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Iraq: Invasion Of Kuwait 12 Years Ago Ignited Continuing Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Twelve years ago tomorrow, Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. The attack set off a crisis that, despite Iraqi troops being forced out six months later, continues to this day. As RFE/RL reports, the invasion of Kuwait convinced Washington that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a threat to both the region and to the West -- and that this threat only grows greater with time.

Prague, 1 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just before dawn on 2 August 1990, an army of some 100,000 Iraqi troops supported by tanks stormed into Kuwait and seized the country in just five hours.

The capture of the oil-rich emirate was immediately proclaimed by Baghdad as "The Revolution of 2 August" and as Kuwait's rightful return to Iraqi sovereignty. Amid scattered resistance by the Kuwaiti Army, Iraqi troops encircled the capital of Kuwait City and abducted several members of the ruling Sabah family. The rest of the 1,000-member royal family fled, with the emir speeding across the Saudi border in a limousine minutes before Iraqi troops reached his palace.

But if the Iraqi state press presented the seizure of Kuwait as a revolutionary eviction of a royal family that had been illegally occupying Iraqi land, the rest of the world saw the events as simple aggression by a large state against a small one. The international community rejected Baghdad's argument that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq and demanded that the Iraqi Army withdraw immediately.

Baghdad refused, even after being slapped with United Nations economic sanctions, and instead formally annexed the oil-rich emirate as one of its provinces. At the same time, Iraqi security forces cracked down on anything that looked like Kuwaiti resistance, arresting thousands of people and interrogating many under torture.

The occupation ended some six months later, when a U.S.-led international coalition drove Iraqi troops back across the border. The coalition included Western states and many of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Persian Gulf states.

The start of the coalition's military operation was announced on 17 January by then-U.S. President George Bush in a televised announcement to the American people. "Just two hours ago, allied air forces began attacking military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged. This conflict started 2 August when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor. Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed, its people brutalized. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight, the battle has been joined," Bush said.

But if the Gulf War was successful in driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the international crisis that Baghdad's occupation of the emirate sparked remains unresolved. The occupation convinced Washington that Saddam is a menace to both the region and to the West. Twelve years later, many U.S. officials believe this threat still exists and is growing greater.

Today, the threat from Iraq is seen not as territorial ambitions but in terms of Western accusations that Baghdad is developing weapons of mass destruction. Attempts by the international community to force Iraq through more than a decade of UN sanctions to give up its reported weapons programs are seen largely to have failed. Iraq denies it is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

Under UN resolutions, the sanctions regime can be lifted only after arms monitors confirm Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten its neighbors. But for the past 3 1/2 years, Baghdad has refused to let these monitors return to the country. The inspectors left Iraq in late 1998, shortly before U.S. and British air strikes designed to punish Baghdad for not fully cooperating on the inspections.

Washington says it is particularly concerned that Iraq could one day furnish weapons of mass destruction to international terrorist groups to attack Western targets. U.S. President George W. Bush has said that, "it's the stated policy of [the U.S.] government to have a regime change" in Baghdad, and there have been widespread media reports on purported U.S. military plans to topple Saddam. U.S. officials, however, have said no attack is imminent and that "all options," including political ones, remain under consideration.

Analysts say the Bush administration is convinced the Iraq crisis can only be ended with Saddam's removal from power, and that this should be done sooner rather than later.

Charles Duelfer was the deputy chairman of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq from 1993 to 2000 and now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He put the U.S. administration's view this way in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service. "The president [Bush], I believe, we should take him at his word that he is committed [to the belief] that the growing threat posed by this government in Baghdad, in combination with the increasing leverage that it will have, not just with weapons of mass destruction but also with 4 [million] or 5 million barrels of oil a day and the continued oppression, in essence, of the Iraqi people, is not acceptable," Duelfer said, adding: "What we have seen over the past 10 years is that just simply trying to contain this regime is not working, and in the long run the regime will acquire more leverage. A key way of encapsulating that threat and that problem is by saying: 'Look, he may have biological agents now. He may have chemical agents now. He does not yet have nuclear weapons. But when he does get a nuclear capability, everything will change.'"

The U.S. is now seeking regional support for what many observers believe could be a second round of the 1991 Gulf War. In recent months, top U.S. officials have toured the region in what is seen as an effort to press the administration's case for a regime change in Iraq and to explore the use of bases in various countries for U.S. military operations.

As Kuwait marks the 12th anniversary of the invasion this week, officials there have moved repeatedly to quell rumors that the emirate could be a staging area for a U.S.-led attack. Local rumors have included reports that both Iraq and the United States are massing troops along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border for an imminent confrontation.

Kuwait's acting Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad said earlier this week that, "there are no suspicious or banned massing of Iraqi troops on the border," and that, "there is no abnormal massing of [U.S.] troops or exaggerated deployments." He also said the U.S. has not asked to boost its military presence in Kuwait.

Iraq's neighboring states, including Kuwait, have said publicly that they do not favor a new military campaign against Baghdad and have called for Iraq to readmit arms inspectors to solve the crisis peacefully.

Several European leaders also have expressed reservations about any new war against Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said this week that an attack would be justified only if a mandate for it is approved by the UN Security Council.

But Chirac also warned Saddam that time could be running out if he continues to refuse to accept the readmission of UN weapons inspectors. "I think [Saddam] would do well to understand how necessary it is for his country to quickly agree with the secretary-general of the United Nations," Chirac said.

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