The Invasion of Kuwait.

“Within two years from 1988 to 1990, Iraq went from being a virtual U.S.  ally to become the first Arab state to fight a war against the United States.” ( Barry Rubin, The Road to War.) In those two  years  the US went from appeasement to war against Iraq.How did this come about?  The first and Primary factor was the fall of the shah of Iran and a virulently anti-American Islamist reign seizing power in Tehran.  Iran was the primary pillar of American strategy in maintaining stability in the Gulf and continuing  the oil flow to the West.  Iraq under Saddam was a bitter pill to swallow as an ally of the US, but realpolitik demanded a change and in deference to this,  pundits and diplomats found nice things to write about Iraq.  President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski  believed Iraq and the US had the same objective, “a secure Persian Gulf.” An article in the Wall Street Journal  claimed “The  rhetoric (from Iraq) should not obscure the fact that Iraq, more than any other Middle East nation except Israel, is embracing Western values and technology.”  The authors cited such things as “chic French fashions” among Iraqi women as one of the indicators of this trend.  The corporation I was working for at the time sent over a team to assist the Iraqis in improving their air defense communications. We were  set to sell armored personnel carriers ( m-13’s) as ambulances and a number of other types of military equipment deemed to be non offensive.  Many US companies  were eager to get back into the Iraqi market. Headlines in one business periodical headlined, “new scramble for $8 billion in contracts.” Iraq then, as Iran today, found many international companies panting to get into the their market. Iraqi-American relations were resumed in 1983  after a visit to Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld who presented Saddam with a gift from President Reagan, a pair of gold spurs.

Saddam congratulates the troops on their one day conquest of Kuwait

But then one of the many of Saddam’s miscalculations occurred.  On 16 March 1988, Iraq  used chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halajah. And it so happened that an Iranian correspondent was on the scene to record and photograph the whole sordid affair. In the United States  some of the Middle East “experts” were quick to blame Iran.  The department of Defense floated the story that it was an Iranian attack and the State Department amplified it. The UN Security Conference issue a lame admonition that avoided blaming anyone. As Joost Hiltermann in his excellent book , A Poisonous Affair lamented, the Halabjah atrocity was quickly forgotten midst the two Gulf wars that  followed. Indeed a prominent writer at the US Army War College and some in the intelligence community could not accept that Iraq was to blame for the attack.

Dead father and baby,> victims of Saddam’s a chemical attack on th Kurdish city of Hilabjah

It is true, however, that Iran used chemical weapons as well but not as extensively, and not on their own citizens.

Iraq became very important to the agricultural  sector of the US, as over 30% of Iraq’s Iraqs needs were covered by US exports.  George Bush also indicated the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981  was “not in keeping with international standards.” During the Iran-Iraq war the US gave satellite photos of Iranian operations and positions to the Iraqis. Meanwhile the US was engaged in the tanker war with Iran which was much to Iraq’s benefit. Iraq did little to return the favors. Instrumental in  the Iraqi charm offensive however was Nizaar Hamdoon, the Iraqi ambassador to the US. He and his attractive wife threw lavish parties for the opinion -makers in the US and managed to convince many that Iraq was undergoing a western oriented metamorphosis.  The US-Iraqi relationship was so tight that when an Iranian airliner was mistakenly shot down by an American naval ship, The Iranian Ayatollah Khomenie,  concluded the Iranians were unable to fight both the US and Iraq, which he assumed to be tight allies, and agreed to a cease fire which the Iraqis had desperately sought. At this time  Some in Washington were toying with the idea  of Iraq be coming our  Gulf policeman.

Saddam wanted all of the very productive Rumalia oilfield most of which was in Iraq but Saddam wanted it all. The Iraqi government accused the Kuwaitis of sucking oil from Iraq by virtual of horizontal drilling. Hevalso wanted the two Islamns of Bubiyan and Warban. they guarded the Iraqi port of Umm qasr.

The Iraqis were amazed and somewhat bitter about the level of luxury the Kuwaitis lived in while they lived miserably during the Iran-Iraq. The Iraqis left Kuwait  in shambles.


The Iraqi chemical attack on Halajah attack was, however, fatal for the American-Iraqi honeymoon. The contracts faded away and the obvious was finally realized, the only “friends” we had in the Gulf were the rich but weak Arab gulf states. The prize was too tempting for the Saddam to overlook.  He began, within his close circle of advisors, planning for the conquest of Kuwait and its absorption into Iraq as the 19th province.  The defense minister and most army leaders did not know anything about the proposed invasion. It was all within the  closed Saddam circle and Republican guard commanders.

There were discussions among Saddam coterie whether to occupy just the oil fields between Iraq and Kuwait or all of the country. Saddam made the decision to go whole hog and take it all.  There had been two previous half hearted attempts to annex Kuwait, once under King Ghazi  in 1937 and the second  under President Abdl al Karim Qassim in 1961.  The British brought troops from Bahrain and the UK to deter the attack in 1961. Over the years most Iraqis considered Kuwait as part of Iraq and after the Iraq-Iraq war the Iraqis were broke and desperately needed cash. Their cash cow during the  war with Iran was Kuwait. In the Iraq view they had fought the majuus  (Persians) as the spearhead of the entire Arab nations. They had suffered the horrendous casualties and the other Arab states had offered nothing but money. Not only that but the Kuwaiti rulers indicated that wanted the money loaned  returned by Iraq, and they refused to maintain the same level of payments to Iraq after the war.

Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon. He feted the leading lights of Washington. He claimed retrospectively ( as many did) that he an opponent of Saddam. He died in New York in 2003.

