Reign of Terror
Between 1980 and 1988, the war between Iran and Iraq raged on in the Persian Gulf, and it was a terrible, merciless war. Poison gas was used against civilians and child soldiers fought and perished by the thousands.
The US and many western nations, among other states in the world, had chosen to support the Iraqi military with money and weaponry, as it seemed that Saddam Hussein, the Baath party dictator of Iraq, was a preferable ally against the spreading influence of the Islamist fundamentalist revolution of the Iranian Mullahs. However, the Iraq-Iran War ended in a draw, and did not resolve any question about hegemony in the region.
What Iraq was left with was an enormous amount of foreign debt. Its reserves were depleted, the inflation rate was increasing and the Iraqi financial situation deteriorated to the point where an economic collapse seemed imminent. A major problem was Iraq’s rather monolithic economic structure – meaning that it was fully dependant on its oil output. Because inter Arabian rivalry and Saddam’s notoriety in the region prevented Iraq from cooperating with others in the region, the only solution seemed to sell more oil.
Iraq was also left with was a relatively modern and well equipped army. Saddam could call upon 1,000,000 active troops and at least 850,000 reservists, of whom the experienced and battle-hardened Republican Guard was the most dangerous. With 750 fighter jets, Iraq also had the sixth strongest air force in the world at the time. Thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, and officers trained after Soviet and British models, made the army a serious threat to its neighbours.
One such a neighbour was little Kuwait to the south. Kuwait was already a thorn in Hussein’s side, as its overproduction of oil helped flood the market and lower prices, to which the Iraqi dictator responded with a series of threats and pressure. But after these failed, Saddam Hussein gave the order for invasion.
The Gulf War
On August 2, 1990, seven Iraqi Divisions crossed the border into Kuwait, overrunning any resistance and securing Kuwait City and the Kuwaiti oil fields. In just nine hours, Saddam Hussein had presented the international community a fait accompli. Seemingly overnight, all of Iraq’s problems were gone. By annexing Kuwait, it would not only pay off its debt to foreign creditors with Kuwaiti money, but would also control 20 per cent of the world’s oil deposits.
While the rest of the world was stunned by Hussein’s unpredictability, Iraqi forces marched to the border with Saudi Arabia. Now confronted with the possibility that Iraq might continue its offensive and incorporate the Saudi oil fields and strategic airports as well, the whole international community got together to act. Saddam’s attack against the integrity and the sovereignty of the Kuwaiti state did not only bring about a western anti-Iraq coalition, though, but agitated fellow Arabian countries as well, and even the Soviet Union, busy at the time with what would turn out to be its dissolution, approved of intervention.
While the US bolstered the defences of their partners in the region, the UN security council made it clear that Saddam’s invasion would have direct consequences. Already that month, UN resolutions went into effect, and on November 9, US President George Bush ordered 200,000 troops to the Gulf- a number that would increase to 540,000.
Phase One had already begun: Operation Desert Shield. By building a defensive belt at the Saudi Arabian border with Patriot missiles and long range artillery, the coalition forces of 34 nations could deter any Iraqi attack while still reinforcing and building up.
Phase Two would be Operation Desert Storm. Since Saddam Hussein refused to withdraw his forces voluntarily, he would have to be removed from Kuwait by force. The operation would first achieve air superiority and then systematically destroy Iraqi offensive capabilities, especially from the feared SCUD missiles with their potential of launching biological and chemical weapons.
On the night of January 16-17, 1991, Desert Shield turned to Desert Storm. Massive coalition aircraft attacks from the airfields in Saudi Arabia and a barrage of 220 cruise missiles destroyed the Iraqi early warning systems and anti-aircraft batteries. Modern coalition jets with computerised target systems obliterated the inferior Iraqi air force and most of its airfields and communication systems.
On January 25, Saddam Hussein retaliated by opening the crude-oil depository at Nuba ak Ahmadi into the Gulf and setting 600 oil production facilities and tankers ablaze. This was a new form of ecological warfare with disastrous consequences for the environment, but was actually mostly a political statement. Saddam wanted to hit the west where it hurt the most.
On February 17, the battlefield preparations began. The clearing of mines, the artillery bombardments on Iraqi strong points and the destruction of the last remaining logistical capabilities took 38 days. Now, with most of the Iraqi air force and command-systems destroyed, the coalition air force changed their targets to ground forces. This was a battle the Iraqi soldiers could not hope to counter.
At its end, the Iraqi ground forces were weakened by up to 50 per cent, and as many as 4,000 tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as 1,000 heavy artillery pieces, had been destroyed. The intense tactical bombing incapacitated many Iraqi units, while the further strategic bombing from US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft off the coast destroyed Iraqi infrastructure. Now with the enemy weakened to such an extent that only light casualties could be expected, the ground war could finally begin. Way more than half of Iraq’s overall strength had been completely wiped out.
By feigning a frontal attack between the coast and Minagish, the remaining Iraqi forces were tied down all along the Wadi al Batin. After artillery punched gaps into the final Iraqi anti-tank barriers, large columns of armoured vehicles drove towards the entrenched Iraqi forces on the left flank of the Wadi Al Batin. Leading the way was the 1st US Cavalry Division supported by attack helicopters, while special ops and paratroopers were dropped behind the lines. The morale of the regular Iraqi forces was low by now. They’d been abandoned by their leadership in trenches for months, were constantly short of water, and even resorted to cannibalising their own tanks and vehicles to make lamps and heating equipment for their bunkers. They often offered little resistance after the first shots and surrendered.
Soon, a coalition bridgehead of 15km was achieved, which would be extended to 70km by evening. While the right Iraqi flank was tied down by Syrian, Egyptian, British and US Marine Corps Divisions, a forceful left hook was to punch through the Iraqi lines, and then turn to the east and outflank and trap the Iraqi forces.
Counterattacks by the remaining tank divisions of the Republican Guard were repulsed with relative ease by superior anti-tank measures of the coalition forces. The outdated T-72 tank was no match for the main American and British battle tanks, like the M1A1 with its better range, fire control and armour-bursting ammunition. Apache AH64 with night vision and laser controlled Maverick or Hellfire missiles made short work of hidden or entrenched tanks. In short, it wasn’t much of a battle, and four Iraqi divisions were completely overrun, with more than 14,500 prisoners taken.
The second day began with more air-attacks against the Iraqi supply lines near the Euphrates, towards Samawah and Al Nasiriyah, while the British and American armoured Divisions further advanced. The coalition used complex combined-arms operations, and by carrying small lightweight global receivers, high command knew exactly where their troops were at all times. So, the armoured left-hook continued, while on the right, Marine Corps Divisions were further securing key positions in front of Kuwait City. 13 more Iraqi divisions were shattered that day.
The third day’s advance was accompanied by heavy rain and thick sandstorms. This hampered the advance enough for the still dangerous Republican Guard to act. It was impossible for them to effectively stand up to the coalition forces, not just because of the technology gap, but they were still able to delay the advance with courageous firefights, until most of the forces in the east could retreat northwards before they could be encircled.
The 1st Marine Division successfully captured Kuwait City airport and by the evening, cleared the capital of all enemy forces. Large columns of Iraqi prisoners were everywhere.
By the fourth day, the main battle was basically over. Mopping up operations took care of the Iraqi troops’ final resistance until an armistice at 08:00 the following day ended the fight for Kuwait.
In just five days the coalition overran 33 Iraqi Divisions, and cleared all of Kuwait from enemy forces. Although they had failed to effectively encircle and eliminate most of the Republican Guard, who had managed to withdraw along the coast towards Basra, they had destroyed most of the Iraqi heavy equipment and taken more than 69,000 prisoners. The overall aim to destroy Iraq’s offensive capabilities had been achieved.
Dawn of a new age
After 1,000 hours of war in the air and 100 hours on the ground, the coalition had defeated one of the largest armies on the planet – you can either see this as a masterpiece of organisation, planning and execution, or as a one-sided slaughter where the technological and air-warfare capability was nowhere near the same level. The Iraqi military was never able to go on the initiative or to strike back with reserves. Everything the coalition did was fast, better coordinated and more destructive. It was the dawn of a new age of technological warfare, where computer and satellite aided weapons, and electronic devices, had an immense impact.
Although this was not the end of Saddam Hussein or the threat of his regime, the liberation of Kuwait was a prime example of what the United Nations could achieve if they actually agreed on a course of action. Even if it was peace through superior firepower.
If you prefer a visual interpretation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Reign of Terror – Operation Desert Storm: