“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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…..as 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.”
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.
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.