The War Over Kuwait and Its Aftermath
After ﬁve Iraqi military divisions entered Kuwait, occupying the entire country in 24 hours, the United States, the United Kingdom, various member states of the United Nations, and a passel of Arab governments went into high alert. While the United States and its European allies made plans to coerce Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, largely through the United Nations, some Arab states sought an “Arab solution” to negotiate the departure of Iraqi troops. This last proposal was completely superseded by the rapidly unfolding events on the ground.
While protesting Iraq’s ﬂ agrant invasion of a fellow member state of the United Nations, the United States sponsored a push to punish Iraq, as a result of which “Iraqi and Kuwaiti assets were frozen, the UN Security Council imposed a total economic and trade embargo on Iraq, and Iraq’s only oil export pipelines through Turkey and Saudi Arabia were promptly cut” (Tripp 2000, 253). With the adoption of UN Resolution 678 authorizing force, war came a step closer. Indeed, an international coalition of 30 countries had formed, and was preparing to attack Iraq and eject it from Kuwait.
On January 16, 1991, the United States–led coalition began its offensive, eventually leading to the massive bombing of both Iraq and Kuwait and the chaotic withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the Kuwaiti theater. Offensive operations ended on February 28 following Iraq’s announcement that it would fully accept all UN resolutions passed since its invasion of Kuwait. One of the events widely reported at the time but now almost forgotten was the U.S. straﬁ ng by air of hundreds of Iraqi army stragglers as they left Kuwait on foot or in impounded vehicles.
Almost immediately after the disorganized exit of the army from Kuwait, a wave of rebellions erupted in the north and south of Iraq. In both Iraqi Kurdistan as well as the deprived regions of southern Iraq, soldiers and deserters, community leaders, as well as leaders of pro-Iranian Islamic militias fought the remnants of the Iraqi government throughout Iraq; only in Baghdad was the population too dispirited and leaderless to make a stand. Even though U.S. president George H. W. Bush had encouraged Iraqis to take matters into their own hands, the Americans offered no assistance at all. Indeed, the U.S. Army, stationed in Nasiriya (south-central Iraq), made no move to help the insurgents, some of whom approached U.S. troops demanding their intervention. The memory of this bitter event is still alive among many Iraqis to this day.
Meanwhile, in April 1991, the Republican Guard reasserted control and suppressed the rebellions, creating a large-scale exodus of Kurdish refugees to Iran and Turkey and of mostly Shii Arabs to Saudi Arabia. The government also embarked on a ferocious campaign of extermination of rebel-led areas, in which countless people died. The Iraqi army, under the heavy-handed direction of Hussein’s cousin “Chemical” Ali Hussein al-Majid, occupied the Shii shrine cities and terrorized their inhabitants. The Kurdish region, somewhat better placed to resist the advances of the Iraqi army, was nonetheless subjected to heavy ﬁ ghting in the aftermath of the rebellions. Kirkuk, an important symbol for the Kurds, was quickly recaptured as the Iraqi army beat down the challenge in the north. According to Eric Davis,
The intifada [mass uprising] was brutally repressed, especially in the south, where an estimated 20,000 to 100,0000 people were killed. SCUD missiles and artillery shells were fired into the city of Karbala and many young Shi’i men were arrested and never seen again. Following the intifada, the Iraqi regime began to drain the southern marshlands, one of the world’s most pristine ecological preserves, to prevent its use as a guerilla haven. By the late 1990s, in one of the twentieth century’s most serious ecological crimes, this area had been all but totally destroyed. Meanwhile, Baathist repression intensified, with repeated executions of army officers accused of plotting against the regime (Davis 2005, 231).
Iraqi forces later withdrew from the north under threat of U.S. military action, and UN Security Council 688 was passed, “which called for Iraq to end its repression of its own population” (Tripp 2000, 258). The United States, United Kingdom, and France created protected havens, ﬁ rst in the north—where the inhabitants were a mix of Arabs (Sunni, Shia, and Christian), Kurds, Turkmen, and tiny minorities of Yazidis and Shabak—and later on in the south, largely populated by Arabs of Shii background (with pockets of Arab Sunni communities in Zubair and Basra).
Patrolled by U.S. aircraft, which unilaterally attacked the country’s air defenses and regularly interdicted Iraqi aircraft from ﬂ ying in Iraqi airspace, the havens created the beginnings of a self-conﬁ dent regional autonomy, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan. Later endowed with a regional government in which the Kurds were the majority partner (the others were the Turkmen and Arab Christian groups), the northern haven became the headquarters of a ﬂ ourishing economy, funded and otherwise supported by international organizations from Europe as well as the United States.