The invasion of Kuwait was a turning point for Iraq's fortunes, a price it's still paying for today.

Now 29 years ago, and in an act of complete hubristic and strategic negligence, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops over his shared border with Kuwait and began what would later be known as the Gulf War.

Saddam’s conquest of his newly created “19th province” was short-lived, though, as less than seven months later a US-led coalition would decimate the Iraqi armed forces and devastate Iraq itself.

Though Iraq’s occupation ended, it was not achieved without a litany of war crimes being committed against not only Iraqi military personnel, but began a long process of what can only be described as crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Iraqi people. 

On this day almost three decades ago, the Iraqi people lost their future.

The invasion of Kuwait

Iraqi forces launched an invasion of tiny Kuwait after years of trying to settle significant disputes over oil exports with Iraq’s regional Arab “brothers”, Kuwaiti slant-drilling into the shared Rumailah oilfield, and what Saddam perceived to be Arab disrespect, hostility and ungratefulness towards Iraq. 

After all, Iraq had only just emerged barely victorious from a brutal eight-year war with Iran in 1988.

People often blame Saddam for harbouring aggressive, expansionist agendas, and there is certainly merit to that argument. However, Iraq had significant legitimate grievances with its Arab neighbours. 

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were all producing oil in excess of OPEC quotas, pushing down prices, which meant that Iraq’s war-ravaged economy could never recover.

This also meant that Iraq could not demobilise its vaunted “million-man army” that it had used to force Khomeini into a ceasefire, as it would have caused high unemployment, discontent, and may have threatened a coup. Not only was Kuwait helping to depress oil prices, but it then began slant-drilling and relieving Iraq of its own oil stocks, something Saddam Hussein rightly described as “economic warfare.”

This, and a meeting with then-US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie who said that the US has “no opinion” on Arab-Arab disputes led a gullible Saddam to order Kuwait to be attacked. The Iraqi invasion began in the early hours and most of the military objectives the Iraqi high command had set its troops had been achieved later that same day. 

The rest of Kuwait was subdued completely in under three days, their defensive capabilities decisively smashed, and their royal family, the Al Sabah clan, sent fleeing across the desert into Saudi Arabia for protection.

While this may have resulted in a celebratory mood for an exultant Saddam, it also spelt the beginning of a series of catastrophes to afflict the Iraqi people, and all because Saddam tried to play chicken with the world’s sole superpower at the time – the United States.

The beginning of the end

Though Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait was clearly foolhardy and illegal, the methods used by the US-led coalition to dislodge his forces from the oil-rich Arab state were nothing short of criminal.

The coalition built their case against Saddam and rallied public support against Iraq by relying on lies and dramatic subterfuges. One example, that would have been hilarious had it not been used as a pretext to murder hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, is where a Kuwaiti Al Sabah princess pretended to be a nurse when testifying before Congress and cried on camera as she lied about Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies by removing them from incubators.

Although this was later exposed as a “Deception on Capitol Hill”, its net effect led to the murder of Iraqi babies. American dehumanisation of Iraqi lives was made readily apparent when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded to a question from CBS News on May 1996 about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children over five years of sanctions following the war by saying: “We think the price is worth it.”

Though the above is an example of the crimes against humanity post-war that have cost millions of lives, in addition to the exploitative and murderous UN-sponsored oil-for-food programme that saw Iraq give up its treasures for substandard medicines and food, plenty of crimes occurred during Desert Storm itself. 

Former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, famous as having also acted as part of Saddam’s defence team after the 2003 Iraq War, wrote a book called The Fire This Time, presenting a ghastly accounting of US war crimes in the Gulf.

The most notable incident that will be familiar to those watching the news at the time is the mass murder of Iraqi troops who had given up and who were attempting to withdraw back to Iraq. As Iraqi forces were withdrawing along Highway 80 that connects Kuwait to Iraq, American and Canadian air power unleashed a devastating attack on the already beaten troops.

Footage from the incident showed mile after mile of mangled vehicles, bodies burnt to a crisp, and chilling photographs unveiled ghastly images of Iraqi soldiers with the skin burnt off their faces, their teeth exposed in a final, anguished grimace. Such was its ferocity that the incident became known as the “Highway of Death”, where thousands of soldiers lost their lives to so-called civilised powers.

Though there are numerous incidents, including the Amiriyah bomb shelter massacre in Baghdad where the US killed hundreds of civilians on 13 February 1991, it is clear that the liberation of Kuwait cost Iraq its future. 

The US could have forced Saddam out without making extensive use of depleted uranium rounds and poisoning the environment, attacking civilian targets, and committing widespread war crimes. It could have also sanctioned the regime rather than the people, and encouraged groups seeking freedom from dictatorship to mobilise political action, rather than simply make do with gathering stooges that it has now installed to rule Iraq post-2003.

However, it is clear that the US’ objective was to curb growing Iraqi power, secure American oil interests, and to utterly decimate an entire nation before delivering the coup de grace in 2003 that led to millions more dead, displaced and without hope of a dignified future for them or their children. 

The effect of the Gulf War was to begin the Iraqi Holocaust, and that is the price the Iraqi people are continuing to pay to this day.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com