KUWAIT AND THE GUNS OF AUGUST
IRAQ DISPLAYS ITS AWESOME POWER
For days, Iraq had been massing troops and armor along its border with Kuwait. The buildup was ominously large, reportedly reaching 100,000 men. But initially, at least, it seemed not particularly worrisome: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, notorious for bullying his Persian Gulf neighbors, had used similar tactics less than two weeks before to coerce higher oil prices out of the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Geneva. Again, he was trying to intimidate tiny Kuwait in an apparent bid to gain further concessions in a long-standing money and land dispute. But, at 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, the Iraqis stormed across the frontier and, within nine hours, had occupied the oil-rich emirate, killed the brother of its ruler and sent the emir himself and members of his cabinet fleeing into exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Estimates of Kuwaiti casualties ranged from 600 to 800.
The world reacted with shock and outrage to the action. The Soviet Union, Iraq’s principal arms supplier, suspended military shipments to
the Arab country, and most Western governments, including Canada, joined the United States with some form of economic reprisal. President George Bush banned imports from Iraq and froze its assets in the United States. He also ordered two naval carrier groups, led by the Independence in the Indian Ocean and the Eisenhower in the eastern Mediterranean, to take up positions closer to the Gulf. But the President did not immediately agree to Kuwaiti requests for military assistance, and he appeared to rule out direct intervention.
In Aspen, Colo., where he had been meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bush said, “I am not contemplating [military] action.”
Later, the President said that he would intervene
only if Iraq threatened Saudi Arabia. “I would be inclined to help in any way we possibly can,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the energy requirements of the world and the direct violation of international law by Saddam Hussein to understand why I feel so strongly about it.” But Bush also referred to America’s duty to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens—a commitment underscored by reports, later denied in Washington, that Iraqi troops had captured 20 Americans from an oil tanker docked in Kuwait. After Bush met on Saturday with his top national security advisers at Camp David, Md., White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called for the unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops and maintained that “all U.S. options” were under consideration.
Pressure: At the Pentagon, some senior officials said privately that they were angered by Bush’s refusal to entertain the military option on behalf of Kuwait. One told Maclean ’s that the naval carrier movements “were designed to make Iraq feel threatened and uncertain. But the President seems to have undercut that idea.” However, Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert on the staff of Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, said that international economic sanctions could prove to be “much more effective” in dealing with Iraq, whose eight-year war with Iran left it with an estimated debt of $70 billion I to $90 billion. “If we can shut x off [Iraq’s] access to banks, to
'THEIR HONOR IS BEING VIOLATED AND THEIR BLOOD IS BEING
loans and the rescheduling of loans,” Cordesman said, “we can put tremendous pressure on what is, to all intents and purposes, the equivalent of Nazi Germany.”
At week’s end, Hussein said that he would meet with the ousted emir, Sheik Jaber alAhmed al-Sabah, at a conciliatory summit in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. But the emir said he would not meet until Iraqi troops left Kuwait. And the talks were cancelled outright amid reports that the Iraqis had taken up new positions in a neutral area along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border, although Iraqi officials denied that they intended to extend their attack into Saudi Arabia. Baghdad's Revolutionary Command Council had earlier announced that Iraqi troops would begin leaving the emirate quickly “unless factors appear that could threaten the security of Kuwait and Iraq.” The troops’ departure appeared increasingly unlikely as tension remained high in the Gulf area.
In Washington, Congress called for a worldwide embargo on Iraqi oil. Meanwhile, the Senate voted to continue production of the B-2 Stealth bomber, which the House of Representatives had wanted to halt, and to stop three old battleships from being taken out of service. Senators cited the Iraqi invasion as a reason for not trimming defence spending too heavily. “I don’t have to make the case for battleships,” said McCain. “Saddam Hussein has made the case for the battleships.”
Explosions: In Kuwait, there was hardly any warning of Iraq’s predawn invasion. Two hours after Iraq’s ambassador walked out of talks between the two countries in Saudi Arabia, charging that Kuwait was being unco-operative, Iraqi tanks rumbled across the border. Some Kuwaiti outposts managed to radio the capital before they were overrun, but the emirate’s 20,000-man army, outnumbered 5 to 1 by the invaders, was no match for Iraq’s battle-tested military machine. Witnesses said that the Iraqis encountered only scattered pockets of resistance as they fanned out through Kuwait's oilfields and raced towards its capital, only 130 km from the frontier. By daybreak, the Iraqi troops were on the outskirts of Kuwait City, whose residents awoke to the sound of explosions and automatic weapons fire.
Some of the fiercest fighting occurred around Dasman Palace, the seaside residence of the emir. It was there that his younger brother, Sheik Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, head of Kuwait’s Olympic committee, died leading the defence of the palace grounds. As the morning’s fighting continued, Kuwait Radio broadcast increasingly desperate appeals to its citizens and other Arab nations to repel the invaders. Said one emotional announcer: “The people of Kuwait, their honor, is being violated and their blood is being shed. Hurry to their
aid, you Arabs.” But the Arab nations, all fearful of Hussein’s power and domination in the region, remained largely silent. Only Syria, a longtime foe of Iraq, quickly condemned the invasion and requested an immediate Arab League summit.
By midday, the Iraqi forces were clearly in control. Two Iraqi MiGs streaked over Kuwait City and loud explosions were heard. According to one witness, the palace was “crawling with Iraqi tanks.” Iraqi troops also occupied the international airport, the central bank and most other key government buildings. Waving Iraqi flags, jubilant soldiers raced around the city in cars commandeered from frightened civilians, while Iraqi helicopters hovered overhead.
Songs: There were also reports that some oil workers, including at least one Canadian and a Briton, were missing, but American officials said that all U.S. citizens were accounted for. About 3,000 Americans and 400 Canadians are registered with their embassies in Kuwait.
In Baghdad, radio and television broadcast patriotic songs and a mood of celebration swept the capital. A government announcement
claimed that Iraq had invaded only to assist “Kuwaiti patriots” who had overthrown the royal family. But the U.S. state department derided that explanation as a “patent fraud.” At an emergency session of the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering pointed out that “instead of staging their coup d’état and installing their so-called provisional government before the invasion, they got it the wrong way around. They invaded Kuwait and then staged the coup in a blatant and deceitful effort to try to justify their action.”
In Washington, several politicians made fa-
miliar charges of an intelligence breakdown. They noted that the Pentagon, which had been monitoring Iraq’s military buildup separately from the CIA, had not predicted the invasion. The CIA claimed that it had, maintaining that it had briefed Bush to that effect before he left for Colorado. But the fact that both the President and his secretary of state were out of town when the invasion began (James Baker was fishing in Siberia with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze) suggested that the warning was not taken seriously if, in fact, it had been given at all. Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington, Sheik Saud Nasir al-Sabah, also disclosed that he had received repeated U.S. assurances that no invasion was imminent.
Within hours of the Iraqi attack, the Kuwaiti ambassador formally requested American help, declaring, “We need military assistance to survive.” As Washington hesitated, Iraq warned that it would turn Kuwait into a “graveyard” if any foreign power intervened. And its puppet government in Kuwait announced that
it would confiscate the royal family’s assets, some of which it said were deposited with “suspect partners” abroad. Its communiqué warned foreign banks not to “tamper” with Kuwaiti funds. The United States, Canada and several other Western countries froze all Kuwaiti assets to prevent their seizure.
Meeting in Cairo on Friday, the Arab League condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate Iraqi withdrawal. But seven of the 21 members abstained from the denunciation. Even Jordan, closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, clearly did not want to offend the
aggressive Hussein. Instead, the country’s King Hussein flew to Baghdad to urge the Iraqi ruler to meet the emir.
Despite its costly war with Iran—or perhaps because of it—Iraq is now the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf. Its combathardened army, about one million strong, outnumbers Kuwait’s tiny self-defence force by 50 to 1 and dwarfs the combined armies of the sixnation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Iraq can deploy 5,500 main battle tanks, 450 artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers, 510 combat aircraft, 160 armed helicopters, five frigates and 36 Soviet-designed SCUD missiles. It also manufactures chemical weapons, which it used with telling effect against Iran and against its own Kurdish minority.