Their were other reasons as well. Iraq has a problem with access to the Persian Gulf.  They lack suitable ports. For years the Iraqis have sought to lease the islands ( Warba and Bubiyan) belonging to Kuwait  at the northern end  of the Gulf to facilitate  shipment of Iraqi oil out and receive much of their needed agricultural products from the world. The Shatt-il Arab waterway, being between Iraq and Iran, was always a bone of contention between them and was closed during the  eight year war…. and in any event the super tankers could  not navigate up the river anyway. In addition since the demise of Abdul Nasser, Saddam saw himself as the leader of the Arab world, and needed the economic, monetary  and most of all, military clout to assume the mantle of leadership.  A quick conquest of Kuwait filled all the requirements.

So historical, financial and mythological rationale  impelled Saddam to execute the dream of  “regaining Kuwait as part of Iraq.” Saddam and his advisors discounted American intervention. A number of times Saddam and his echo chamber of close confidantes talked about the war weariness of Americans from the Vietnam war, and basically without saying directly, indicated he thought the Americans were paper tigers. Saddam, like Stalin, his role model, could smell weakness  and smelled it from the American diplomats and officialdom. The Europeans were mostly interested in keeping the oil flowing, whether by Iraqis or Kuwaitis,  was immaterial and keep their contracts with Iraqis intact.  The bottom line was that Saddam did not anticipate any forceful actions by the West to counter  his invasion

Apparently the Iraqis had no intention to invade Saudi Arabia…at least not right away. Had Bush known that it was problematic that he would have pushed the Desert Shield buildup.

In any event the Kuwaitis like the rest of the world was caught by surprise by the Iraqi invasion. They thought using the Bedouin  method of negotiations ,e.g. delay, obfuscate,  drink gallons of tea, exchange pleasantries, promise to meet again and  basically  do nothing, would bury the issue..  The negotiations dragged on for months.

The  Iraqis, meaning Saddam. became impatient and viewing the world   through his myopic  lens was sure Kuwait was low hanging fruit. At the same time he was engaged in a fierce verbal  attack on Israel. Whether intended or not it was very clever. They made a lot of noise about attacking Israel, and as a result moving around their units seemed to be part of planned defense against an anticipated Israeli counter strike. Saddam’s belligerent  speeches about destroying Israel was eaten up by the masses in the Arab world and  Saddam  was buoyed by the reaction. He was acclaimed  by many was the new Saladin, especially among the Palestinians. Many in the Arab world  were contemptuous of the Gulf Arabs and their arrogant use of wealth. At the time of the invasion I had two  Kuwaiti officers  in my class at the JFK Special Warfare School and they were totally astounded. Arab rulers conspired against one another, promoted rebellions and assassinations but never actually crossed the border of a fellow Arab country with conventional forces.



The  business as usual  attitude among the American elite policy- makers and   intelligence community was one of the reasons for the totally flat -footed response to the invasion of Kuwait. Another was the overall Washington assessment that Iraq was bluffing.  Hussein was simply an egomaniac blowhard. Another was the still prevalent view of a Soviet invasion of Iran to the Gulf for Arabian oil as the primary threat. As a consequence our ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie told Hussein in her first and only meeting with Saddam that “ …we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts like your border dispute with Kuwait.” To some extent she was the  scapegoat  for the Washington intelligence and policy-makers inattention to a looming crisis. She was given no specific instructions from the State Department to address the issue, albeit her fawning denunciation of American anti-Saddam media to placate Saddam was cringeworthy.


As second reason for the lassie faire attitude toward Iraq was that the intelligence community and our diplomats totally misunderstood the character and personality of Saddam Hussein. He was generally regarded as a preening bully, a shaqawa… the Iraqis would say. Some saw him as simply a buffoon with an evil disposition. The foremost  Israeli analyst of Iraqi military affairs  Uriel Dann, saw it clearly.

“He does not forgive and forget. His enemies brought him to perdition and then let him off, being weak fools as he had always known, though their weakness and foolishness turned out differently than he had foreseen. He will strive  to exact  revenge so long as there is life in his body. He will smirk and conciliate and retreat and whine and apply for generosity and fairness.”

Baghdad, Iraq, Saddam’s family pictures, date unknown.
Saddam, center, with his wife Sajida, daughters and grand-children during a barbecue party

So on 2 August  at dawn  eight Iraqi divisions invaded Kuwait, led by the  best Republican guard divisions they had, spearheaded by the Hammurabi  Republican Guard division assisted by special commando units, They had planned on a  five day operation  but it took only one. The resistance, except for the Kuwaiti 35st Armored Brigade, was negligible.  The Kuwaits were panic stricken  and the major obstacle to the Iraqi advance was the  civilian traffic clogging  the roads.

NSC Advisor Scowcroft, Colin Powell,and Sec StateJames Baker were reluctant to but into the defense of Kuwait. SECDF Dick Cheney pushed President Bush to stand fast.

The Iraqi occupation of Iraq was a brutal savage affair. Saddam made it clear, Kuwaitis were not first class Iraqi citizens and were to be treated created as lepers. Following the example of the Russians in East Germany after the war, Kuwait was stripped of its wealth and first class  infrastructure.

The full horror of the Iraqi occupation deserves another post but after the Republican Guard invasion force pulled out occupation duties were taken by the so call “popular army” which was a recently revived organization of Ba’athi party members. As many Iraqis saw them they were neither popular or an army. They were simply criminals with a taste for loot and rapine.






About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply