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‘On This Day’ 1991: ‘Operation Desert Storm,’ US-Led Invasion of Iraq Begins

Twenty years ago today, the United States led a coalition of nations big and small in an invasion of Iraq. The objective: liberate Kuwait, which had been occupied by Saddam Hussein’s military forces five months earlier. US President George H.W. Bush had drawn a “line in the sand,” declaring that Hussein’s aggression “would not stand,” and after months of massive mobilization that saw over half a million US troops deployed to the region, the air assault on Iraq began on January 16, 1991.

But any examination of the events of ‘Operation Desert Storm’ must begin with a review of America’s long relationship with Saddam Hussein.

It is widely known that Hussein was an important US ally in the decade before ‘Desert Storm,’ and that Washington backed the brutal tyrant because of their common enemy, Iran. But America’s love affair with Saddam Hussein actually pre-dates the Iran-Iraq war by more than 20 years. In 1959, the CIA hired Hussein, then a 22-year-old law school dropout, to be part of a team tasked with assassinating Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had infuriated Washington by withdrawing from the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact.

The plot failed spectacularly. Qasim survived (for the time being) and Saddam was wounded by friendly fire, helped to safety and exile in Egypt by the CIA. He was a regular visitor to the American Embassy in Cairo, and when Qasim was finally assassinated by Baathists in 1963, Hussein returned to Baghdad to supervise the mass execution of suspected communists. The United States provided the Baath Party with lists of names of people who would be brutally tortured and executed for nothing more than their suspected political beliefs.

After America’s embarrassing loss of Iran to an Islamic revolution in 1979, the Carter administration provided Saddam Hussein, now Iraqi president, with intelligence assessments that intentionally underreported Tehran’s military might in order to encourage the Iraqi dictator to invade Iran. He did, starting a bloody eight-year war of attrition that would ultimately cost a million lives. And although the United States proclaimed it was neutral in the conflict, Washington provided Baghdad with valuable military intelligence.

President Reagan removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982, opening the door for billions of dollars of US and Western aid. Reagan repeatedly dispatched special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to seal the deal with Hussein; a mission now best remembered by an infamous photo of the two men shaking hands. That handshake led to the transfer of deadly chemical and biological materials—including anthrax—from the US and its allies to Iraq, materials which Saddam Hussein promptly weaponized and unleashed on both Iranian troops and his own people.

President Reagan knew all about it. On March 5, 1984 the State Department declared “available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons.” Secretary of State George Shultz was briefed on Iraq’s “almost daily use of chemical weapons.” But this mattered very little to American leaders; it was a small price to pay for “stability.” Later that year, Washington restored full diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

The Reagan administration considered Saddam Hussein such an important ally that even after an accidental Iraqi attack on the USS Stark that killed 37 American sailors in 1987, President Reagan increased aid to Iraq and blamed the incident on the “barbaric Iranians.”

US aid and friendliness towards Saddam Hussein continued literally right up to the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Hussein’s decision to invade his tiny neighbor, like his determination to attack Iran ten years earlier, was based largely on what was perceived as American approval. Just one week prior to the invasion, US ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein that the United States had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreements with Kuwait.”

Only when it became evident that Hussein was a menace not only to Kuwait but also potentially to neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, did the United States begin gearing up for war with Iraq. It was completely unacceptable to Washington that Baghdad would control a quarter of all Persian Gulf oil. Saddam Hussein was transformed by Washington from good friend to the “new Hitler” literally overnight. Said Lawrence Korb, Ronald Reagan’s assistant defense secretary: “If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.”

And so the 20-year  amicable relationship between Saddam Hussein and the United States abruptly ended. The Bush administration sought and obtained United Nations sanctions against Iraq and more than two dozen countries– including  Arab League members– contributed troops, funding or both to what was then being called ‘Operation Desert Shield.’ The UN Security Council also passed the fateful resolution 678, which gave Saddam Hussein until January 15, 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait and authorized the use of “all necessary means” to force compliance in the event that Iraq refused to cooperate.

In the meantime, the US government ramped up its propaganda campaign against Iraq. The Defense Department claimed it had satellite images of an Iraqi military buildup along the Saudi border. This was a lie. The deposed Kuwaiti government also hired US public relations giant Hill & Knowlton to drum up popular support for the war in the United States. The PR firm’s most blatant fabrication was the tall tale of invading Iraqi troops yanking  Kuwaiti babies from hospital incubators and throwing them to the floor to die. This never happened, yet the story was repeatedly cited by US lawmakers and was instrumental in influencing the Senate vote authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.

There was no stopping the American war juggernaut. With over half a million troops deployed and ready for action, there was no way the Bush administration was going to allow a diplomatic solution. Saddam Hussein didn’t help his own cause, either. His forces dug in in Kuwait, and the oil-rich emirate was declared the 19th province of Iraq.

Coalition warplanes flying over southern Iraq, where Hussein's forces set fire to many oil wells. (Wikipedia)

Coalition warplanes flying over southern Iraq, where Hussein’s forces set fire to many oil wells. (Wikipedia)

The first US airstrikes commenced the day after the UN deadline passed. More than 100,000 aerial sorties would follow. The first targets were Iraq’s air force and anti-aircraft defenses. Iraq’s command and control infrastructure was destroyed next, followed by a merciless pounding of Saddam Hussein’s army. The Iraqis never stood a chance.

By the time the fighting was over at the end of February, tens of thousands of Iraqis and 379 coalition troops were dead. Iraq was in ruins and reeling from a series of horrific American atrocities. A massive popular uprising of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, personally encouraged by President Bush, was betrayed by the United States. Saddam Hussein not only survived, but continued to rule Iraq with an iron fist as hundreds of thousands of his people perished due to a harsh UN sanctions regime. It would be another 12 years before Hussein was toppled, the result of yet another bloody American invasion.

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