Iraqis are still paying the price for Saddam Hussain's catastrophic decision in 1990.
Thirty years ago, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in the early hours of 2 August and, by the afternoon of the same day, had concluded decisively the main objectives of their campaign to conquer and occupy the diminutive, wealthy Arab Gulf state.
Although this was perhaps the easiest military operation ever conducted by Iraq, and was a resounding success, its resultant strategic effect on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and even the long-term fate of the country can only be described as catastrophic.
Arab betrayals stoked the fires of war
Since the creation of modern Iraq in the aftermath of World War I, it had always laid claim to Kuwait as a part of its territory. Amounting to not much more than a city-state focused around the capital, Kuwait City, and several miniscule villages, Kuwait was for a very long time a part of the Ottoman Vilayet, or province, of Basra.
For those familiar with the region and its people, this should not come as much of a surprise, as the vernacular differences between the people of Basra and Kuwait are few, with several families on both sides of the border sharing common bonds of kinship.
Modern Kuwait itself has roots as a British protectorate carved out of Basra while still under Ottoman control. The British, wishing to disrupt German-Ottoman plans to extend a railway from Berlin all the way to the Arabian Gulf at Kuwait, felt that their interests in India would be threatened by a European rival having access to a short sea route to the “Jewel in the Crown” that circumvented the Suez Canal in Egypt.
Making alliances with the Al Sabah family, the British proceeded to strong-arm the ailing Ottomans into granting autonomy to the clan in 1899, sabotaging the Kaiser’s and the Ottoman Sultan’s plans which was downgraded with the creation of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.
The Al Sabahs have been on the Kuwaiti throne ever since, serving at the whim of first the British Empire and, later, the United States.
However, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was about more than historical claims. Iraq formally recognised Kuwait as a sovereign state in 1963, and only disputed aspects of the border. What is perhaps more important is how Saddam viewed his Arab “brothers” and neighbours and his perception that Iraq was betrayed by them.
As a result of the long and brutal Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988, Saddam felt that Iraq had been the frontline against Iranian expansionism and had prevented the Islamic Republic from exporting its revolution into Arab lands.
Indeed, contemporary events in the region since the fall of Saddam in 2003 has played this out to frightening and demonstrative effect, with many Arab states in constant anxiety of Iranian machinations.
Iraq paid a bloody price to secure a military and, to a lesser extent, political victory during the war, and always viewed itself as the “Eastern Gate” of the Arab world. Although Kuwait and other wealthy Gulf states supported the Iraqi war effort financially, Saddam believed that Arab demands for Iraq to start repaying its wartime debts almost immediately after the ceasefire with Iran in 1988 was tantamount to betrayal.
The Iraqis arguably had very good reason to be furious. Their economy had taken a battering and it was too difficult to demobilise Iraq’s million-man army as it would mean countless veterans would be unemployed.
Iraq needed to start exporting oil again, but was thwarted when, in violation of OPEC quotas, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia began flooding the market, causing prices to drop and damaging Iraq’s economy. This was exacerbated further by the Iraqis discovering that the Kuwaitis had been slant-drilling into their half of the shared Rumaila oil field, strengthening Baghdad’s belief that the country was being subjected to economic warfare. It was within this context that Iraq decided to invade Kuwait.
America’s blessing was Iraq’s curse
What is commonly left out of the modern narrative is that Saddam infamously conferred with April Glaspie, a senior American ambassador, weeks before the invasion. Glaspie was unambiguous when she stated that the US had no opinion on Iraq’s decision to invade its neighbour, more or less giving Washington’s blessings for the expedition. However, this would soon manifest itself as a curse that lasts until the present day.
Saddam’s spirits may well have been high considering how quickly the Iraqi military smashed Kuwait’s defenders in early August. However, and almost immediately, the US backtracked on Glaspie’s promises and began to threaten and impose sanctions on Iraq. Saddam had been played and was now cornered.
Moreover, as part of the propaganda campaign rallying public opinion against Saddam, members of the Kuwaiti royal family posed as normal members of the public, crying brazenly on camera and claiming to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers murdering babies by taking them out of incubators in hospitals. This was later exposed as an elaborate lie and subterfuge, but not before the princess-turned-faux nurse had lied to the US Congress and to the world on camera.
At the time, Saddam was urged to withdraw from Kuwait, but he did not want to show weakness as he had already announced Kuwait’s annexation as Iraq’s 19th province. To leave following Western threats would have damaged his prestige and exposed him to domestic political threats and so he instead decided to play a game of chicken with the world’s sole ascendant superpower, the United States. He ended up losing not only his prestige, but also any chance that Iraq could have a prosperous future.
The results of the invasion of Kuwait can still be seen to this day. Not only did it have the more direct consequence of a US-led coalition unleashing Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, but it also began the process of degrading the Iraqi state, economy, and society, which reached its climax in the 2003 US-led invasion. In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, international sanctions killed half a million Iraqi children, a cost the US deemed “worth it”.
Iraq today is facing the very real threat of disintegration and human catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. While we must look to the present rulers of Iraq when apportioning blame, we should not forget that the invasion of Kuwait was a strategic blunder that cost Iraqis their future. For that, we can only lay blame at the feet of Saddam Hussein, who allowed himself to be provoked by the Arabs and then manipulated by the US into taking a monumentally catastrophic decision that has had repercussions on Iraqis ever since.
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