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Summary Article: Gulf War
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

War 16 January–28 February 1991 between Iraq and a coalition of 28 nations led by the USA. The invasion and annexation of Kuwait by Iraq on 2 August 1990 provoked a build-up of US troops in Saudi Arabia, eventually totalling over 500,000. The UK subsequently deployed 42,000 troops, France 15,000, Egypt 20,000, and other nations smaller contingents.

An air offensive lasting six weeks, in which ‘smart’ weapons came of age, destroyed about one-third of Iraqi equipment and inflicted massive casualties. A 100-hour ground war followed, which effectively destroyed the remnants of the 500,000-strong Iraqi army in or near Kuwait.

A dispute over a shared oilfield and the price of oil was one of the main reasons for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Resolutions made in August 1990 by the United Nations (UN) Security Council for immediate withdrawal of Iraqi troops went unheeded, and a trade embargo and blockade were instituted. In November the USA doubled its troop strength in Saudi Arabia to 400,000, and in December 1990 the UN Security Council authorized the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw before 15 January 1991. Talks between the USA and Iraq failed, as did peace initiatives by the UN and France. By January 1991 coalition forces totalled some 725,000. Within 24 hours of the deadline, US and allied forces launched massive air bombardments against Baghdad, hitting strategic targets such as military air bases and communications systems. Saddam Hussein replied by firing missiles at the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa (by which tactic he hoped to bring Israel into the war and thus break up the Arab alliance against him), as well as cities in Saudi Arabia; most of these missiles were intercepted.

The ground war started on 24 February and the superior range of the US artillery soon devastated the retreating Iraqi forces; by the end of February the war was over, Iraq defeated, and Kuwait once more independent, though under a pall of smoke from burning oil wells and facing extensive rebuilding. Political considerations prevented the military from following up their comprehensive victory with the complete annihilation of Iraqi forces and it was widely considered that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been allowed to stay in place, albeit much chastened, in order to avoid destabilizing the strategically crucial Middle East region.

About 90,000 tonnes of ordnance was dropped by US planes on Iraq and occupied Kuwait, of which precision-guided weapons amounted to 7%; of these, 90% hit their targets whereas only 25% of the conventional bombs did so. British forces dropped 3,000 tonnes of ordnance, including 6,000 bombs, of which 1,000 were laser-guided. Napalm and fuel-air explosives were also used by coalition forces, but cluster bombs and multiple-launch rockets were predominant. The cost to the USA of the war was $61.1 billion (£36.3 billion), including $43.1 billion contributed by the allies. Estimates of Iraqi casualties are in the range of 80,000–150,000 troops and 100,000–200,000 civilians. In May 1991 some 15,000 Iraqi prisoners of war were still in allied custody, and the war created 2–3 million refugees. Severe environmental damage, including oil spills, affected a large area.

The Gulf War, known to the Americans as ‘Desert Storm’ and to the British as ‘Operation Granby’, was the first large-scale demonstration of modern technological warfare, in which guided missiles, ‘smart’ munitions, night-vision equipment, infrared sensors, global positioning systems, cruise missiles, free-flight rockets with multiple warheads, antimissile missiles, and modern data communications systems were deployed. The result was a foregone conclusion: some of the most technical and competent troops in the world, most highly trained for 30 years to confront the Soviet Army should it venture west, were deployed against an army of the developing world, with limited military ability and technical capacity, and inadequate command. Although the Iraqis had some modern weapons, they were scarcely competent in their use, and the Iraqi army had barely recovered from the lengthy and debilitating conflict with Iran (1980–88).

Of the 148 US service personnel killed during the Gulf War, 35 died as a result of ‘friendly fire’ by US or allied forces.


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