The Gulf states, linked by a mutual defence treaty that has never been tested by war, can field only 164,850 troops among them. They lag far behind Iraq in armor and, more vital to their defence, aircraft. Saudi Arabia, the dominant partner, accounts for roughly half of the GCC’s weaponry, but it has not been able to integrate its forces with alliance members because equipment is not standardized.
Arsenal: Military experts generally agree that air power is the deciding factor in any Gulf confrontation, which makes the GCC still heavily dependent on the protection of its Western allies, primarily the United States. “Air power is the key in a situation like this,” said one Pentagon official. “[Libyan strongman Moammar] Gadhafi found out that you cannot hide from the long arm of air power.” He was referring to the April, 1986, air raid on Libya conducted by U.S. navy jets from carriers in the Mediterranean and air force jets stationed in Britain. But, last week, Washington advised its NATO allies that it would not resort to military action unless Iraq attacks other countries in the Gulf region.
Should the United States resort to air pow-
er, the Independence carries a powerful arsenal, with a crew of more than 5,000 and 80 warplanes on board. Although the Pentagon declined to comment on the ship's movements, officials said privately that the carrier was unlikely to enter the Gulf, where it would be less manoeuvrable, because it is capable of delivering a long-range strike from the Arabian Sea. Indeed, any carrier in the eastern Mediterranean is also within striking range of Iraq.
Besides the carriers and their escorts, the U.S. Middle East Force has a cruiser, a destroyer, five frigates and a command ship
already in the Persian Gulf. Thousands of U.S. troops would also be quickly available in tactical divisions formed to respond to emergency conflicts in far-flung trouble spots. But most military analysts said that the United States would probably confine itself to aerial intervention—and then only to defend Saudi Arabia. Said Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies: “We would be outgunned and outclassed on the ground.”
Threat: The West was reluctant to confront Saddam Hussein long before the Iran-Iraq war, when he was one of the Soviet Union’s principal allies in the Middle East. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, most Western governments chose to support Baghdad, as did the conservative Arab rulers in the Gulf states. The consensus was that a victory by Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic revolutionaries would pose an even greater threat than Iraq’s.
During its war with Iran, Iraq frequently overstepped what its allies regarded as the bounds of decency—without incurring any serious reprisals. In May, 1987, an Iraqi plane fired an Exocet missile at the U.S. frigate Stark, killing 37 American sailors. Hussein apologized, and Washington accepted his explanation that it was a “mistake.” In March, 1988, the Iraqi armed forces killed hundreds of Kurdish civilians with poison gas, the use of which is banned by a 1925 Geneva protocol. There was a worldwide outcry, but both the United States and Britain decided not to impose sanctions.
Last spring, British and American authorities confiscated a shipment of what they said were nuclear triggers that Iraq had tried to smuggle through London's Heathrow airport. British officials also seized components of what they called a giant “doomsday gun,” which some reports linked to Gerald Bull, a shadowy Canadian-born ballistics scientist. Just weeks earlier, Bull had been mysteriously murdered outside his Brussels apartment.
Even when Hussein first sent troops to the Kuwaiti border, before last month’s OPEC meeting, the U.S. response was remarkably mild. Washington sent two aerial tankers from West Germany to the United Arab Emirates, where they participated in refuelling exercises with the UAE’s French-built Mirage jets. A Pentagon spokesman said that the exercises, intended to send “a pointed message” to Hussein, were still under way when he invaded Kuwait.
As Iraqi tanks ringed the emir’s palace, American officials were still talking about sending another message to Iraq: an aerial exercise in Saudi Arabia. But many analysts said that that would not affect Hussein’s actions. “The message now is that bullies win,” said Middle East expert Hunter. “Our answer should be to draw a line in the sand, and, if he steps over it, then paste him with long-range air power.” But it remained unclear whether even a superpower wanted to be the first to kick sand in Hussein’s face.
HOLGER JENSEN with HILARY MACKENZIE I and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and
I correspondents’ reports