Reagan and George H.W. Bush Years: 1980–1992

Persian Gulf War

Causes and Effects of the Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War began when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the United States led an international military intervention in the Middle East.

The Persian Gulf War was a brief international conflict in the Middle East. It was set off by Iraq's invasion of its small but oil-rich neighbor Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Saddam Hussein was Iraq's notoriously brutal and ambitious leader who had been president since 1979 when he forced the previous leader, Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr, out of office.

Although the United States had kept a watchful eye on Saddam's ruthless regime, America was more concerned with Iran as a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Anxious that Iran might invade other countries in the region, the United States decided through most of the 1980s to support Saddam as Iraq and Iran waged war. America provided Saddam's military with economic aid, munitions, and intelligence until Iran agreed to a cease-fire in 1988.

Saddam had several reasons for invading Kuwait. Iraq was cash-poor and deep in debt to other nations, including Kuwait, after its eight-year war with Iran. By occupying Kuwait, Iraq would cancel its war debt, increase its holdings of oil fields, and gain wider control of the Gulf region. In beginning this conflict Saddam vowed willingness to wage "the mother of all battles" against military and civilian targets alike. He falsely assumed that this ferocity and his stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would keep the international community from taking action against him.

On August 3, 1990, the United Nations Security Council officially condemned Iraq for its occupation of Kuwait. It called for an immediate withdrawal and placed an embargo on all international trade with Iraq. Undeterred by the United Nation's resolutions, Saddam formally annexed Kuwait on August 8. This action put the international community on alert. Saddam was threatening a source of the world's oil supply and was perched at the border of another major oil producer, Saudi Arabia. The United Nations issued an ultimatum: withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, or face an international military intervention.

For the next four months, thousands of international troops were deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of a military buildup called Operation Desert Storm. On January 16–17, 1991, coalition forces led by the United States launched a powerful air campaign against Iraq. A month of air strikes wiped out Iraq's air defenses, as well as its communication centers, weapons plants, and government facilities. On February 24, coalition ground attacks destroyed what was left of Iraq's military defenses and recaptured Kuwait. Four days later, Iraq surrendered and withdrew from Kuwait. On February 28, 1991, President Bush declared the war was over.

Kurdish and Shiite Uprisings

The Iraqi surrender emboldened two of the country's two ethnic groups—the Kurds and the Shiites. Kurds are a mainly rural, agricultural people who live in northern Iraq. Shiites are Muslims of the Shia branch of Islam. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shiites lived chiefly in the South. Hoping to take advantage of Saddam's defeat and gain independence, both groups began revolts against the regime. Retaliation was swift and ruthless. Although Shiites captured the southern cities of Basra, Karbala, and Nasiriya, and Kurdish troops took the strategic northern city of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Army soon attacked with heavily armed helicopters and recaptured the areas.

The rebels asked for assistance from the Allied forces in southern Iraq, but the Allies refused the request. Without help, neither group of rebels could withstand Saddam's superior military might. Soon crowds of Shiite and Kurdish refugees began treks to the Iranian and Turkish borders. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites died during Saddam's retaliation for the uprisings.

For long after the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein would remain in power and continue to stir up trouble in the Middle East. As part of the cease-fire agreement, Iraq was prohibited from making or possessing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, but Saddam refused to cooperate with international weapons inspectors.
Operation Desert Storm opened with a series of air strikes on Iraqi military forces, installations, and equipment, as well as communications facilities. Most of Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed, including power plants, water and sewage facilities, ports, bridges, railroads, and oil refineries.
Credit: Staff Sgt. Dean Wagner/Department of Defense