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Was 1991 Gulf War a prelude to the 2003 Iraq debacle?

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Message Abdus Sattar Ghazali
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February 26 marks the 17th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation and end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Just before 6 am on August 2, 1990, I woke up by the boom of a low flying plane over my second floor apartment in Salmiya, Kuwait. My immediate reaction was that there is something wrong because I knew that Kuwait-Iraq talks had broken down in Jedda yesterday and Iraq had deployed about 30,000 troops on Kuwaiti border. I tuned Kuwait radio to listen 6 am news. Iraqi forces have invaded our homeland, a Defense Ministry said.

The Iraqi invasion was just a walk in. Kuwait had only15,000 army which had no match against Iraq which had the fourth largest army in the world. The ruling family had escaped to neighboring Saudi Arabia as the Iraqi troops moved into Kuwait through a desert route during the night.

Iraqi invasion of Kuwait came one day after the Kuwait-Iraq talks held in Jedda, Saudi Arabia collapsed as Kuwait refused to yield to Iraq’s demand to demarcate disputed border and write off about $ 14 billion dollars loan Kuwait gave to Iraq during its war with Iran. Kuwait, having felt threatened by the impact of Iranian Islamic revolution on its Shiite population, had provided Iraq with extensive loans during the war with Iran. Kuwait’s Shuaiba port was used to transport military hardware and other supplies for Iraq. With the end of the war, however, the Kuwaiti government demanded full repayment from Iraq, whereas Iraq expected Kuwait to write off its debt as a reward for its providing protection from Iran.

Iraq said that it had performed a collective service for all Arabs by waging the (1980-1988) war against non-Arab Iran therefore Kuwait and Saudi Arabia should write off war debts of Iraq which had accumulated $70 billion external debts. In addition, Iraq charged that Kuwait had taken advantage of the Iran-Iraq War to drill oil worth 2.1 billion dollars from the Iraq section of their shared Rumaila oil field. U.S. supplied slant drilling technology that allowed Kuwait to extract oil from the part of Rumaila - ninety percent of which lay under Iraq.

Historically, Kuwait had been part of the Ottoman province of Basra, and although its ruling dynasty, the al-Sabah family, had concluded a protectorate agreement in 1899 that assigned responsibility for its foreign affairs to Britain, it did not make any attempt to secede from the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, Iraqi governments had always refused to accept Kuwait's separation, and its borders were never clearly defined or mutually agreed. The British High Commissioner drew lines that deliberately constricted Iraq's access to the ocean so that any future Iraqi government would be in no position to threaten Britain's domination of the Gulf.

According to Iraq, the present-day border between Iraq and Kuwait, imposed by the British in 1922, lacked legitimacy. It likewise believed that Kuwait's Bubiyan Island, wedged between the southeastern tip of Iraq and the northeastern corner of Kuwait (and commanding Iraq's minuscule coastline along the Persian Gulf), was the rightful property of Iraq.

On July 25, 1990, as negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait stalled, Iraq massed troops on Kuwait’s borders and summoned American Ambassador April Glaspie to an unanticipated meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In that meeting, Saddam outlined his grievances against Kuwait, while promising that he would not invade Kuwait before one more round of negotiations. Although Glaspie expressed concern over the troop buildup but said that the US “[has] no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” To emphasize this point, she also said that Secretary of State “James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction.”

Glaspie’s comments have been variously interpreted as raising concerns or giving Saddam Hussein a tacit green light to deal with Kuwait as he will. Some have interpreted portions of these statements, particularly the language "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait", as signaling an American "green light" for the invasion.

Tellingly, on July 31, 1990, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, pointed out that the United States had no defense treaty relationship with Kuwait or other Persian Gulf countries. Kelly's testimony constituted another signal to Saddam that the United States was apt to undertake no armed intervention on behalf of Kuwaiti independence and territorial integrity.

Even the mainstream press has been forced to acknowledge how U.S. statements of neutrality were so frequent and non-interventionist in character that they led Saddam to believe he had a green light to invade Kuwait. The Washington Post reported: “Since the invasion, highly classified U.S. intelligence assessments have determined that Saddam took U.S. statements of neutrality... as a green light from the Bush administration for an invasion. One senior Iraqi military official... has told the [CIA] agency that Saddam seemed to be sincerely surprised by the subsequent bellicose reaction.” (Cited by Waas, Murray, ‘Who Lost Kuwait? How the Bush Administration Bungled its Way to War in the Gulf’, Village Voice, 22 January 1991).

Hence it will not be too much to say that the Unite States, in fact, emitted signals that encouraged Saddam Hussein to believe Washington would not dispatch armed forces to rescue Kuwait in the event Iraq invaded its neighbor.

What was worse, it also encouraged the Kuwaitis. In a word, according to Jean Edward Smith, author of George Bush's War, the administration spoke with the proverbial forked tongue. "By saying it would not defend Kuwait, it encouraged Saddam to invade; by stressing its continued support for 'its longstanding friends in the area [of the Persian Gulf],' the Kuwaitis were given no incentive to compromise." By offering encouragement in both Iraq and Kuwait, Smith has concluded, "the United States bears substantial responsibility for what happened," i.e., for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the resultant Gulf War.

Kuwait had adopted a hard-line policy of no-compromise with Iraq, refusing to negotiate and intransigent in the face of Iraq’s threat of using military means to put a stop to Kuwait’s policies. There are further reasons to believe that the U.S. encouraged Kuwait not to come to a peaceful compromise with Iraq.

King Hussein of Jordan revealed that just before the Iraqi invasion the Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah (who became Amir of Kuwait in January 2006) stated: "We are not going to respond to [Iraq] ... if they don't like it, let them occupy our territory ... we are going to bring in the Americans." And that the Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al Sabah told his military officers that in the event of an invasion, their duty was to hold off the Iraqis for 24 hours; by then "American and foreign forces would land in Kuwait and expel them." King Hussein expressed the opinion that Arab understanding was that Saddam had been goaded into invading, thereby stepping into a noose prepared for him. (Michael Emery, "How the U.S. Avoided Peace.' Village Voice, March 5, 1991)

A significant indication of the U.S. role can be discerned from a crucial discovery that occurred after the invasion, when the Iraqis found a confidential memorandum in a Kuwaiti intelligence file. Iraq cited this memorandum as evidence of a CIA-Kuwaiti plot to destabilize Iraq economically and politically. The Washington Post reported that Kuwait’s foreign minister fainted when confronted with this document at an Arab summit in August 1990. The document (dated 22 November 1989) was a top secret report to the Kuwaiti Minister of the Interior by his Director General of State Security, informing him of a meeting with the Director of the CIA in Washington, William Webster. The CIA and Kuwait have described the meeting as routine and the memorandum as a forgery. The document stated:

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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