The CIA blew it. Charged with having “eyes-on” every potential global threat to the United States, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces on August 2nd, 1990 came as a total surprise to the U.S. … and the world.
Oil is power. But in this context, the power referred to is not regarding energy. Controlling oil resources is central to any war effort and at times in global history has been the cause of war. This much is true of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Protesters of such conflicts are the first to point this out with the standard slogan of “No Blood for Oil”. Nations across the globe would argue that oil is blood, in a sense, as it is the obvious life sustaining fluid of the modern world, and as a result, must be fought for when threatened. Of course, some nations have fought for such resources not when threatened but as a means for sustaining regional and global ambitions of imposing its will on others.
The first significant conflict in which oil took center stage was World War I. At that time, it was naval forces which relied most heavily on oil for energy while “horseless” army transports and the increased importance of planes in war was still emerging. As WWI appeared on the horizon in 1914, the British already controlled vast oil resources in Persia (which later became Iraq) as their empire spanned large swaths of the Middle East. During the War, they furthered their control of the region along with France. In the postwar years, the U.S. negotiated with Britain (in 1927) for a 25% development share of Middle East oil. Thus began U.S. involvement in the region.
World War II however became the first war in which the control of oil became essential to victory. Destroying Germany’s refineries and oil production capabilities became central to the Allies’ mission, striking petroleum specific targets in nearly 700 aerial bombardment missions during the war.
Hitler’s ambitions required control of Romania’s and later Russia’s vast oil reserves. The German’s infamous operation Barbarossa, which was the code name for the invasion of Russia in 1941, was clearly aimed at the duel goals of “the destruction of Russian manpower” and the control of Russian oil resources.
Control of the Middle East became vitally important during the Cold War conflict between the West and the Soviet Union. Various efforts at controlling the nations of the Middle East resulted in complex and questionable relationships between dictators and democracies. In Iran for instance, England’s and the U.S.’s long standing support of the Shah’s of Iran sometimes brutal rule of that nation from 1941 to 1979 ended with the Islamic revolution which persists today. After the revolution, the U.S. turned to Iraq as an ally in their efforts to contain Soviet influence in the region – including their support of the new leadership of Iran. The Soviet’s were the first nation to officially recognize and support Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979 which was shortly followed by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan – a war waged in part to access Gulf oil resources.
The First Gulf War: Origins
The U.S. involvement in Iraq actually began in 1958 when that nation was formed from the Persian Empire. Iraq’s birth was quickly followed by the well documented effort by the CIA to overthrow the new nation’s pro-Soviet leadership. A congressional committee investigation revealed that though their direct efforts at poisoning a top Iraqi leader failed, CIA officials were pleased that this leader “Suffered a terminal illness before a firing squad in Baghdad.” Despite such minor successes, the Russian sympathetic regime continued as far as the signing of the “the Iraqi–Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Co-Operation” in 1972. But in 1979, then Vice-President Saddam Hussein led a successful coup to take over the nation. Though this did not result in any immediate shifts in alliance, it would eventually lead to a U.S. supported Hussein leadership.
During the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980’s, the U.S. seized on the new relationship with Hussein to protect U.S. oil interests in the region. In 1987, the U.S was supporting Iraqi bombing efforts of Iranian strategic and petroleum targets via U.S. Naval targeting information. Toward the end of the war, both Iran and Iraq were targeting oil tankers in the Gulf with the Iranian Navy actively attacking Kuwaiti oil tankers.
This threat to Kuwaiti oil shipments prompted the United States to take direct action in the Iran-Iraq conflict. The U.S. launched Operation Earnest Will, reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers (meaning, these tankers were re-registered as being U.S. tankers) putting them under the direct protection of the U.S. Navy. The Navy quickly began defending shipments and attacking Iranian mine laying ships and attack boats. Within a years time, the U.S. Navy had crippled Iranian Naval operations.
Shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi’s war debt prompted them to pressure Kuwait into keeping its production agreement regarding the Rumaila oilfield that Iraq and Kuwait shared. It was estimated that Kuwait was pumping over a million barrels more than its agreed quota from the field. Further, Saddam Hussein saw an easy target in Kuwait for replenishing his war coffers with the riches of Kuwaiti royal bank accounts. Additionally, Iraq owed billions of dollars to Kuwait in loans given during the Iran- Iraq War. An invasion would clear those debts.
But despite the warning signs of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the CIA “provided them (the Pentagon) with a message of reassurance in terms of Saddam’s intentions, and we were wrong” stated Robert Gates (who became Director after the War) to a congressional committee in 1992. The U.S had been caught by surprise.
Oil is Control. Oil is Power.
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was without question about oil, and power. The response by the international community, led by the U.S., was without question about oil, and power. This is merely a statement of fact, not of disapproval. Though publicly President H.W. Bush spoke of defending a free people (Kuwait) from an oppressive conqueror (Iraq) in the terms of good versus evil, he was clear on the importance of oil in the conflict:
“An Iraq permitted to swallow Kuwait would have the economic and military power as well as the arrogance to intimidate and coerce its neighbors - neighbors who control the lion’s share of the world’s remaining oil reserves. We cannot permit a resource so vital to be dominated by one so ruthless and we won’t.”
Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker further related Bush’s sentiments of the importance of the economics of a war with Iraq: “I went to him and I said, “Mr. President, “You know that this has all the ingredients that have brought down a couple of former presidents. It’s got $50 oil, body bags,” and he said, “I know that, Jimmy, but we’re going to do what’s right. This is clearly in the national interest, and whatever happens, so be it.””
And indeed, the economics of the situation was important. Oil prices spiked 11.6% the day of Iraq’s invasion on August 2nd, 1990 and climbed by over 50% within two months (from $19.93 on August 1st to $41.45 on September 27th.)
But it is unfair to couch the war in the simple perspective of the vital importance of oil as an economic or strategic issue. Indeed, the brutal invasion of Kuwait posed a threat to other American allies in the region – most notably Saudi Arabia. Evidence suggests that the Iraqi’s may have been fully prepared to continue its aggression by invading the Kingdom of Saud shortly after their easy victory in Kuwait.
The Origins of a Monster
There was no love between the nations as the Saudi’s ties with Iraq had always been strained, especially since Hussein was effectively a “TV Muslim” – praying only when the cameras were on. He hated the Muslim agenda seeing extremism as a threat to his rule. In fact, the seeds of the current conflict between Muslim fundamentalism, the U.S., and Arab nations like Saudi Arabia began with the Persian Gulf War –now more well known as the First Gulf War. A little known Saudi radical Muslim leader who had gained prominence with fundamentalists in fighting the Russians in Afghanistan was none too pleased that his home nation was turning to the United State to fight Saddam. As the Saudi’s geared up for war, this leader, Osama Bin Laden, vocally opposed allowing “Christian” armies to occupy the holy land to fight Arabs. Bin Laden’s hatred of anything non-Muslim, including Hussein, prompted him to actively press the Saudi leadership to allow him to lead the Saudi army against Iraq. His complaints did not fall on deaf ears. The Saudi’s banished him (booted him out of the country) in 1992. It was the United States’ presence in the Holy Land that moved Bin Laden’s anti-American agenda forward.
On November 29, 1990, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary means” of force to remove the forces of Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15th of 1991. Iraq boasted the 6th largest army in the world and showed a willingness to use its chemical weapons arsenal in past conflicts. It was later revealed that some ground rules were set prior to the U.S. intervention. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker presented a letter to his Iraqi counterpart from President H.W. Bush to deliver to Saddam. In it, the President stated that if Iraq used its chemical weapons arsenal in battle, “the American people will demand vengeance and we have the means to exact it. . . . It is a promise.” The implication was that America’s nuclear arsenal was waiting if needed. Iraq did not use its chemical weapons during the war.
But another weapon was launched by the Iraqis that had been unanticipated. As early as January 1991, Iraq began destroying Kuwaiti oil pumps and setting fields of oil on fire in an attempt to both obscure U.S. reconnaissance and to send a message to the world. Iraq was still in control of Kuwait, and they would do with it what they pleased.
With U.S. forces in place by late 1990 along with a coalition of some 34 nations from around the globe, the January 15th deadline came, and passed. Operation Desert Storm began on the 17th as a massive aerial bombing campaign aimed at gaining air superiority, destroying military and civilian infrastructure, and generally crippling the Iraqi army’s ability to move unencumbered. The bombing lasted 42 days with over 100,000 sorties flown of which only 44 coalition aircraft were lost due to Iraqi action. Some 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped during the unrelenting attack.
Iraq made a weak effort at attacking on the ground first, initiating the Battle of Khafji on the 29th of January just inside the Saudi border. U.S. and Saudi forces routed the invaders in short time. But it wasn’t until February 24th that the ground war began in earnest. The 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, and the 1st Light Armored Infantry Battalion attacked into Kuwait yet encountered poorly defended positions. Several small battles took place leading to a route of the defenders. Arab coalition forces came into Kuwait from the east and began to push Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
The battle for Kuwait itself was marked by relatively swift victory. But the most significant battles would be waged inside Iraq during a brilliant hammer and anvil action largely designed by American General Norman Schwarzkopf. As military planners sought strategic solutions to the invasion of Kuwait, it was widely held by analysts of the CIA, Arab experts, and the Iraqi military, that no military force on the planet would be capable of attacking through the desert wasteland of Iraq itself as the soft sands would make tank and heavy equipment maneuvering impossible. The U.S. Army decided otherwise.
The U.S. VII Corps, led by the 2nd Armored Cavalry, flew into the desert and launched a devastating attack on Iraq’s most seasoned units. At the same time, the U.S. XVIII Corps led by the famed 3rd Armored Cavalry swept further into Iraq’s western desert to perform a “left hook hammer” of the hammer and anvil move. After diving deep into the desert, they turned east and closed on Iraq’s most lethal force, the Republican Guard.
On the edge of a sandstorm on the 26th in what is now known as the last great tank battle of the 20th Century, U.S. tanks of the 2nd Armored Cavalry engaged Iraq’s deadly Tawakalna Tank Division along the map coordinate line of 73 Easting. A small force of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles spearheaded by “Eagle Troop” of the 2nd Armored ran full force into the Iraqi division and laid waste to it. (See story opposite page).
Moats of Fire
Back in Kuwait, Iraq forces were clogging the only highway to Iraq in full retreat after setting as many of the remaining oil resources on fire. By the time they fled, over 600 wells were on fire. “Moats of fire” burning millions of gallons of oil could be seen from space. Night turned to day as Iraqi troops hoped to both distract their attackers and provide cover for their retreat. Their main path of flight was the only highway leading from Kuwait to Iraq. Later referred to as the “Highway of Death” by the media, U.S. air forces pummelled the highway destroying every vehicle in sight for miles. However, relatively few Iraqis were killed as they fled into the desert as the destruction began. Regardless, the images of a highway full of burning vehicles gave the impression that U.S. forces were now simply beating up an inferior force.
With the near total destruction of the Iraqi army, President Bush called for a cease-fire on February 28. During the war (in which the ground war lasted only 100 hours) some 10,000 Iraqi troops were killed while the coalition counted 300 dead. The U.N. had authorized force to eject Saddam from Kuwait, not overthrow him. Despite criticism from some that the U.S. left a task unfinished, the objectives of the war had been attained. The next problem however, was how to put an end to the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in history, the burning of Kuwait’s oilfields. (See article, "Slaying Dragons" page 40).