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Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm)

17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: Aug 11, 2021

The First Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, was an armed conflict between Iraq and a coalition force comprising 35 nations, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Primarily led by the United States, the coalition forces won an overwhelming victory over the Iraqi military, and restored Kuwaiti independence within nearly six weeks following the breakout of hostilities.

Operation Desert Storm Summary
  • The First Gulf War was an armed conflict between Iraq and a US-led coalition comprising 35 nations, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
  • Kuwait’s supposed slant drilling across the Iraqi border, its overproduction of oil, and its refusal to forgive Iraq’s debts were among the reasons for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
  • Iraq’s better equipped armed forces easily overpowered Kuwait’s feeble military resistance, and soon established its control over Kuwait.
  • Iraq’s invasion drew the ire of many nations, and the UN Security Council passed multiple resolutions condemning Iraq, and demanding the immediate withdrawal of its troops from Kuwait.
  • During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, an unstructured yet significant local resistance emerged to aid the Kuwaiti liberation cause.
  • Saddam’s defiance of the UN demands and his threats to Saudi Arabia would soon result in a US military buildup in the region and a broad US-led coalition for a possible military intervention.
  • Following the passage of the UN deadline of January 15th 1991 for the withdrawal of the Iraqi troops, the coalition forces responded with an extensive bombing campaign against Iraq.
  • Within nearly 100 hours of entering Kuwait, the coalition forces liberated the occupied nation, gaining a decisive victory over the Iraqi military.
  • While Operation Desert Storm was considered a great victory for the US-led coalition, Saddam Hussein would remain in power and continue to oppress many people such as Iraq’s Kurdish population.


Following the Iran-Iraq war, which had ended in a stalemate, Iraq was heavily in debt, mostly to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s pleas to both nations to forgive its debts were refused. Moreover, Iraq had also long claimed Kuwait as part of its own territory.

In 1899, the ruling family of Kuwait, the House of Al Sabah, had signed with the United Kingdom a protectorate agreement assigning Kuwait’s foreign policy affairs to the British. Subsequently, the UK had drawn a border between Iraq and Kuwait in 1922, almost landlocking Iraq. Iraqi attempts to secure any provisions later would be rejected by Kuwait.


Saddam Hussein is widely considered to be responsible for instigating the war by ordering Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Saddam’s refusal to withdraw his troops following demands by the UN Security Council, as well as the threat posed by the Iraqi-control of Kuwait to America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, were primary reasons for US involvement.

The Gulf war is considered a success for the United States and the coalition forces. The coalition elicited broad support from the international community and gained a decisive victory over the Iraqi troops in liberating Kuwait.

Furthermore, Iraq also took issue with Kuwait for overproducing oil. The OPEC cartel had long sought to maintain a price of $18 per barrel. However, Kuwait’s decision to exceed the quotas had reduced the oil price to nearly $10 per barrel. The consequent annual loss of $7 billion to Iraq, an amount equivalent to its balance of payments deficit in 1989, would impose a severe economic burden upon the Iraqi regime.

Iraq accused Kuwait of waging economic warfare. The situation, Iraq claimed, had been further aggravated by Kuwait’s slant-drilling into the Rumaila oil field across the border in Iraq. The two nations finally signed a pact. This would enable Iraq to supply Kuwait with water for drinking as well as irrigation. An Iraqi request for the use of Umm Qasr, however, was rejected.

Causes & Invasion of Kuwait

The United States had sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, however, Iraq’s human rights record began to gradually disturb the West. The United States openly denounced Iraq’s use of torture.

Moreover, the execution of Farzad Bazoft, a journalist for The Observer, in March 1990, earned Saddam Hussein heavy condemnation from the UK. Saddam’s threat to use binary chemical weapons against Israel would serve only to further deteriorate the relationship between Iraq and the West.

Saddan Hussein

Saddan Hussein. Photograph Source: Public Domain

By July 1990, Iraq’s grievances against Kuwait had become more pronounced. Saddam claimed that Kuwaiti policies were “inspired by America to undermine Arab interests and security,” and openly threatened Kuwait with military action.

Saddam also moved nearly 30,000 troops to the Kuwait-Iraq border. Following discussions in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on the 31st of July, Iraq demanded that Kuwait pay $10 billion to compensate for the revenues which Iraq had supposedly lost in Rumaila. Kuwait responded by offering $500 million. Iraq, in return, immediately ordered an invasion.

