WASHINGTON — When Iraqi forces began pouring over the border into neighboring Kuwait, most Americans would have had a hard time finding the country on a map.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to occupy Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990 – calling the oil-rich nation Iraq’s “19th province.”
At the top of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is a strategic country. It is a prominent member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Controlling Kuwait meant that Iraq would significantly increase its share of the world’s oil reserves.
The world was shocked by the Iraqi move, and neighboring Saudi Arabia was alarmed. No one was sure whether Iraq would stop at the border with Saudi Arabia or move forces into some of the most productive oil fields in the world.
A total of 140,000 Iraqi soldiers, supported by 850 tanks, entered Kuwait on Aug. 2. While tensions with Iraq were high, Kuwait had not alerted its forces. Iraqi aircraft bombed Kuwait City and the air bases in the country. Kuwaiti army units launched attacks against the invading forces, but they were far outnumbered, and the ruling family barely was able to escape to Saudi Arabia before Iraqi forces ringed Kuwait City.
Kuwait turned to the United Nations, and the Security Council passed a resolution calling for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and asking member nations to work together toward that goal.
President George H.W. Bush ordered American air, sea and ground forces to Saudi Arabia, beginning Operation Desert Shield on Aug. 7, 1990. That day, the Air Force sent 48 F‑15 fighters of the 1st Fighter Wing from Langley Air Force Base, Va., to Saudi Arabia, where they immediately began patrolling the Saudi-Kuwait-Iraq border areas. The Navy sent the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Independence carrier battle groups to the region. The Army and Marine Corps mobilized to send ground forces to Saudi Arabia, with the leading edge of the Army’s 82nd and 101st airborne divisions arriving Aug. 8.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Colin L. Powell began a schedule of near-constant traveling to meet with counterparts around the world.
Those other nations hurried troops, ships and aircraft to the area, where they fell in on the American and Saudi forces and what was left of the Kuwaiti military. The coalition that eventually formed was broad-based, and included 34 nations from Argentina to Bangladesh. Iraqi neighbors Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt also participated to roll back the aggression.
The troops landed in Saudi Arabia during the hottest time of the year. Anyone who can afford to tries to leave Saudi Arabia in August; the temperatures regularly rise to more than 130 degrees, and the prevailing winds from the Persian Gulf bring humidity. The media were full of pictures of American servicemembers slamming down bottles of water as sweat stained their “chocolate chip” desert camouflage uniforms.
In the United States, Desert Shield necessitated the first major call-up of reserve component forces since the war in Korea. Under an order Bush signed on Aug. 22, National Guard and other reserve-component forces reported for duty.
The coalition commander they reported to was Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. The media called him “Stormin’ Norman.” A West Point graduate who had served in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf had been the commander of U.S. Central Command since 1988. One of the plans on Centcom’s shelf was the defense of the oil fields against an Iraqi invasion.
At the time, the Iraqi army was the fourth-largest in the world. American planners stressed the force was battle tested and had a large percentage of combat veterans from the Iran-Iraq War in its ranks. That war – the first launched by Saddam Hussein – lasted from 1980 to 1988, and Iraq held its own against a country three times larger. Centcom officials expected a battle to drive Iraq out of Kuwait would be long and costly.
At the beginning of August, there was little that would halt any Iraqi offensive into Saudi Arabia. By the middle of the month, air, sea and ground assets had grown. By the end of August, Desert Shield had grown to be able to defeat any attack into Saudi Arabia.
Now the question was: What next?
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)