The Persian Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm or the First Gulf War, began in 1991 after President Saddam Hussein of Iraq ordered the invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait in early August 1990. Alarmed by these actions, Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt called on the United States and other Western nations to intervene. Hussein defied United Nations Security Council demands to withdraw from Kuwait by mid-January 1991, and Operation Desert Storm began with a massive U.S.-led air offensive. After 42 days of relentless attacks, U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a cease-fire on February 28; by that time, most Iraqi forces in Kuwait had either surrendered or fled.

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Background of the Persian Gulf War

The long-running Iran-Iraq War had ended in a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in August 1988, but by mid-1990 the two nations had yet to begin negotiating a permanent peace treaty.

When their foreign ministers met in Geneva that July, prospects for peace suddenly seemed bright, as it appeared that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was prepared to dissolve that conflict and return territory that his forces had long occupied.

Two weeks later, however, Hussein delivered a speech in which he accused neighboring nation Kuwait of siphoning crude oil from the Ar-Rumaylah oil fields located along their common border. He insisted that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia cancel out $30 billion of Iraq’s foreign debt, and accused them of conspiring to keep oil prices low in an effort to pander to Western oil-buying nations.

Did you know? In justifying his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussein claimed it was an artificial state carved out of the Iraqi coast by Western colonialists; in fact, Kuwait had been internationally recognized as a separate entity before Iraq itself was created by Britain under a League of Nations mandate after World War I.

In addition to Hussein’s incendiary speech, Iraq had begun amassing troops on Kuwait’s border. Alarmed by these actions, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt initiated negotiations between Iraq and Kuwait in an effort to avoid intervention by the United States or other powers from outside the Gulf region.

Hussein broke off the negotiations after only two hours, and on August 2, 1990, ordered the invasion of Kuwait. Hussein’s assumption that his fellow Arab states would stand by in the face of his invasion of Kuwait, and not call in outside help to stop it, proved to be a miscalculation.

Two-thirds of the 21 members of the Arab League condemned Iraq’s act of aggression, and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, along with Kuwait’s government-in-exile, turned to the United States and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for support.

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Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait & Allied Response

U.S. President George H.W. Bush immediately condemned the invasion, as did the governments of Britain and the Soviet Union. On August 3, the United Nations Security Council called for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait; three days later, King Fahd met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to request U.S. military assistance.

On August 8, the day on which the Iraqi government formally annexed Kuwait—Hussein called it Iraq’s “19th province”—the first U.S. Air Force fighter planes began arriving in Saudi Arabia as part of a military buildup dubbed Operation Desert Shield.

The U.S. warplanes were accompanied by troops sent by NATO allies as well as Egypt and several other Arab nations, designed to guard against a possible Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia.

In Kuwait, Iraq increased its occupation forces to some 300,000 troops. In an effort to garner more support from the Muslim world, Hussein declared a jihad, or holy war, against the coalition; he also attempted to ally himself with the Palestinian cause by offering to evacuate Kuwait in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

When these efforts failed, Hussein concluded a hasty peace with Iran so as to bring his army up to full strength.

Gulf War Begins

On November 29, 1990, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary means” of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. By January, the coalition forces prepared to face off against Iraq numbered some 750,000, including 540,000 U.S. personnel and smaller forces from Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among other nations.

Iraq, for its part, had the support of Jordan (another vulnerable neighbor), Algeria, the Sudan, Yemen, Tunisia and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Early on the morning of January 17, 1991, a massive U.S.-led air offensive hit Iraq’s air defenses, moving swiftly on to its communications networks, weapons plants, oil refineries and more. The coalition effort, known as Operation Desert Storm, benefited from the latest military technology, including Stealth bombers, Cruise missiles, so-called “Smart” bombs with laser-guidance systems and infrared night-bombing equipment.

The Iraqi air force was either destroyed early on or opted out of combat under the relentless attack, the objective of which was to win the war in the air and minimize combat on the ground as much as possible.

War on the Ground

By mid-February, the coalition forces had shifted the focus of their air attacks toward Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq. A massive allied ground offensive, Operation Desert Sabre, was launched on February 24, with troops heading from northeastern Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and southern Iraq.

Over the next four days, coalition forces encircled and defeated the Iraqis and liberated Kuwait. At the same time, U.S. forces stormed into Iraq some 120 miles west of Kuwait, attacking Iraq’s armored reserves from the rear. The elite Iraqi Republican Guard mounted a defense south of Al-Basrah in southeastern Iraq, but were defeated by February 27.

Who Won The Persian Gulf War?

With Iraqi resistance nearing collapse, Bush declared a ceasefire on February 28, ending the Persian Gulf War. According to the peace terms that Hussein subsequently accepted, Iraq would recognize Kuwait’s sovereignty and get rid of all its weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons).

In all, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi forces were killed, in comparison with only 300 coalition troops. Though the Gulf War was recognized as a decisive victory for the coalition, Kuwait and Iraq suffered enormous damage, and Saddam Hussein was not forced from power.

Aftermath of the Persian Gulf War

Intended by coalition leaders to be a “limited” war fought at minimum cost, it would have lingering effects for years to come, both in the Persian Gulf region and around the world. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Hussein’s forces brutally suppressed uprisings by Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shi’ites in the south. The United States-led coalition failed to support the uprisings, afraid that the Iraqi state would be dissolved if they succeeded.

In the years that followed, U.S. and British aircraft continued to patrol skies and mandate a no-fly zone over Iraq, while Iraqi authorities made every effort to frustrate the carrying out of the peace terms, especially United Nations weapons inspections.

This resulted in a brief resumption of hostilities in 1998, after which Iraq steadfastly refused to admit weapons inspectors. In addition, Iraqi force regularly exchanged fire with U.S. and British aircraft over the no-fly zone.

Iraq War

In 2002, the United States (now led by President George W. Bush, son of the former president) sponsored a new U.N. resolution calling for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq; U.N. inspectors reentered Iraq that November. Amid differences between Security Council member states over how well Iraq had complied with those inspections, the United States and Britain began amassing forces on Iraq’s border.

Bush—without further U.N. approval—issued an ultimatum on March 17, 2003, demanding that Saddam Hussein step down from power and leave Iraq within 48 hours, under threat of war. Hussein refused, and the second Persian Gulf War, more generally known as the Iraq War, began three days later.

Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces on December 13, 2003, and executed on December 30, 2006, for committing crimes against humanity. The United States would not formally withdraw from Iraq until December 2011.

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The Gulf War, 1991. U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian.
The Gulf War. University of Virginia: Miller Center.
Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Army Center of Military History.