Why DID Iraq Invade Kuwait?  -- A Brief History

By G. Simon Harak, S. J.

Of course it is impossible to undertake a full history of the Middle East, and of U.S. involvement there.  So let me present a brief historical sketch which I believe will help our understanding of the Gulf War.[1] 
 
1. Nationalism in the modern sense was largely unknown to the Arab world until the middle twentieth century.  The maneuvering of powerful families and the interests of colonial powers often defined spheres of influence.  To focus on the area of modern Kuwait, Britain had an agreement from 1899 with the ruling al-Sabah family that they would not cede or sell any territory without British consent.  The al-Sabah family, always growing richer, kept trying to play British colonial interests off against the Ottomans, the Saud family to the west, and the provinces of Basra and Baghdad.  It had been traditional in the Arab understanding to consider that the territory from Baghdad south to the Gulf (including what is now Kuwait) was "Iraq."  The al-Sabah family (of modern Kuwait) wanted to "carve out" from that territory a fiefdom for themselves and their economic activities, free from any outside power -- Arab or colonialist. 
 
2. After WWI, the secret Sikes-Picot agreement divided up the Arab world into "spheres of influence" between England and France.  The Arab populaces, recently "liberated" from the domination of the Ottoman Empire by those powers, felt betrayed by this action when they learned of it.  It still rankles today.  The agreement was given official status by the League of Nations when the provinces of Basra and Baghdad became a British "mandate" (read: colony).  Thus in 1922, Sir Percy Cox, Britain's steward in the Gulf, arbitrarily and unilaterally decided to "draw a line in the sand," creating modern Iraq.  He made Iraq to include the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, but also included the Kurds to the north (abrogating the 1920 Ottoman-Allies Treaty of Sevres which promised the Kurds independence[2]).  The same move "created" Saudi Arabia, and the country of Kuwait.  The arrangement favored the free status of the al-Sabah family and deprived Iraq of easy access to the Gulf (the Shatt-al-Arab waterway was shared with Iran), ignoring the traditional understanding of Iraq's extension to the Gulf.
 
3. Achieving "de jure" independence from England (it was now a British protectorate) in 1932, Iraq tried, in the late 1930s, to "restore" Kuwait to Baghdad.  In 1938, the Kuwaiti parliament agreed, voting to reunite with Iraq.  The al-Sabah family immediately dissolved the parliament.
 
4. A sense of Arab nationalism began to grow in the post-WWII decade, evidenced by the nationalist revolution in Iraq in 1958.  In 1961, Kuwait became formally independent from England, and the popular Abd al-Karim Qassim renewed Iraq's traditional claim to Kuwait.  The British immediately sent its troops to the region and enlisted the help of the Arab League.  After Qassim's overthrow and death, Iraq ended its boycott of the Arab League and formally recognized Kuwaiti independence in 1963.
 
5. But the United States was by then replacing Britain as the outside power acting in the Gulf area.  The US power was at its peak after WWII, and it wanted to protect its oil assets.  Its overall strategy was the same as England's and France's:  keep the political families' sheikdoms, emirates and kingdoms just strong enough to fight with each other, but not strong enough to destabilize the region, or to have any one of them become a unifying force for all Arabs.  That way the US could keep overall control of the oil in the area.  A problem arose in that strategy when, for example, Iran (which is a Persian, not an Arab country) nationalized its oil companies in 1951.  The US-CIA response was to overthrow the elected government of Muhammad Mossadeq, and to replace it with a dictatorship by the Shah.[3]
 
6. After the 1967 war, the Arab countries again saw themselves betrayed by US-Israeli interests.  One result was the rise of militant nationalism in such places as Syria and Iraq.  By 1969 the Ba'ath party had risen to power in Iraq.  As Iraq became more powerful with its oil revenues, one US-CIA strategy was to arm the Kurds in northern Iraq, to keep Iraq internally weak enough so as to be unable to challenge Iran.

All that changed, of course, when the Shi'a Muslims overthrew the American-supported Shah in 1979.  The US now needed a strong Iraq to oppose the newly inimical Iranians, and so (along with much of the West) supported Saddam Hussein in his eight-year (1980-88) war against Iran. The US therefore ignored Iraq's brutalities.  One week before the invasion of Kuwait, the Congress sought to place trade restrictions on Iraq for its human rights violations, but Bush refused to go along with it.

