What: US-led ‘Operation Desert Sabre’ and the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait
Where: Iraq and Kuwait
When: 24 – 26 February 1991
On 24 February 1991, the United States of America and its coalition partners began “Operation Desert Sabre”, the ground invasion of southern Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.
The move signified the latest escalation in the Gulf War, which had begun on 2 August 1990. In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, which had concluded in summer 1988 without a formal peace agreement, tensions between Iraq and many of its regional neighbours had festered. Disagreements with Kuwait reached a peak over the question of the Rumaila oil fields, situated some 20 miles from the border, with then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accusing Kuwait of siphoning crude oil from the fields. Citing Iraq’s historical claims to Kuwait and calling it “Iraq’s 19th province”, Hussein launched an invasion on 2 August 1990. Following the invasion, Kuwait City, the Kuwaiti capital, was quickly captured and the royal family forced to flee. Iraq formally annexed Kuwait on 8 August 1990 and an eight-month occupation followed.
Although Hussein’s invasion was supported by Jordan, Algeria, Yemen and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), key regional players including Egypt and Saudi Arabia called on the US and NATO to intervene. Economic sanctions and naval blockades proved ineffective, as did the United Nations Security Council demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1991.
When this deadline passed and Hussein showed no sign of withdrawal, the US-led coalition launched a month-long aerial bombardment of Iraq. On 24 February the ground offensive “Operation Desert Sabre” was launched, with an estimated 750,000 coalition troops on standby in the region, 540,000 of which were US personnel. Kuwait City fell quickly, and within three days US forces had destroyed most of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard.
On 26 February 1991, Hussein announced Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Reports circulated that largescale looting and the destruction of hotels, schools and the university had taken place, alongside alleged torture, execution and rape. By 28 February any Iraqi resistance had collapsed and US President George Bush declared a ceasefire.
What happened next?
Fed by the perception that Hussein’s regime would be vulnerable following its defeat, a number of Iraq’s minority groups rose against the regime, most notably the Kurdish population in the north of the country. Hussein’s brutal repression of the uprisings and alleged use of chemical weapons against those involved sparked a mass exodus of Kurdish refugees to neighbouring Turkey and Iran, with US forces in the region imposing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in an attempt to provide humanitarian assistance.
Palestinians living in Kuwait also suffered a backlash as a result of the PLO’s support for Hussein’s invasion, with almost all of the previously 400,000 strong community fleeing to Jordan.
In the long term, the Gulf War of 1991 can be seen as a factor leading to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” the invasion was justified by allegations that Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Coalition troops captured Baghdad in April 2003 and toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in the city’s Firdos Square. US troops formally withdrew from Iraq in 2011, although under the Obama administration US forces provided aerial support in an effort to slow the advance of Daesh forces.
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