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Tass: 25 years of Storm

The Desert Storm that began in 1991 has not subsided yet

© US Air Force

A quarter of a century ago, on February 28, 1991 the United States and its allies ended the first military campaign against Iraq. The operation codenamed Desert Storm had been launched with the aim to restore the sovereignty of Kuwait, which the Iraqi army seized in August 1990. That war fundamentally reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East and rearranged the entire system of international relations.

As the Soviet Union’s strength waned and the prospect of its eventual breakup was already looming on the horizon, the Kuwaiti events came as a prelude to mono-polar globalization. The United States was already positioning itself as an unrivaled superpower. For the US Administration it was essential to assert its new role of number one actor in the world scene, let alone display no potential weaknesses.Viktor PosuvalyukSoviet and Russian ambassador to Baghdad (1990-1992)

To find the root causes of that war and see the effects the Desert Storm campaign entailed, read this historical analysis by TASS.

 

SADDAM HUSSEIN’S INFLATED AMBITIONS

In 1988 the ferocious war between Iran and Iraq ground to a halt. Throughout the eight-year-long hostilities Baghdad enjoyed financial support from many states of the Persian Gulf, and also from the United States.

Washington used to refer to Saddam Hussein as its “strongman” in the region. Flirtation with the Iraqi leader began in 1979, after the Islamic revolution in Iran, when the United States lost one of its closest allies in the region. New Iran and the risk of the Islamic revolution (having an unmistakable Shiite flavor) spreading to the whole region was surely not the liking of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), whose attitude to Tehran had been invariably jealous. In the same year Hussein rose to power in neighboring Iraq to immediately find himself at the heart of the Middle Eastern turmoil.

Foreign emissaries were visiting Baghdad again and again in attempts to persuade the Iraqi president he was the sole political figure capable of stemming the tide of Shiite extremism.

Hussein, keen to position himself as a pan-Arab leader, found such gestures of courtesy by other countries’ leaders very flattering. His ambitions soared to ever new highs. In the end, Iraq and Iran went to war that would prove a real bonanza for many; weapons traders first and foremost. It was in the 1980s that Baghdad began to receive from the Western countries the know-how, equipment and materials for the production of weapons of mass destruction. US House of Representatives member Samuel Gejdenson, Democrat from Connecticut, who chaired a House subcommittee investigating US Exports of Sensitive Technology to Iraq, stated in 1991 that “from 1985 to 1990, the United States government approved 771 licenses for the export to Iraq of $1.5 billion worth of biological agents and high-tech equipment with military application.”

The United States preferred to turn a blind eye on Saddam’s domestic policies, including the use of chemical weapons against his own population and the Iranians, the crackdown against Kurdish and Shiite insurgency, and on political repression. Anything came in handy, provided it might help to overpower Tehran.

The Soviet Union, too, was selling weapons to Iraq and maintained active military ties. For the sake of lucrative deals it even pretended to be unaware of the purges of Iraqi Communists.

The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf lavishly financed Iraq’s arms import, for the benefits were more than obvious – their neighbors, the strongest states in the region — were wasting resources on the war, thereby bleeding each other white.

The world let Saddam Hussein get away with repression against the internal opposition and dissent… The dictator gradually developed the impunity complex. He had a firm that the Western politicians were civilization-spoiled, emasculated good-for-nothings, who would never dare use force to punish Baghdad.Viktor PosuvalyukSoviet and Russian ambassador to Baghdad (1990-1992)

THE BILLS THAT HAD TO BE CASHED

The last shots of the war with Iran were fired. It was time for Iraq to cash the bills. In 1990 the economic situation in Iraq deteriorated sharply.

Military spending proved a burden too heavy carry further on. With its gross national product standing at $45 billion (1988) Iraq’s military spending reached $13 billion. The lenders, the Arab countries first and foremost, including Kuwait, told Iraq they wanted the debts paid.

In the meantime, Hussein still fancied himself the leader of the Arab world free to dictate terms to one and all. He was desperate for financial resources. Consequently, he needed higher oil prices and as few competitors on the oil market as possible. Neighboring Kuwait might provide a solution. The Iraqis considered Kuwait their territory all along, for in the 19th century it was part of the Vilayet of Basra (a border region of Iraq) within the Ottoman Empire.