On the 2nd of August, Iraq started bombing Kuwait City, the capital of Kuwait. Iraqi commandos had infiltrated across the border to prepare for the subsequent invasion by the ground troops. Iraqi commandos would also arrive by boats and helicopters to assault the city. Prior to the invasion, the Kuwaiti military had comprised nearly 16,000 men.

Moreover, the Kuwaiti Air Force had been equipped with around 40 helicopters and 80 fixed-wing aircraft. However, during the Iraqi assault, many members of the Kuwaiti military were on leave, and it was not able to mobilize in time for a strong resistance. Iraq, on the other hand, by the end of the Iran-Iraq war just two years earlier, had had the world’s fourth largest army.

The combined number of its soldiers from its standing army and paramilitary forces exceeded 1.5 million. According to even a low estimate, the Iraqi army could field 484 combat aircraft, 4,500 tanks and 232 helicopters. Kuwaitis managed to fly a few combat missions and attack the invaders.

Moreover, when the Iraqis attacked the Emir’s Royal Residence, the Emir Guard fought back. Sheik Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Emir’s youngest brother, would die in the battle, fighting alongside the Kuwaiti forces. The rest of the Royal family would flee to Saudi Arabia, and within 12 hours, Kuwait would be essentially in the hands of the Iraqi forces.

Annexing Kuwait

Annexing Kuwait

Following the invasion, Saddam would install a pro-Iraqi puppet regime and then appoint his cousin as Kuwait’s governor. On the 28th of August 1990, Kuwait would be turned into Iraq’s 19th province.

Additionally, the Iraqi invaders would loot gold as well as more than $1 billion in banknotes from the Central Bank of Kuwait. Saddam also lowered the Kuwaiti currency by making it equal to the Iraqi dinar.

A UN embargo, however, would make the stolen notes worthless, and Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah would rule that the stolen notes would not be reimbursed.

The Kuwaiti Resistance

During the Iraqi occupation, a local resistance movement emerged. Despite its want of structure, it was determined to aid the Kuwaiti liberation cause. These individuals engaged in civil disobedience and boycotted non-essential work.

Additionally, Kuwaitis working in the oil industry managed to safeguard records and stores even as the Iraqis sought to establish direct control over the industry.

Finally, military operations launched by the Kuwaitis ranged from the assassination of Iraqi soldiers to grenade attacks on armored personnel carriers. It is important to note that the resistance was carried out, for the most part, by ordinary citizens lacking any military training or supervision.

The International Response & Operation Desert Storm

Immediately after the invasion, a UN Security Council meeting was convened. Resolution 660 was passed, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

The subsequent Resolution 661 would impose economic sanctions on Iraq, and the ensuing Resolution 665 would authorize a naval blockade to implement the sanctions. The Bush administration had initially seemed resigned to the situation as a fait accompli.

However, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher urged President Bush “not to go wobbly,” and warned that Saddam would soon be ruling the whole Gulf. Once persuaded however, the Bush administration too, insisted that the Iraqi forces completely withdraw from Kuwait.

Saddam’s Response

Amidst international pressure, Saddam proposed that all cases of occupation or supposed occupation be resolved simultaneously. He called for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and Israel to withdraw from the territories it had gained following the Six Day War.

Moreover, Saddam called for the replacement of US troops in Saudi Arabia with Arab forces, and the immediate freeze of all siege and boycott decisions against Iraq. The Bush administration, however, was adamantly opposed to the linkage of the Iraqi invasion to other regional issues.

In the meantime, Saddam appeared on national television with some British hostages. He informed them that they had been refused exist visas in order to prevent war. In the video, Saddam ruffled 5-year-old Stuart Lockwood, a British boy, and asked if he had been getting his milk.

Saddam told the hostages that their presence was “meant to prevent the scourge of war.” The video would elicit outrage and Saddam’s behavior would be condemned by both the UK and the US. Iraq would make several additional proposals.

It asked for the use of some Kuwaiti territory and continued to link the invasion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These offers however, were rejected, and the US and the UK maintained that Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait before there could be any negotiations or concessions.

Threats Against Saudi Arabia

Following the invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi military was within striking distance of the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Saddam’s loud grievances against the Saudis could not be dismissed. He held that Saudi Arabia should not ask back for the nearly $26 billion it had loaned to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

Saddam felt that he had done the Saudis a favor by fighting the Iranians, the influence of whose Shia Islamic revolution the Saudis had begun to fear. He also claimed that the Saudis’ ties with the US had made the Saudi state an illegitimate guardian of Medina and Mecca.

The US could not afford to stand by idly as Saddam continued to issue threats against its ally. US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney visited King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to discuss the situation. When the king requested military assistance from the United States, President Bush responded by flooding the Persian Gulf and the Saudi Desert with American troops.

This mission, known as Operation Desert Shield, resulted in the rapid buildup of American forces to prevent further aggression by Iraq.

Air Campaign

Air Campaign Desert  Storm

The January 15th deadline of Resolution 678 passed. But the Iraqi forces did not withdraw. Consequently, on the 16th of January 1991, the coalition forces responded with an intensive bombing campaign for 42 consecutive days.

Nearly 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped during the coalition’s more than 100,000 sorties. The aerial bombing campaign commanded by Lieutenant General Chuck Horner of the United States Air Force decimated Iraqi military as well as civilian infrastructure.

It also targeted Iraqi naval forces, weapons research facilities, Scud missile launchers, and command and communication facilities. For the most part, the sorties were launched from Saudi Arabia and carrier battle groups in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses were manifestly ineffective; the coalition forces, in over 100,000 sorties, would suffer only 75 aircraft losses.

Saddam Strikes the Jewish State

As the assaults by the coalition forces grew, Iraq reasoned that provoking an Israeli military response would weaken the opposing alliance. If Israel were to attack Iraq, Saddam hoped, the other Arab nations would withdraw from the coalition on account of their unwillingness to fight alongside the Jewish state.


Hence, the Iraqis launched Scud missiles on Israel, killing 74 and injuring 230 Israelis. The attacks also damaged 6,142 apartments, 200 shops, 50 cars, and 23 public buildings. Saddam’s indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians were not without effect. Israeli jets were soon deployed to patrol the airspace near Iraq, and the Jewish state was prepared to respond.

However, following President Bush’s requests, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided not to retaliate. The US soon sent MIM-104 Patriot missiles to protect Israeli civilians. The Royal Netherlands Air Force too, deployed a squadron to Israel.

Moreover, a patrol of the British SAS was deployed to hunt down and destroy the Iraqi Scud missile launchers. However, the Patriot missile defense was mostly ineffective, and the SAS unit was compromised before it could accomplish the mission.

Finally, following a Scud missile attack on Ramat Gan, Israeli commandos boarded helicopters to fly into Iraq. However, US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney managed to convince the Israelis to abort the mission by relating the level of coalition efforts to thwart the Scud attacks and the danger an Israeli intervention could pose to US forces.

Iraq launched Scud missiles also against Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. These strikes however, inflicted relatively less damage.

The Battle of Khafji

The first major ground battle of the war broke out on the 29th of January. Saddam had consistently tried to draw the coalition forces into a costly ground battle by shelling oil storage tanks and launching Scud missiles.

Map of military operations during the liberation of Khafji

However, when these efforts proved futile, he ordered his troops to invade Saudi Arabia from southern Kuwait. The Iraqis engaged Saudi Arabian, US and Kuwaiti forces along the coastline. After two days, the coalition forces, aided by air power, managed to defeat the invaders, killing between 60 and 300 Iraqis, and capturing nearly 400 Iraqis as prisoners of war.

Ground Campaigns

While the liberation of Kuwait was the chief objective of the coalition forces, thwarting possible reinforcements and counterattacks from within Iraq were considered essential goals. Thus, on the 15th of February, the US Army battalion Task Force 1-41 Infantry breached the Saudi border into Iraq to conduct combat operations.

Nearly 396 artillery pieces and 22 artillery battalions belonging to Iraq were destroyed. The coalition raids also wiped out the 48th Infantry Division Artillery Group of Iraq. On the 24th of February, artillery missions were launched by the 1st Cavalry Division against Iraqi artillery units. Iraqi bunkers as well as combat vehicles were soon destroyed.

On the same day, patrols and outposts of the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division were also destroyed. Moreover, Task Force 2-16 Infantry of 1st Infantry Division inflicted heavy damage on Iraqi forces and simultaneously cleared four lanes through a fortified trench system.

It captured and destroyed a multitude of enemy equipment, vehicles, command bunkers and personnel in clearing over 13 miles of entrenched Iraqi positions. Fierce battles were also fought in Al Busayyah, Muthanna Province and Medina Ridge, and Iraq lost over 3,000 tanks.

Additionally, the 101st Airborne Division would strike nearly 155 miles behind the enemy lines, and about 2,000 coalition soldiers would launch assaults on Iraqi columns seeking to flee westward. Hundreds of Iraqis would be taken as prisoners of war, while coalition forces would suffer relatively fewer casualties.

Liberating Kuwait

The night before the liberation campaign, the US launched decoy naval and air strikes in order to make the Iraqis believe that the chief coalition assault would target central Kuwait. Then, on the 24th of February 1991, the 1st Light Armored Infantry Battalion and two Marine Divisions crossed into Kuwait and began heading toward Kuwait City.

Two Iraqi tanks lie abandoned near Kuwait City

Many poorly defended Iraqi positions were soon overrun and most Iraqi soldiers surrendered. Although several US aircraft were shot down, for the most part, the coalition forces encountered minimal resistance.

The Kuwaiti forces engaged the Iraqi troops in order to liberate Kuwait City. After losing an aircraft and one soldier, the Kuwaitis managed to breakthrough the Iraqi resistance and liberate the capital. Finally, Saddam ordered his troops to retreat from Kuwait on the 27th of February.

On the same day, President Bush declared that Kuwait had been liberated. An Iraqi unit stationed at the Kuwaiti International Airport, however, seemed not to have received Saddam’s order and continued to resist. Thus, the US Marines would have to fight the Iraqi unit for hours before securing the airport.

The Highway of Death

As Iraqi forces started retreating in a column of nearly 1,400 vehicles on a highway north of Al Jahra, they were observed by a US aircraft patrolling the region. The information was soon relayed to a coalition air operations center in Riyadh.

Subsequently, two A-10 aircraft were dispatched to attack the Iraqi forces. In the devastation that ensued, nearly 60km of highway would be left with destroyed vehicles and dead bodies. Though the exact number is not known, at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers were likely killed, while many managed to escape on foot.

Images of the carnage provoked much controversy. But, at the same time, the abundance of the Iraqi military equipment which the Iraqi soldiers had been retreating with could not escape notice. Furthermore, there was evidence to support General Schwarzkopf’s statement that “this was not a bunch of innocent people,” but “a bunch of rapists, murderers and thugs who had raped and pillaged downtown Kuwait City.” Among the wreckage were many commandeered vehicles full of stolen Kuwaiti property. The Iraqis had also killed over 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians.

Additionally, over 600 Kuwaitis had gone missing during the Iraqi occupation, and nearly 375 remains would be discovered in Iraqi mass graves. Finally, an Iraqi Scud missile attack, almost a day earlier, on US Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, had killed 28 and injured over 100.

It was likely that this attack on American soldiers played no insignificant role in inspiring the use of massive force against the retreating Iraqi

End of Hostilities

Within approximately 100 hours of launching the campaign into Kuwait, the coalition forces had liberated the occupied nation and inflicted devastating damage upon the Iraqi military.

While the coalition forces had suffered only 292 deaths, the Iraqi military deaths were estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000. Additionally, approximately 80,000 Iraqis were captured by the coalition forces. By now, all the important objectives had been accomplished.

President Bush, therefore, announced a ceasefire. A peace conference was held in the coalition-occupied Iraqi territory, and both sides signed an agreement. Kuwait’s territorial integrity was recognized while Saddam was permitted to remain in power.


Even though “The Voice of Free Iraq,” a CIA-run radio broadcast, encouraged rebellion against Saddam’s tyranny, the United States would not actively support any efforts within Iraq to topple Saddam’s regime.

Consequently, the Kurds who had sought to trigger a coup d’état would end up fleeing across the mountains amidst the brutal crackdown of the Kurdish uprising. The decision, primarily by the United States, to halt the war without removing Saddam from power drew some criticism.

Later, both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney would cite the potential human costs as a primary reason for not overthrowing Saddam. Meanwhile, in Kuwait, the Emir was restored to power on the 15th of March.

Furthermore, over 400,000 individuals were banished from Kuwait. Among the expelled were many Palestinians, on account of the PLO’s support for Saddam.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm)." World History Blog, Aug 11, 2021.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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