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Saddam’s Invasion of Kuwait Leaves Surprising Legacy

The consequences are still reverberating three decades on, obviously in Iraq and the Middle East but also further afield after Saddam Hussein became the first Arab leader to invade another Arab nation. On Thursday, August 2, 1990, at about 2 am, 100,000 Iraqi troops and 700 tanks smashed through Kuwaiti border posts. Saddam then announced that the emir of Kuwait had been deposed and the emirate was now Iraq’s nineteenth province.

This was his second invasion of a neighbor. In September 1980 he invaded Iran believing that the rule of the ayatollahs, and their Shia branch of Islam, posed a clear and present danger to Iraq’s Sunni-dominated government.

Much of the Iranian army and air force was dependent on the U.S. for spare parts and these had dried up after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Saddam believed it would be a piece of cake as much of Iran’s heavy weaponry and air power would be unusable. Initially, his forces were successful, driving deep into Iran. But the Iranians fought back, launched human wave attacks against Iraqi artillery and trench warfare, reminiscent of WWI, ensued. Stalemate. The war finally ended in 1988 under a United Nations-brokered ceasefire with neither victorious, both exhausted. Kuwait had initially lent the Iraqi leader $14 billion to help finance the conflict. Saddam believed that this debt should be written off. Kuwait refused and demanded prompt repayment.

When the guns of August were unleashed in 1990 it took the UN, still catching its breath since the recent end of the Cold War, four months to take action. Eventually, on November 29, 1990, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 678 authorizing military force. It charged that Iraq was refusing to meet international demands and was in flagrant contempt of the Security Council. It declared that unless Iraq withdrew by January 15, 1991, member states were authorized “to use all necessary means” to force compliance. There were 12 votes in favor, two against (Cuba and Yemen), and one abstention (China).

Iraq’s closest ally in the Gulf had, ironically, been Kuwait. The country was the top financier of the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980. Saddam considered that Kuwait owed Iraq a huge debt of gratitude.

In examining the run-up to the war, the importance of one agreement is often overlooked. In 1975 Iran and Iraq signed the Algiers Accord. This agreement of convenience suited both Saddam, who was increasingly in power but not in office until 1979, the year the Shah was overthrown. It demarcated their disputed borders and allowed Saddam to crush the Kurds in the north of Iraq who had been getting help from Iran. But it also de facto established the Shah as the Gulf’s policeman. This was a role that Saddam cherished but was not yet ready for. When the Shah was overthrown, Saddam, with the blessing of Washington, became the policeman.

Saddam felt he had saved the Gulf sheikhdoms and was worthy of greater respect. Above all, he wanted more money. But the price of oil was falling. Kuwait had raised its oil production from the OPEC quota of 1.5 million barrels a day to 1.9 million just weeks before the invasion. This further lowered the oil price from $18 (then $30.40) to $14. This fall cost Saddam an estimated $1 billion a year. He felt a sense of grievance and that he was being short-changed and losing face.

Saddam also accused Kuwait of stealing its oil by boring at a slant northwards along their frontier. Kuwait haughtily dismissed these claims. Saddam was not convinced and accused the emirate of blatantly stealing the resources of the nation whose armies saved it from Iran’s revolution. Saddam was the policeman. Now he wanted to be the law. Images of invasion, human hostages, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, anti-aircraft flak, Scud and cruise missiles, wailing sirens, and billowing dark smoke from burning oil wells flooded our TV screens.

It was these images being viewed on TV in a fretful post-Tiananmen China that led to a radical overhaul of the nation’s military. TV news showing cruise missiles hitting their designated targets with pinpoint accuracy both impressed and alarmed the Beijing leadership. Their military ideology and planning underwent a dramatic change. The airpower and new technology deployed by the U.S. in the campaign to liberate Kuwait spurred China’s reevaluation of the People’s Liberation Army’s modus operandi. It launched China on a path to upgrade its armed forces, militarize the South China Sea, establish the so-called String of Pearls up to the Horn of Africa, and set up missile bases along its east coast giving it command of sea approaches.

It may well be that the most understated legacy of events 30 years ago is not to be found in the shifting sands of the Gulf.