Background of the Conflict
In August 1990 the Middle Eastern country of Iraq invaded the nation of Kuwait, its smaller neighbor to the south. In early 1991 the United States joined forces with a number of other countries in Operation Desert Storm, with the goal of pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Since both Iraq and Kuwait are located at the northern tip of a body of water called the Persian Gulf, this conflict became known as the Persian Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War ended in a dramatic victory for the U.S.-led coalition in February 1991, when Iraqi troops were forced to withdraw from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting.
The United Nations (UN) agreement that officially ended the Persian Gulf War required Iraq to destroy or remove all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the decade after the war ended, however, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) consistently refused to meet the terms of this peace agreement. The international community tried a number of different approaches to persuade Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, including diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for violating international law), and military strikes. Finally, in early 2003 the United States launched a second war against Iraq, which became known as the Iraq War or Gulf War II. This military action, code named Operation Iraqi Freedom, succeeded in...
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Saddam Hussein's Rise to Power
The main figure on the Iraqi side of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was Saddam Hussein (1937–; ruled 1979–2003). After becoming president of Iraq in 1979, Hussein involved his country in two major wars over the next dozen years. The story of Hussein's youth and his rise to power helps explain his aggressive behavior toward his neighbors in the Middle East.
Saddam Hussein, whose name means "he who confronts" in Arabic, was born in 1937. He grew up as a peasant near the Sunni Muslim village of Tikrit, which is located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Baghdad along the Tigris River. After he came to power, Hussein invented or exaggerated many details of his early life to enhance his image as a powerful and ruthless leader. As a result, some facts about his life are uncertain.
It is known that Hussein's father either died or left the family before Saddam was born. The main influences in his young life were his stepfather and one of his uncles. Hussein has said that he endured a difficult childhood, in which he was abused and often prevented from attending school. Some historians claim that his harsh upbringing taught him to view other people with mistrust and to rely only upon himself. Hussein also realized at a young age that threats and violence would help him get what he wanted. He has claimed that he was ten years old when he first killed someone. It is...
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Iraq Invades Kuwait
After months of political discussions and military buildup, Iraq launched its invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, at 2 AM The powerful Iraqi military successfully conquered its smaller neighbor in a matter of hours. Nations around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Iraq immediately withdraw its troops from Kuwait. Although Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) was surprised by the world's strong reaction, he refused to remove his forces and instead began threatening nearby Saudi Arabia. The United States and many other countries began sending troops into the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia and, if necessary, force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. This created a tense military standoff that lasted for six months before finally erupting into the Persian Gulf War.
When more than 100,000 highly trained Iraqi troops began pouring across the border into Kuwait on August 2, there was little doubt that they would achieve their goal of capturing the capital, Kuwait City. The tiny country of Kuwait was completely outmatched. Before the Persian Gulf War, Iraq had a land area of 170,000 square miles (440,000 square kilometers) and a population of around 18 million. Its army consisted of 1 million men and a variety of modern weapons and equipment. On the other hand,...
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The United States and Its Allies Prepare for War
When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) ordered the Iraqi military to invade Kuwait in August 1990, he set in motion a series of events that would soon lead to war. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. The United States led a coalition of thirty other nations that began sending troops, aircraft, and ships to the Middle East to help defend Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi attack. This massive military buildup received the code name Operation Desert Shield.
In November the United Nations Security Council set a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. (The United Nations Security Council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It consists of five permanent member nations—the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—and ten elected members that serve two-year terms.) Although many world leaders tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis, Hussein refused to remove his troops. By the end of 1990, it appeared likely that the coalition allies would have to go to war to force Iraq out of Kuwait. As the march toward war continued, however, some popular opposition emerged in the United States and elsewhere. Protesters held antiwar demonstrations in major cities, and the U.S. Congress held heated debates about whether to give President George H. W. Bush...
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The Air War
The United Nations (UN) deadline of January 15, 1991, passed with no indication that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) would withdraw his forces from Kuwait. By this time Iraq had occupied its smaller neighbor for nearly six months. The United States and its allies had sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf region during this period. Their immediate goal was to prevent Iraqi troops from moving into Saudi Arabia and to enforce economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for breaking international law) against Iraq. This massive military buildup received the code name Operation Desert Shield.
In the early morning hours of January 17, the U.S.-led coalition launched an offensive attack aimed at pushing the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Coalition leaders named the offensive Operation Desert Storm. The first phase of the operation involved a series of coordinated air strikes against military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. The idea behind these strikes was to reduce Hussein's military strength and make it impossible to continue his occupation of Kuwait. The air war continued for six weeks and achieved nearly all of the allies' objectives.
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The Ground War
On February 22, 1991, U.S. President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93 ) set a deadline of noon the following day for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) to withdraw his military forces from neighboring Kuwait. By this time, the U.S.-led coalition had been pounding military targets in Iraq and Kuwait from the air for nearly six weeks. Though the air war had taken a severe toll on the Iraqi forces, Hussein still refused to withdraw. He also promised to cause major damage to the coalition troops if they attacked on the ground.
On February 24 the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Coalition leaders expected to meet tough resistance from Hussein's army, but they encountered very little. In fact, thousands of desperate Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the advancing coalition forces. The allies achieved a stunning victory in the ground war, successfully liberating Kuwait after only one hundred hours of combat.
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Immediate Aftermath of the War
The Persian Gulf War ended in a dramatic military victory for the U.S.-led coalition on February 27, 1991. The one-hundred-hour ground war had liberated Kuwait from occupation by Iraq. During the next few weeks, the two sides agreed on the terms of a cease-fire. Iraq ultimately agreed to honor all of the resolutions passed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council. (The Security Council is the division of the UN charged with maintaining international peace and security. It consists of five permanent member nations [the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China] and ten elected members that serve two-year terms.)
Once the war ended, U.S. troops returned home to triumphant celebrations. But some Americans criticized President George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) for ending the war while Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–) was still in power. In the meantime, both Kuwait and Iraq struggled to overcome the terrible destruction the war had caused. Kuwaitis faced the difficult tasks of rebuilding their cities, putting out hundreds of raging oil fires, and moving toward a more democratic society. The Iraqi people rose up in rebellion against Hussein's weakened government after the war, but Hussein used the remains of his military to crush the uprisings.
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Inspections and Sanctions, 1992–2000
The United Nations (UN) agreement that officially ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War required Iraq to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the decade after the war ended, however, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–) refused to honor the terms of this agreement. He consistently failed to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors sent to monitor Iraq's progress in destroying its weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons. In fact, he threw the inspectors out of Iraq in 1998. Hussein also made threatening statements toward his neighbors and used military force against his political opponents within Iraq.
Hussein's attitude did not please the United States or other members of the international community. The UN used several different strategies to force Iraq to meet the terms of the 1991 agreement. One strategy involved enforcing economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for breaking international law) against Iraq. Another attempted to limit Hussein's military options by establishing "no-fly zones" over large areas of Iraq. American and British leaders also launched bombing campaigns against Iraq on several occasions in response to Hussein's actions.
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U.S. Policy Moves toward Regime Change in Iraq, 2001–02
George W. Bush (1946–), son of the former president who had held office during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, became president of the United States in January 2001. Bush vowed to follow a tougher policy toward Iraq than had the previous president, Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001). Following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched a global "war against terrorism." In January 2002 Bush expanded the focus of this war to include countries that he believed supported terrorism, including Iraq.
Over the next year Bush pushed for "regime change" in Iraq, a term he used to mean removing Saddam Hussein (1937–) from power. He challenged the United Nations (UN) to enforce the agreement that had ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which required Iraq to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In November 2002 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which authorized a new round of weapons inspections and warned that Iraq would face "serious consequences" if it failed to cooperate. (The Security Council is the division of the United Nations charged with maintaining international peace and security. It consists of five permanent member nations—the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—and ten elected members that serve two-year terms.) Although Iraq allowed the weapons inspectors to...
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Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 2003
For more than a year, the United States tried to persuade the United Nations (UN) to authorize the use of military force to disarm Iraq and remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) from power. By early 2003 it became clear that these diplomatic efforts had failed. But U.S. President George W. Bush (1946–) was determined to go to war against Iraq, even without UN support. He claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a significant threat to world security. He insisted that military action was necessary to free the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and to defend the world from grave danger.
On March 17, 2003, Bush gave Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, forty-eight hours to leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led military invasion. The Iraqi leader ignored the warning, and the 2003 Iraq War (also known as Gulf War II) began two days later. From the beginning, the main focus of the war was removing Hussein from power. American military leaders felt that toppling Hussein would create chaos in the Iraqi army and decrease its ability to fight. The planners of the war also believed that the Iraqi people would welcome the U.S. troops once they realized that Hussein's reign of terror was over.
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The Fall of Baghdad, April 2003
During the first two weeks of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S.-led coalition's "wave of steel" ground assault advanced quickly toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The coalition also launched an intensive bombing campaign designed to create "shock and awe" among enemy forces and persuade them to surrender. From the beginning of the war, coalition troops faced less organized resistance from the Iraqi army than they had expected. But they also received an unexpectedly hostile reception from the Iraqi people. In fact, they faced a surprising number of sneak attacks from irregular forces (fighters who are not part of a formal army) using the tactics of guerrilla warfare (an unconventional fighting style that uses methods like ambushes, booby traps, and sniper attacks). As the situation in Iraq grew more complex, the Bush administration faced increasing criticism of its war plan.
In early April the coalition forces prepared to fight for control of Baghdad. U.S. military officials worried that the troops might face stiff resistance from Iraqi Republican Guard forces, as well as the possibility of chemical weapons attacks, as they neared the capital. (The Republican Guard was an elite, one-hundred-thousand-man force that was the best-trained and best-equipped part of Iraq's army.) But the military campaign known as Operation Iraqi Freedom proceeded rapidly, as the coalition captured Saddam...
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Building a Democratic Iraq
The U.S.-led military campaign known as Operation Iraqi Freedom succeeded in removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) from power after only six weeks of fighting. In addition to ending a brutal regime and bringing the prospect of freedom to the people of Iraq, the war demonstrated the strength and technological superiority of the American military. As soon as the war ended, the Bush administration began working to rebuild Iraq and help its people create a democratic government (a form of government in which the people govern the country through elected representatives).
But Bush's postwar plans soon ran into trouble. Security became a concern as Iraqi insurgents (people who fight against an established government or occupation force) and foreign fighters launched a series of violent attacks against American troops and international aid workers in Iraq. The lack of security made it difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the Iraqi people, so the poor conditions in the country were slow to improve. Despite massive searches, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found in Iraq, which raised questions about the Bush administration's stated reasons for going to war. The United States and the United Nations (UN) argued over who should take responsibility for rebuilding Iraq and overseeing its transition to democracy.
Overall, some progress was made...
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