Prelude to the Invasion of Kuwait

Prelude to the Invasion of Kuwait

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait caught the world largely by surprise. However, a combination of historic reasons and developments following the end of the Iran-Iraq War led to the Iraqi regime’s rash attack on its Arab neighbor. Iraq had long complained of its limited access to the sea, and its need for deepwater anchorage in the Persian Gulf. Several years before the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqi claims to the disputed islands of Warba and Bubiyan had made for an uneasy relation with Kuwait, which considered the islands Kuwaiti and indispensable to its defense.

The contention between the two countries over the islands had been ongoing for decades. In 1988–90, Iraq continued to press its demands for a reappraisal of its border agreement with Kuwait, in which the contested islands fi gured prominently. Agreement was never reached, although various démarches over the question continued to occupy both governments for some time. Undergirding the Iraqi argument over Kuwait was the historical claim to the emirate made by royalist and republican regimes in Iraq from at least the early 20th century onward, which has always failed to elicit support from the international community.

At the same time that the government was addressing itself to the historic Iraqi demand for wider access to the Gulf coast, its extreme anxiety for cash created further tension with oil-producing states. In the wake of the war with Iran, Iraq’s debts, particularly those incurred with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, had soared to an all-time high; subsequently, various Iraqi emissaries had tried to impress upon Kuwait that its big neighbor to the north required further loans to regain its stability, but they were rebuffed out of hand.

Worried that the overproduction of oil by several OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) member states was reducing the value of the one commodity that Iraq could manipulate, Saddam Hussein also tried to coax the Kuwaitis, no less than the Saudis, to agree to raise the price of oil to $25 a barrel at the OPEC meeting in November 1989.

Although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seemed to have agreed to the Iraqi proposal, Kuwait initially refused it, only reluctantly accepting the idea some time later (Khadduri and Ghareeb 1997, 87). Finally, Iraq argued that Kuwait had begun slant drilling in the south Rumaila oil fi eld claimed by Iraq, though the fi eld was in both Iraq and Kuwait.

This argument, fi rst enunciated by Saddam Hussein, was later developed in more detail by Izzat al-Duri, the Iraqi representative at various conferences called to address the matter. Reiterating what Hussein had asserted before him, al-Duri baldly stated that economic warfare was being waged against his country. As a result of all these issues, the different perceptions of what the Gulf States owed Iraq, and what constituted a permanent IraqKuwait border became major sticking points, fi rst, at the Arab summit in Baghdad and later on, at the more exclusive meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, both in 1990.

While all this activity was taking place in Arab capitals, Hussein began to send out feelers to the Americans. Anxious to probe the U.S. reactions to his quarrel with Kuwait, he sat down with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The transcript of the meeting later released by the Iraqis (there were at least two transcripts of the conversation, one published by the Americans), has become the stuff of history. In subsequent interpretations of the meetings, various observers have been quick to point out that Glaspie had given Iraq the “green light” to go ahead in its military intervention in Kuwait.

Equally vociferously, U.S. offi cials denied that Glaspie’s instructions refl ected anything of the sort, with Glaspie herself noting in her testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate in 1991 that whatever transcript had been produced by the Iraqis was fabricated, if not in whole, at least in part. As of early 2008, the State Department has never published the details of the encounter, so whatever really took place at that fateful meeting can only be conjecture. But in Hussein’s mind, the die was cast. On August 2, 1990, eight days after Glaspie’s meeting with the Iraqi president, Hussein’s massed troops on the Iraq-Kuwait border invaded Kuwait.