7. During the Iran-Iraq war, the al-Sabah family gave some $17 billion to Iraq.  It saw the Iranian Shi'a revolution as a threat to itself, and so financed a long-standing Arab-Persian (Iranian) conflict.  But it also had established farms and settlements over the Iraqi border.  Most important, the al-Sabah family was also drilling in the Rumailah oil field.  The Rumailah oil field is 95 percent in Iraq, but the al-Sabah family brought in the most sophisticated American oil-drilling technology to "slant drill" in its 5 percent of Rumailah while the Iraqis were unable to drill during the war (some of my Arabist friends were fairly sure there was an agreement about this:  oil for financial backing).  It sold that oil, at below OPEC prices, to Japan and the US (Kuwait has always played this role:  increasing its sale of oil to the importers in times of crisis).  The al-Sabah family by now was unimaginably rich, with an estimated wealth of some 90 billion dollars.  They had invested about 50 billion dollars in the stocks of US companies.
 
8.  After the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein was increasingly isolated, politically and economically.  He was some 60 billion dollars in debt from the war, and the West had cut off his credits after he had a British reporter executed as a spy.  The West was also concerned that its overall strategy would be upset (see par. #5 above), since Iraq now had an army second in power only to Israel in the Middle East.
 
9. Meanwhile, the al-Sabah family continued to slant-drill, and to sell to the West at below OPEC prices, despite Hussein's actions in the Arab League and protests to OPEC.  It continued to deny him access to the Gulf.  By now, Hussein was requesting the use of the unpopulated Bubiyan and Warba islands, to avoid having to use Basra on the Shatt-al-Arab, since he shared that waterway to the Gulf with Iran.  Finally, the al-Sabah family declared that the $17 billion it had given Hussein was not a gift (or an exchange for the Rumailah oil, see par. #7), but a loan which must be repaid.[4] 
 
10.  Hussein therefore began to think about using his armed forces to insist upon resolution of the border and monetary disputes.  He threatened to do so about a year before the August 2nd invasion at OPEC and Arab League meetings; hence the now famous meetings with Robert Dole and other US senators[5] in April, 1990 and April Glaspie in July, 1990. 

At that July meeting, less than a month before the invasion of Kuwait, Hussein complained that the borders of Kuwait and Iraq were drawn in colonial times, by colonial powers.  Glaspie replied, “"We studied history at school. They taught us to say freedom or death. I think you know well that we... have our experience with the colonialists. We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."[6]

Hussein then began to mass troops along the border of Kuwait.  The Arabs were concerned, and arranged for a conference at Jidda on July 31st, 1990.[7]  According to Jordan's King Hussein, there was a pre-conference, closed door meeting at which the Al-Saud and al-Sabah families agreed to Hussein's terms (in addition to forgiving the debt, they were each to give $10 billion toward the Iraqi war debt).  That agreement was then to be "arrived at" in Jidda. But on July 30th, Sheikh Sabeh Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, the brother of the Emir, and foreign minister, was speaking to Jordanian diplomats.  He ridiculed the Iraqi forces, and when the Jordanians rebuked him, he said, "If they don't like it, let them occupy our territory ... we are going to bring in the Americans."  Again, this was three days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.  At Jidda the next day, he announced to Izzat Ibrahim his intention to offer Saddam Hussein $500,000 (not the $10 billion agreed upon).  The meeting broke up after two hours; two days later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
 

NOTES


[1] This history is drawn mostly from an article by the editors of the Middle East Report, Suite 119, 1500 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., "Behind the Gulf Crisis: A History of Conflict," in Crisis in the Gulf (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Policy Studies, 1990).
 
[2] For a more complete history of the Kurds, see Rachelle Marshall, "The Kurds' Suffering is Rooted in Past Betrayals," The Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, May/June, 1991, Vol. X, No. 1., pp. 8ff.
[3] It is interesting to note that the Schwarzkopf family was already established in the Iran by the time of the coup, since the President of the US had sent Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. to Iran to train Iran's police force.  The New York Times, January 1, 1991, p. A10.  Joe Stork and Martha Wenger report that eventually, the US had some 50,000 advisers in Iran, to help expand and train the Shah's secret police.  Middle East Report, Jan./Feb. 1991, No. 168, Vol. 1 #1, p. 22.
[4] Walid Khalidi lists seven such areas of contention between Iraq and Kuwait in "Iraq vs. Kuwait:  Claims and Counterclaims," in The Gulf War Reader:  History, Documents, Opinions ed. by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (New York and Toronto: Random House, 1991), pp. 57-65.  This volume is an excellent compilation of sources.
[5] Also present were Alan Simpson, Howard Metzenbaum, James McClure, and Frank Murkowski, together with US Ambassador April Glaspie.
[6] Robert Fisk, “Saddam Hussein: The Last Great Tyrant,” The Independent, December 30, 2000.  www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/2000/1230sadm.htm This entire article is instructive.
 
[7] The following comes from an exclusive interview with Jordan's King Hussein, in The Village Voice, March 5, 1991.


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