Kuwait’s proven oil reserves are slightly smaller than Iraqi ones – about 101.5 billion barrels against 143 billion barrels (according OPEC’s statistics available at the end of 2014). Combined oil reserves might place Iraq and Kuwait number three in the OPEC group after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Also, Kuwait possessed tangible financial resources, while Iraq was rapidly sinking into the quick sand of poverty.

Supermarket shelves, brimming with Western goods just a year ago, went empty literally overnight. Only the elite, Saddam’s entourage, were still living an abundant life. All others were barely able to make ends meet. Prices rocketed and government subsidies ran dry.Baghdad-born Hashem al-Mosawi(in 1990 he was 18)

Starting from the middle of 1990 Baghdad was strongly critical of the other Arab countries, first and foremost for their oil production and price policies. Kuwait was subjected to the strongest attacks. In particular, it was criticized for oil extraction in the border area of Rumaila. Iraq claimed it was illegal. In response Kuwait accused Iraq of occupying its border areas and of illegally using one its oil fields. Other Arab countries tried to reconcile the opponents, but Baghdad’s demands kept growing. Some say the Iraqis were waiting for Kuwait to make concessions and agree to pay. Nothing of the sort happened. On August 1, 1990 the Iraqi-Kuwaiti talks in Jiddah (Saudi Arabia) were discontinued inconclusively.

Late at night on August 1, 1990 an Iraqi force of 120,000 officers and men and 350 tanks ventured into Kuwait. Some suspect it was Washington’s incomprehensible stance made Saddam so daring. The Iraqi leader thought that the United States would not intervene. The Soviet Union at that moment was too busy with its own problems. Besides, it was at that time that Moscow and Washington developed a rapprochement on many issues.

OCCUPATION OF KUWAIT

The whole of Kuwait was seized within a matter of 24 hours to have been declared a province of Iraq. Sheikh Jaber III, Emir of Kuwait, fled to Saudi Arabia. From the moment of Kuwait’s occupation 4,000 to 7,000 citizens were killed according to different estimates and 12,000 others were taken prisoner or went missing. Seven months felt like seven years, say Kuwaitis who remember the period of occupation.

It was the worst thing that has ever happened in my life… Thoughts of sudden death never left us for a moment. Each day the Iraqis would search our homes and take somebody away. My pregnant wife was in the United States at the moment and she had no chance of getting in touch with me.Abdel Aziz Bu Dostoura Kuwaiti civil servant

Kuwaitis’ memories are still fresh of how they were being turned into Iraqis – they were forced to have their identification papers and cars’ license plates changed. Government organizations were renamed.

Kuwait was literally pillaged. The Iraqis were taking out of the country anything they could: valuables, vehicles, clothes, foods and equipment.

The damage to the country’s economy was enormous. During retreat the Iraqi forces set fire to oil wells. The sky over Kuwait turned black and the air was hardly breathable. It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters.

The pall of fear that spread over the country was the worst experience of all. Thousands were put in jail. Those who escaped the plight of being dispatched to Iraq were considered fortunate.

Ibrahim al-Shaheen, deputy head of Kuwait’s National Committee for the Missing and Prisoners of War, recalls:

“In 1990 I spent more than a month working for the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society. We even made a trip to Baghdad for a meeting with representatives of the Iraqi office. They wished us to join them, but we said that there are certain international rules and conventions, there are the Geneva accords and that we have nothing to do with politics. A week after we got back we were arrested and put in custody at the Al Naif palace. We stayed a little more than one month under arrest. On two occasions we were taken from the palace to another place, from where Kuwaitis taken prisoner were dispatched to Iraq. We were fortunate, thank God, but I still don’t know why. For the first seven or ten days we had no idea what would happen to us. We thought we would be executed… One of my friends had diabetes. He needed his medication. His wife was trying hard to find out our whereabouts. He visited all places where prisoners were being kept, including the Al Naif Palace. She was telling everyone that she did not insist on a meeting. She just wished to hand over the medication to her husband. The Iraqis kept answering that her husband was not among the arrested…Finally, thanks to some Kuwaitis who had good connections with Iraqi officers, they let us go.”

Currently the National Committee for the Missing and Prisoners of War keeps on its files 605 persons, including 550 Kuwaitis and also subjects of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the citizens of the Philippines, India and Lebanon.

“The search for those listed missing is still going on. We meet with the Iraqi side every two months. Currently we are looking for the mass graves of Kuwaitis who had been executed by the Iraqi troops under Saddam’s command,” al- Shaheen said.

By now the remains of 236 people have been discovered and their identities established with the help of DNA tests. However, the other bodies are still in the mass graves at several places in Iraq. The main problem is examining many of them is still impossible for safety reasons.

The Kuwaitis appreciate the contributions of Russian diplomats Yuli Vorontsov and Gennady Tarasov, who took turns as high-level UN coordinators for the repatriation of Kuwaiti citizens and their remains and the return of Kuwaiti property. “They’ve done a great humanitarian job,” al-Shaheen said.

ULTIMATUM TO IRAQ

The occupation of Kuwait has split the Arab world, but a larger share of the international community condemned the Iraqi invasion. On August 2, 1990 to November 29, 1990 the UN Security Council adopted twelve resolutions concerning the Iraqi-Kuwaiti conflict, including bans on the supplies of weapons to Iraq and a number of economic sanctions.

UN Security Council Resolution 678 of November 29, 1990 required the use of “all necessary means … to restore international peace and security in the area” and set January 15 as the deadline for the final pullout of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. It was an ultimatum.

Contrary to Iraq’s expectations Washington did not stay aloof. Kuwait had been one of the main suppliers of crude oil to the US market, and Saudi Arabia – another US partner in the region – was exposed to a potential threat from Iraq. The surge in oil prices from $15 per barrel to $41 per barrel as a result of Saddam’s adventure was another factor of importance.

To ward off the risk of Iraq’s intrusion into the territory of Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Persian Gulf the United States dispatched its troop contingent to Saudi Arabia and started creating under its auspices a multi-national force for a military campaign against Baghdad. An operation codenamed Desert Shield lasted from August 7, 1990 to January 1991. A multi-national force was built up in the zone of the conflict. The other countries that delegated their contingents alongside the United States were France and Britain. Egypt, Syria, the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and some other states (about 30 countries all in all) joined in.

The line-up of forces by mid-January 1991:

Multi-national force

  • About 700,000 officers and men (including more than 500,000 US troops)
  • About 2,500 combat aircraft and 2,000 helicopters
  • More than 4,000 tanks
  • A total of 3,000 pieces of field artillery and mortars
  • More than 100 naval ships

Iraqi army

  • About 700,000 officers and men
  • Up to 700 aircraft
  • More than 5,000 tanks
  • 8,000 artillery pieces and mortars
  • Up to 500 SKAD surface-to-surface missile launchers.

Up to the last minute Moscow had been doing its utmost for the sake of preventing hostilities in the region. The Soviet strategy was confined to persuading the Iraqis to abide by UN demands, and the Americans, to give Hussein a chance to pull out of Kuwait without losing face. Moscow’s special envoy Yevgeny Primakov visited Baghdad several times to propose a gradual pullout plan. Nothing came out of his mission, though. The United States was demanding instant pullout, while the Iraqis were proposing very hazy schemes. Baghdad realized that Moscow disproved of the Kuwaiti adventure and would not oppose Washington the way it had done previously.

