Kuwait — Marking 20 Years Since Operation Desert Shield

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)

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