What Was the Gulf War and How Did It Start?

Abi Emilton - Oct. 18, 2023 - 7 min read - #History

Conflict, death and victory. This summarises the Gulf War, and yet it can easily be forgotten by historians and the general public alike. It wasn’t as magnificent as World War Two and wasn’t as disastrously memorable as the War in Vietnam. The fighting lasted technically for only a few months but it has left its mark in history nonetheless. It occurred between 2 August 1990 and ended on 28 February 1991 and involved Iraq versus a 42-nation coalition led by the United States.

The Causes of the War

There were three main causes of the war. It boiled down to money, oil and paranoia.

Iraq was economically devastated after years of fighting in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88.  Iraq had borrowed billions of dollars from other countries to pay for this war, which it lost, and this left it debt-ridden and unable to pay back the money it owed. Kuwait was one of these countries that had loaned Iraq money—$14 billion to be exact— and Iraq couldn’t pay this back. Iraq wanted Kuwait to forgive the debt in the name of Muslim brotherhood but Kuwait refused and this angered Iraq’s leaders.

Kuwait also angered Iraq by having high oil production levels. This made sure that global oil prices remained low and meant that Iraq’s own oil revenues were suffering as a result. Both countries were members of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), and Kuwait wasn’t following their targets and was consistently overproducing. Saddam was also concerned about Kuwait’s alleged slant-drilling of the Rumaila oil fields.

Kuwait did however agree to decrease oil production on 26 July 1990, seven days before the invasion, hoping to address Iraq’s concerns and avoid a confrontation with them.

Iraq’s leaders—namely Saddam Hussein—were paranoid about the Middle East’s future in a post-Cold War world. The Soviet Union by this point was collapsing and it was clear that the United States would be the leader of a unipolar world order. Saddam felt threatened by this as he thought that the U.S. would team up with Israel to dominate the Middle East; these ideas were boosted by Saddam’s own rampant unjustified anti-semitism, which convinced him that Israel was a global puppetmaster hell-bent on war.

The Attack on Kuwait

The invasion began on 2 August 1990 and by 4 August the Kuwaiti military had been defeated and Iraq effectively had full control over the country. The occupation of Kuwait wouldn't end for seven months.

Kuwait’s armed forces had tried to resist but were pushed back and were defeated by the larger and more advanced Iraqi army. The Royal Family of Kuwait left the country and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Resistance movements started popping up almost immediately and civilians were widely involved in these movements; this civilian-based movement made sure that there was widespread popular support for the overthrow of the Iraqi occupiers.

The West’s Response

The international community responded quickly to the unfolding events and on the same day as the invasion the United Nations Security Council introduced Resolution 660 condemning the invasion; the Arab League also condemned the invasion. However, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation supported Iraq.

On 6 August 1990, the Security Council introduced Resolution 661, which imposed economic sanctions on Iraq. This put pressure on Saddam to withdraw but he refused.

Resolution 678 was passed on 29 November 1990, and authorised the use of military force against Iraq unless it withdrew from Kuwait by 15 January 1991. This really increased the stakes for Saddam. 

In the initial few days after the invasion, American officials were ambivalent about reacting to the invasion but after some strong persuasion from Prime Minister Thatcher, President Bush agreed to a strong response. 

In an effort to prevent his opponents from uniting against him, Saddam on 12 August appeared on state TV with western hostages who were used as propaganda material to influence western leaders. This didn’t have the intended effect and made more people opposed to Saddam’s regime.

The reasons for being worried were amplified because of Iraq’s position bordering Saudi Arabia, whose oil fields were threatened by Iraq’s military. Because of compelling fears of a potential invasion of Saudi Arabia, President Bush launched a “wholly defensive” mission called Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia at their request. This approach turned from being defensive to offensive when Iraq declared that Kuwait was its 19th province on 8 August.

Creation of an Anti-Iraq Coalition

A key part of the West’s response was to establish a broad coalition of countries that would be a part of an operation against Iraq. Eventually 42 countries would join this coalition.

American Secretary of State James Baker went on an 11-day trip to gain support for the soon to be Gulf War. 

Some of the key players needed no convincing others needed more incentives.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, when asked by Baker for $15 billion for the military operations, agreed and told him that Kuwait should also pay and they agreed. 

Egypt also agreed to support the invasion, especially after seven billion dollars of debt forgiveness was used to sweeten the deal. 

Syria’s President Hafez Assad (father of Syria’s current president Bashar al-Assad) agreed to give 100,000 troops for the operation. It also helped that Assad had a personal hatred for Saddam as he had tried to assassinate Assad in the past. 

Iran’s support was bought and paid for by the U.S. allowing the World Bank to loan Iran money—in fact the day before the ground invasion of Iraq $250 million was loaned out.

The American Invasion

Operation Desert Storm marked the beginning of America and its allies using their forces to attack Iraq. It began with aerial bombardments on 17 January 1991, which continued for five weeks and then the ground invasion began. 

From the previous year’s August onwards, America had moved hundreds of thousands of troops, weapons and supplies to the region. But, it needed to get international support as well. 

To do this the U.S. used the fact that Kuwait’s national sovereignty had been violated as a key pillar in their argument for military action. Iraq’s human rights abuses were also used against Saddam’s regime to justify the use of force. 

Iraq only had 650,000 soldiers at its disposal while the coalition had 950,000 soldiers. 

The Iraqi military couldn’t effectively defend against all of this military hardware and power put against them and tried to split the opposing coalition forces by attacking Israel. They hoped that this would dissuade the Muslim-majority nations from attacking Iraq if Israel got involved. This did not occur as Israel didn’t respond to these attacks, keeping the coalition united. 

When the ground invasion began on 15 February 1991 the Iraqi forces were quickly pushed back and by the 28th Iraq surrendered ending the war.


The war was a massive victory for the United States and its allies although it wasn’t without sacrifice with around 13,000 casualties, but Iraq suffered much more with 300,000 casualties.

The conflict ended with a free Kuwait and proved that invading another country for territorial gain was not acceptable in the modern era. Although, not everyone agreed with this. The Gulf War’s echoes can still be heard in the failed Iraq war and even in today’s War in Ukraine.