When he left the president’s office and we got in to the car, Primakov looked very excited. He kept saying “What a great breakthrough! He has agreed to pull out! What a breakthrough!” Hussein had agreed to leave Kuwait, but at the same time he suggested sending Tariq Aziz (deputy prime minister) to Moscow for agreeing the final pattern and some details. Saddam made it pretty clear that was the last ditch option he might agree to. We went to the embassy for reporting the details of the meeting to Moscow. Aziz arrived at the embassy between 01:00 and 02:00. It soon turned out that after a meeting at Hussein’s office the Iraqis made the arrangements for the pullout from Kuwait still more clumsy and unacceptable, which would eventually entail impermissible, literally lethal delays and postponements.Viktor PosuvalyukSoviet ambassador to Baghdad (1990-1992), about Primakov’s visit to Baghdad in October 1990

39 DAYS 100 HOURS

Late at night on January 17, 1991 the US-led multi-national coalition began aerial bombardments of Iraq, heralding the beginning of the operation Desert Storm. The strikes were dealt mostly at military facilities, government compounds and security service buildings. The road leading from the Iraqi capital to Jordan came under fire. The Americans and their allies tried to prevent the Iraqi leaders from leaving the country and Iraqi missile launchers from being moved towards Israel. In retaliation Baghdad dealt 18 missile strikes at its territory. Also, Iraq mounted fire attacks against the territory of Saudi Arabia.

I was nine years old then. My only recollection is how scared I was. The sounds of missiles hitting targets were most frightful. All I could do was to cling tighter to my mom.Ali JafarBaghdad-born witness

In the very first days after the war began Jafar’s whole family moved from Baghdad to another city. Only his father remained in the Iraqi capital, but the economic situation in the whole of the country was disastrous: massive power blackouts (all power plants had been destroyed by the coalition’s air strikes) and lines for bread many kilometers long. The worst fear was Saddam Hussein might use chemical or bacteriological weapons, thus harming both the coalition troops and the Iraqis.

mpaign came as an utter surprise to the Iraqi leadership. Hussein had expected the coalition would launch a ground offensive at once only to get bogged in fighting on the ground, the way it had happened to the Americans before in Vietnam. But the air phase of the campaign lasted 39 days. The coalition flew up to 110,000 sorties (including 84% by US planes), dropped 88,500 tonnes of ammunition (75% of American), including 6,500 smart weapons (90% American).

The missiles looked like sharks, yawing slowly in flight, weirdly illuminated by the explosions of artillery shells Iraqi air defenses were frantically spewing out. The most unpleasant, ominous feeling I can recall was the missile was a living creature, sneaking up on its prey… But the available hard facts leave no chance to say the missiles were eliminating targets with absolute accuracy. Some hit residential areas, although such incidents were rare. Whole apartment buildings with their residents would go up in the air. The bombardment of Falluja caused heavy casualties.Viktor PosuvalyukSoviet ambassador to Baghdad (1990-1992)

There’ve been quite a few speculations regarding the plight of the bomb shelter in Baghdad’s Ameriya quarter, where about 200 civilians were killed. Some say that the bomb shelter had temporarily housed some government agency (in those days many bodies of power had their offices underground). For some reasons the officials left the shelter and civilians from nearby homes were allowed to use it. Baghdad residents recall that in those areas where there were no special services or government buildings one could feel relatively safe.

The ground phase of the operation, codenamed Desert Sabre, began on February 24. The Soviet Union tried to prevent that part of the military campaign for fear it might cause heavy casualties. At the end of February Primakov visited Baghdad once again to meet with Saddam Hussein.

Hussein looked amazingly pale and thin. Obviously, he had lost more than 15 kilograms. There was an unhealthy gleam, something very tragic in his eyes. Those were the most difficult days for him and possibly the most difficult decisions to make… I reckon he still hoped that Primakov would break some secret or unveil some special proposal from the Americans, something very attractive… In reality Primakov, while trying to enhance the level of confidentiality by all means, not so much put forward some new documents as did his best as a good old acquaintance to persuade Hussein it would benefit him a lot if he agreed to leave Kuwait.Viktor PosuvalyukSoviet ambassador to Baghdad (1990-1992), about Primakov’s visit to Baghdad in February 1991

Rumor has it Hussein agreed with Primakov and issued orders to pull out the Iraqi troops, but the coalition launched the ground phase of the operation anyway. In reality the troops began to withdraw on February 26, when the Desert Sabre was already in full swing.

Taking part in the offensive were ground forces from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. US tanks Abrams, Britain’s FV 403/4 Challenger and T-62 of Soviet manufacture constituted the main striking power of the multi-national force. The combat operation lasted 100 hours. On February 28 the Kuwaiti capital was freed and Iraq accepted the UN Security Council’s demands.

On March 3, 1991 the Iraqi military and the leadership of the multi-national force met at the Safwan airbase in Iraq to sign a ceasefire agreement. Kuwait’s sovereignty was restored.

 SPECIAL FEATURES OF DESERT STORM

  • The first-ever international conflict following the end of the Cold War (December 1989)
  • The Soviet Union and the US for the first time after the Cold War had no fundamental disagreements regarding events in a third country.
  • The UN Security Council for the first time played the role the organization was meant to play since the moment of its creation – maintenance and restoration of international peace and security by various means, including the use of force.
  • Desert Storm was the first-ever international experience of forming a multi-national force.
  • For the first time ever the Arabs and foreign forces participated in a military operation against an Arab country. Israel found itself on the same side of the barricade with some Arab countries.
  • The first military operation to have been televised live. Special “pools” were created for journalists and TV camera crews from the coalition’s member-countries were able to accompany the advancing troops.

Desert Storm was an occasion to combat-test for the first time certain components of the armed forces that would eventually begin to be widely used in the 21st century, such as satellite navigation means and drones. For the first time ever US air defense complexes MIM-104 Patriot were used in real combat conditions to intercept ballistic missiles launched by Iraq. The overall number of smart weapons accounted for 8%, and their value, for 85%. The United States extensively used sea-launched cruise missiles BGM-109 Tomahawk. A total of 297 missiles were fired and 282 of them hit the targets. F-117 stealth aircraft were employed on a large scale for the first time.

Losses

According to different estimates 30,000 to 150,000 Iraqi citizens fell victim to the operation. The country’s infrastructure was strongly damaged and many industries and oil wells were destroyed. The command of the multi-national force said its losses totaled 340 men, including 293 US servicemen (145 fatalities were listed as noncombat losses). The war cost the United States $61 billion. The coalition lost 52 planes and 23 helicopters.

UNLEARNED LESSONS

It might seem that it was an ideal operation with ideal goals – liberation of an aggressor-occupied country at minimal cost. However, its consequences turned out to be not so optimistic. Many military specialists started asking questions back during the final phase of the operation.

As follows from recollections by Saudi commander General Khalid bin Sultan ben Abdul Aziz al Saud, he was greatly puzzled when on the second day of the ground offensive his US colleague, General Norman Schwarzkopf (the commander of US and European forces) hinted he might soon get orders from President George Bush to end hostilities.

Back in those days the allies were asking many questions that are still waiting for exhaustive answers. Why didn’t the Americans, once they had intruded into Iraq, complete the encirclement? Why they let more than 100,000 Iraqis, mostly elite republican guardsmen, slip out? Why did the United States bring the ground phase of the operation to an abrupt halt, so unexpectedly for its allies, although everybody was certain that the Americans’ ultimate aim was to crush the Iraqi war machine and do away with the Saddam Hussein regime?Sergey PechurovMajor-General, Doctor of Military Science, professor (From an article in the Russian army daily Krasnaya Zvezda)

The outcome of the military operation enabled Saddam Hussein to present the results of the war inside the country as his victory. Posuvalyuk recalls that in January 1992, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the war, Baghdad saw a large-scale propaganda campaign praising the ostensible “victory” in that war, fabulous heroism of the army and the people and incomparable talent of Saddam Hussein as a military commander. The Iraqi leader claimed that Iraq had not asked for ceasefire. On the contrary, he argued, it was a request from the coalition forces. The opponents of Saddam Hussein inside Iraqi society were very disappointed. They had hoped the defeat of the Iraqi army would cause the regime to collapse.

The outcome of the military operation enabled Saddam Hussein to present the results of the war inside the country as his victory. Posuvalyuk recalls that in January 1992, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the war, Baghdad saw a large-scale propaganda campaign praising the ostensible “victory” in that war, fabulous heroism of the army and the people and incomparable talent of Saddam Hussein as a military commander. The Iraqi leader claimed that Iraq had not asked for ceasefire. On the contrary, he argued, it was a request from the coalition forces. The opponents of Saddam Hussein inside Iraqi society were very disappointed. They had hoped the defeat of the Iraqi army would cause the regime to collapse.

For many the beginning of Desert Storm was a promise of freedom. We had no wish to be liberated by foreign troops. Surely, we had not the slightest suspicion the country might be occupied. We just thought that our opposition might take advantage of the situation and topple Hussein.Hashem al MosawiBaghdad-born witness

Many experts believe that the United States’ reluctance to see Iran’s growing influence in the region was one of the reasons why the Hussein regime survived then. Apart from that lingering instability in Iraq was a good excuse for keeping a large military contingent in the area of the Persian Gulf. At that moment Washington would have hardly dared defy the UN Security Council’s resolution that approved of the liberation of Kuwait but by no means the overthrow of the regime in Iraq.

The Iraqi population found itself in rather harsh conditions: the repressive machinery was still there and the international sanctions imposed on Iraq in connection with WMD development programs caused impoverishment and famine. Western military strikes against Iraqi territory followed from time to time.

In 1991 through 2003 the international community interchangeably tried to seek a compromise with Iraq and cause unprecedented pressures on it. Many countries were making money on the Iraqi crisis. The worst rows erupted over the Oil for Food program the United Nations launched in 1995 to provide aid to Iraqi civilians. But the program brought about no change for the better for the Iraqi people, most of whom were on the brink of poverty. The level of education slumped, and the mentality of a whole nation placed on the verge of survival was changing.

In 2003 US President George W. Bush completed what his father had begun. A US-led multi-national coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein. This time the international force acted with no UN Security Council resolution to rely on. As a result Iraq plunged into chaos for another 12 years: civil war and the occupation of part of the country by terrorist groups (Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State, outlawed in Russia).

“Before we had one Saddam. Now we have 25 of them,” Iraqis can be heard say sometimes. Some people are nostalgic about the days when Iraq was a safe country to live in and the preponderance of religious extremism was unheard of. Others argue that under Hussein the Iraqis had no hope for change, while now there is a chance. For a nation that has for nearly a quarter of a century existed in the context of a totalitarian regime and personality cult finds it hard to accept the new rules of the game. Particularly so amid inter-religious and inter-confessional conflicts and a clash of interests of internal forces. Besides, the country is actually split in two. Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, the Shiite South remaining under the influence of Iran, and the Sunni center.

The world after the Desert Storm

  • The Desert Storm drew a line between the bipolar and monopolar system of international relations.
  • For the next ten years Russia had practically no influence on the situation in the Middle East. Its return to the region began in the 2000s on the eve of the second Iraqi crisis. However, Moscow managed to provide a full-fledged counter-balance to the US policies in the region as recently as in 2013, when Washington was already making preparations for overthrowing Bashar Assad.
  • The split of the Arab world became more than obvious. The Palestinians took Iraq’s side to have lost financial and political support from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. That was one of the main triggers that set in motion the settlement process in the Middle East between the Arabs and Israel.
  • Many political tools tested during the Desert Storm, including the creation of a multi-national force, an attempt to obtain the UN Security Council’s approval for military intervention have become very popular for resolving Middle East disputes in the 21st century. However, an ideal solution for post-conflict settlement remains unachievable. The lesson of the Desert Storm – military victory is unable to bring about either peace or stability – remains largely unlearned.

 

The Desert Storm, which began in 1991, has not subsided yet.

Sources:

V.V. Posuvalyuk, The Scarlet Sky of Baghdad, Aleteya Publishers, 2012 (in Russian)

Lavrenov S.Ya. Popov I.M. The Soviet Union in Local Wars and Conflicts. Publisher: AST, Astrel 2003

Publications on the website of the Institute of the Middle East

Photos: US Air Force, TECH. SGT. JOE COLEMAN;

AP Photo: INA, AP Photo, Stephanie McGehee, Peter Dejong Dominique Mollard

Authors:

Marianna Belenkaya, project director

Vasily Vavilin, TASS correspondent in Kuwait

Elnara Guliyeva, TASS Dossier

Sergey Mazayev, Photo Editor

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