the invasion of Kuwait and its consequences were transformative in terms of the level and nature of US military commitment to the Gulf and wider Middle East."
US presence and action stokes growing Arab anger
The US military presence in the Gulf was called into action again in 1998 when US President Bill Clinton ordered four days of air strikes on Iraq after seven years of non-compliance with UN disarmament orders and Baghdad's continued rejection of weapons inspections.
While this action and other smaller strikes reminded the world that the US had Saddam contained and the region protected, some of Iraq's Arab neighbors were beginning to tire of the American presence. Others were starting to foment more extreme emotions and ideas.
"The Arabs of the region didn't know what to think after the war," said Hazhir Teimourian. "Removing Saddam might have created a vacuum into which Iran might have stepped but they also feared what would happen if the great powers were allowed to remove dictators."
"They hoped Saddam would now be much weaker and even learn his lesson. But the Shias of Iraq felt betrayed by the US for allowing Saddam to remain in power. America had urged them to rise against him and they did, but then he was allowed to get away with more mass crimes against them."
"There was a gradual shift in popular opinion during the 1990s in the Gulf States toward a more skeptical view of US motives although many relied on the United States for their external security," Dr. Ulrichsen added. "When al Qaeda emerged in the 1990s, its initial propaganda was based on the rejection of the presence of US-foreign military forces in the holy land of the Arabian Peninsula. This was an integral part of Osama bin Laden's call to arms in his February 1998 'Declaration of Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.'"
Bin Laden's Jihad would, of course, lead to the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001 which would be used as the justification for the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, conflicts in which the US is still involved today.
After choosing not to remove Saddam from power in 1991, the US finally brought down his regime 12 years later in a military campaign largely influenced by terrorist atrocities planned in part as a response to its presence in the Gulf. The Iraqi dicator was executed in 2006 for crimes against humanity but the legacy of his 1990 invasion of Kuwait lives on.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge