How was the invasion of Iraq allowed?

Background current

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded the neighboring emirate of Kuwait. Five months later, a US-led international coalition intervened and pushed Iraqi troops back across the border. The Second Gulf War affected the entire region.

US Air Force fighter jets (F-16, F-15C and F-15E) fly over Kuwaiti oil fields that have been set on fire by retreating Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This war is commonly known as Operation Desert Storm. (& copy picture-alliance)

The Second Gulf War began 30 years ago with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had previously publicly threatened the attack. Iraq was heavily indebted after the Iran-Iraq war ended just two years earlier. Hussein accused the wealthy neighbor Kuwait of expanding its oil production at the expense of Iraq - including tapping Iraqi oil wells. In addition, there had been a dispute with Kuwait for decades over the common border and thus disputed oil fields. Since Iraq threatened both the regional balance and the global energy supply with the invasion of Kuwait, a US-led coalition intervened in January 1991 with the authorization of the United Nations.


Brief history of the Iraq conflict

Iraq emerged after the First World War under a British mandate as a merger of three Ottoman provinces around the cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The 1958 revolution led to the establishment of a republic. After several changes of government, the Ba’th party took power for more than three decades after a coup in July 1968.

In 1979 Saddam Hussein was elected president and established a dictatorship. In 1980 the Sunni-influenced Iraq attacked Iran (First Gulf War 1980-1988), by whose Shiite Islamist regime it was threatened. Iraq was supported by the USA. But with the occupation of Kuwait in August 1990, the US attitude towards Iraq changed. The country was almost completely destroyed in the Second Gulf War and subsequent sanctions, but Saddam Hussein stayed in power. In 2003 it was overthrown with the invasion of the United States and its allies, who then occupied Iraq and changed the political system.

After years of civil war and recurring attacks, the terrorist militia of the so-called Islamic State (IS) brought large parts of Iraq under their control in 2014. Even after IS was pushed back, the country remains deeply divided.

On the day of the invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion and called for an "immediate and unconditional withdrawal". The majority of the Arab League states also condemned the invasion. On August 6, the UN Security Council imposed an economic, financial and military embargo on Iraq. The US government then sent American troops as part of a multinational force to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. On August 28, 1990, Iraq officially declared Kuwait its 19th province. Further UN resolutions followed between August and November 1990, which also provided for the military implementation of the embargoes. After US President George H. W. Bush announced at the beginning of November that he would send another 200,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia, pressure from the USA finally resulted in UN resolution 678.

UN set ultimatum

Resolution 678 of November 29, 1990 authorized the UN member states to use "all necessary means" if Iraq did not meet all previous resolution demands, including the withdrawal from Kuwait, by January 15, 1991. This was the UN's first express authorization to issue military sanctions since the Korean War.

During the preparations for the resolution, the US forged a military alliance made up of a total of 34 states that was to intervene in Kuwait. The United States provided by far the largest contingent of troops, while Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and France continued to be among the most important coalition forces. Germany did not provide any soldiers for the intervention forces, but supplied armaments and contributed around DM 17 billion financially.

Iraq made a withdrawal offer to the US by the end of 1990, on condition that Israeli and Syrian troops withdraw from Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. The US rejected these negotiations. On January 12, the US Congress voted in favor of a military operation. Two days later, the Iraqi "Revolutionary Command," the highest political body in Iraq, voted for war.

"Desert Storm" campaign

After the UN ultimatum expired, the Allied troops attacked Iraq and Iraqi forces in Kuwait from the air on the night of January 17, 1991 - the beginning of the "Desert Storm" campaign. They bombed strategic targets in Baghdad as well as the rest of the country. On February 24th, Allied ground forces marched into Kuwait and occupied the country.

On their retreat from Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers set fire to most of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Oil fires were also triggered by the Allied bombing, which turned into an environmental disaster. During their withdrawal, the Iraqi armed forces were also massively bombed from the air on Iraqi territory, allegedly several tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed as a result. An independent international committee to investigate war crimes, convened by the former US attorney general, Ramsey Clark, and 22 representatives from 18 states, later came to the conclusion that the US had violated international law on 19 points, for example because of the use of prohibited laws Weapons of mass destruction and uranium-containing projectiles.

Armistice after massive destruction

On February 28, one day after taking the capital Kuwait City, Iraq recognized the UN resolutions and US President Bush announced a ceasefire. Peace negotiations have started. It was not until April 12, 1991 that an armistice in the Gulf War officially came into force.

The consequences of the war, which lasted around six weeks, were particularly devastating for Iraq: More than 500,000 Iraqi soldiers fought in the war. The exact number of victims is not known. A report by the non-governmental organization Medact suggests that up to 200,000 military and civilian casualties were killed or died as a result of the fighting. According to the UN commissioner and later Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, the country had been bombed back into a "pre-industrial age" and "most of the means of modern living have been destroyed or weakened". It was the last war in which the US also used anti-personnel mines. In addition to the massive destruction of civil infrastructure in Iraq - drinking water and electricity supplies, oil refineries, railways, roads and bridges - there were long-term economic problems triggered by the economic embargo that was imposed in August 1990 and maintained after the ceasefire.

A total of almost 900,000 soldiers fought on the Allied side - around 700,000 of them from the US military - around 400 were killed in combat operations.

Criticism of the economic embargo

International law experts such as the lawyer Norman Paech also see the role of the UN as problematic: The United Nations bowed to massive pressure from the USA and had no more opportunities to intervene during the war. Furthermore, maintaining the economic embargo after the end of the war was not legally justified, only the arms embargo and disarmament controls.

The economic embargo, which persisted until Saddam Hussein was overthrown in the Iraq war in 2003, mainly hit the civilian population, for example because urgently needed medicines could not be imported and food shortages arose. Estimates of the number of victims as a result of the embargo range from several hundred thousand to more than a million deaths, but are controversial. In particular, high child mortality rates in Iraq, which were determined in the 1990s and had led to severe public criticism of the UN sanctions, could not be proven by later studies. In response to the consequences of the embargo, a UN aid program, the oil-for-food program, was launched in 1995, through which, until 2003, urgently needed humanitarian goods were delivered to Iraq, but reparations were also paid to Kuwait. The program was financed through the sale of Iraqi oil under UN supervision.

There was also criticism of media coverage of the war. The Allies strictly controlled access to information and only allowed selected journalists near the combat zones.

Supraregional consequences

The Second Gulf War had a major impact on the situation across the Middle East. Due to its continued troop presence, the USA became, so to speak, a "regional" power. After the end of the war, the US pursued the goal of "dual containment" in its policy towards Iraq and Iran in order to suppress the hegemonic claims of both states in the region. In the case of Iraq, this happened primarily through economic sanctions and disarmament controls, ultimately with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 by a US-led coalition.

Over the past decade, the US has gradually withdrawn from the region. After an initial withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, US troops returned to the fight against the jihadist terrorist militia Islamic State in 2014. Even after ISIS has been largely pushed back, around 5,000 US soldiers are still stationed in Iraq. Against the background of the escalation of the Iran-US conflict - which also took place on Iraqi territory with the killing of the Iranian General Soleimani by a US drone attack in January 2020 in Baghdad - a renewed withdrawal of US troops from the Country discussed. The Iraqi parliament then issued a (non-binding) resolution calling for the US to withdraw completely. The Iraqi government is now negotiating with the US over the scope and terms of a withdrawal.

More on the subject:

  • Achim Rohde: Conflict Portrait Iraq (Dossier Internal Conflicts)
  • Syria, Iraq and the region (From Politics and Contemporary History 8/2016)
  • Middle East (Information on Civic Education No. 331/2016)