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The Gulf War Reconsidered

The suddenness of the [Iraqi] action [invading Kuwait] and the coverage it has received should not disguise the fact that Iraqi claims to Kuwaiti territory have been pursued with remarkable consistency over the last half-century, through Hashimite and revolutionary rule alike. There is some justification for the argument that, having predated by a considerable length of time the accession of Saddam Husain to the Iraqi Presidency, these claims will not disappear with a settlement of the present Kuwait Crisis, whether or not this involves a change of regime in Baghdad.8

Thus there was more to Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait than one man’s evil character. Whatever may happen to him, the Iraqi grievances will not go away.


Even a brief historical sketch has numerous lessons for today.9

For more than two centuries, Kuwait managed to survive by playing off one major power against another. As a nation, it did not have the ancient roots that Iraq has in Mesopotamia. Kuwait was settled early in the eighteenth century by Bedouin tribes, from what is now Saudi Arabia, seeking a more sheltered existence near the coast. The present Sabah clan of rulers dates from 1756, when one of them was chosen to be sheikh or chieftain. The Sabahs have tenaciously held on to power ever since. First threatened by Persians and Saudis, they managed to beat them off with the help of the British and Ottoman Turks. By the mid-nineteenth century, with an estimated population of only 20,000, Kuwait considered itself to be within the Ottoman fold, though it still largely managed its own affairs. In 1875, Kuwait was made part of the autonomous Ottoman province of Basra in southern Iraq—later a basis for Saddam Hussein’s historical claim to Kuwait.

At the turn of the century, the rule of Mubarak al-Sabah—who rose to power by murdering his brothers, Muhammad and Jarrah—changed Kuwait’s traditional foreign relations. He chose to be more dependent on the British than on the Turks, with the result that by 1899 Kuwait began to move into the British sphere of influence. Britain bought his allegiance in a secret treaty with 15,000 rupees, though the Ottoman connection nominally persisted. In 1913, Britain and Turkey signed an agreement recognizing Kuwait as an autonomous region within the Ottoman realm and assigned the islands of Warba and Bubiyan, at the Iraqi outlet to the Persian Gulf, to Kuwait, only because it served British interests for Kuwait rather than Iraq to have them. By 1914, however, the Ottoman connection with Kuwait was broken and Britain promised Mubarak independent statehood under British protection. The British obtained preemptive rights over the whole Kuwaiti shoreline; future oil concessions—the first oil seepages had recently been detected—were exclusively allotted to British companies.

Unfortunately for Turkey, it chose to side with Germany in World War I, whereupon the Ottoman Empire came to an end. The Colonial Office in London effectively managed both Iraq and Kuwait. In 1932, the British mandate over Iraq ended, and Iraqi independence was recognized, though a predominant British influence remained.

Throughout the 1930s, Iraq refused to agree to a demarcation of the boundary with Kuwait unless the latter was willing to give up control of the islands, Warba and Bubiyan, and thus secure the narrow Iraqi Persian Gulf coastline. Despite its vulnerability, Kuwait refused to make concessions. By 1935, Iraqi propaganda openly called for the incorporation of Kuwait. Three years later, Iraq made this claim official, with the same justification used by Saddam Hussein five decades later—that Kuwait had once been attached to the Ottoman province of Basra. Without the approval of the British, who still controlled Kuwait’s foreign affairs, Iraq could get nowhere with its demand.

British influence in Iraq finally came to an end in 1958. It was eliminated by a coup which put General Abd alKarim Qasim in power at the head of a Free Officers Movement. In 1961, Qasim was the first Iraqi ruler who attempted to annex Kuwait. Soon after Britain had granted Kuwait full independence in June of that year, Qasim declared that Kuwait was an integral part of Iraq, again on the ground that it had been a link in the Ottoman chain. Qasim’s language was not unlike that of Saddam Hussein three decades later: “The Republic of Iraq has decided to protect the Iraqi people in Kuwait and to demand the land, arbitrarily held by imperialism, which belongs [to Iraq as part] of the province of Basra.”

A Gulf war on a smaller scale almost took place in 1961. Kuwait asked for British military assistance, and 7,000 British troops, supported by air and naval forces, rushed to Kuwait’s northern and western borders with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sent about 150 troops to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Saudi boundary. A way out of the deadlock was found by turning the conflict over to the United Nations, where the Arab states worked out a deal. As Schofield observes, “The Arab League was now faced with the awkward situation whereby troops of an imperial power had been called onto Arab soil by an Arab Government, ostensibly to prevent an inter-Arab conflict.” The first time was not 1990–1991.

In the end, a formula was found. Kuwait agreed to ask for the early withdrawal of British forces from its territory; Iraq pledged not to use force to annex Kuwait; Kuwait was admitted into the Arab League and the United Nations. An Arab peace-keeping force of 3,000, commanded by a Saudi and made up of contingents from five other Arab states, replaced the British force. Qasim never gave up the claim to Kuwait, all the while protesting that he did not intend to use force.

In February 1963, Qasim was overthrown by another military coup, headed by Lt. General Abd al-Salam Arif. In October of that year, in an effort to consolidate his regime, Arif, now president, reversed the traditional policy and recognized the independence and sovereignty of Kuwait. The agreement, however, was signed by the prime minister, not by Arif. Moreover, it did not settle the border question, which continued to poison the relations between the two countries. This gesture was not without cost; Kuwait paid for it with an interest-free “loan” of something between $15 billion and $85 billion—the exact figure was never disclosed—to be repaid over a quarter of a century. Later, Saddam Hussein’s government claimed that this agreement was invalid because it had not been ratified by Iraq’s National Revolutionary Council.

The next five years in Iraq were more turbulent than ever. In 1966, Arif was killed in a helicopter crash; his brother took his place and lasted only two years before he was overthrown in a coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Saddam Hussein’s ascendancy dates from 1968; by 1979, he was Iraqi president, secretary general of the party, and commander in chief.

Hostility between Iraq and Kuwait flared up again. In 1969, Iraqi forces temporarily moved into Kuwaiti territory, ostensibly to guard against an expected attack by Iran. In 1972, Iraq demanded Iraqi control—later cession—of the islands and an Iraqi guarantee of Kuwait’s security, both rejected. Iraq took the position that the 1963 agreement had merely recognized Kuwaiti independence without any territorial accord. So long as the borders remained disputed, peaceful relations between the two countries were far off.

How far off they were was shown in 1973 by an Iraqi attack on an unprotected Kuwaiti border post, during which two Kuwaiti frontier guards were killed. When Iran and Saudi Arabia pledged military support if Iraq went farther, the latter withdrew. In the aftermath, Saddam Hussein came forward with a proposal for Kuwait to cede Warba and to give up the eastern half of Bubiyan on a long-term lease. Kuwait, which by then was rolling in oil money, had no such intention and was more determined then ever to make no concessions on the islands.

In 1980, the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war abruptly changed the relations between Iraq and Kuwait. Mortally afraid of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran if Iraq were overrun, Kuwait for the first time in its history became the ally of Iraq. Its port facilities and land routes were put at the disposal of Iraq, which could not get supplies through the Persian Gulf in any other way. Kuwait acted as the receiving and transshipment point for war materiel, much of it from the Soviet Union. Even more directly, Kuwait backed Iraq financially. During the next eight years, Kuwait provided Iraq with $10 billion of interest-free loans and grants. Kuwait gave Iraq the revenue from increased oil production, said to amount to 125,000 barrels daily. Iraq also earned $250 million annually from the sale to Kuwait of natural gas from the Rumaila oil field. The flaw in the unprecedented honeymoon was that it depended wholly on the war with Iran, not on any real rapprochement between the two countries.

Even during the war, efforts to reach an understanding on the boundaries came to nothing. In 1981, Saddam Hussein vainly requested naval facilities at Bubiyan, and again in 1984 he urged Kuwait to lease Warba and Bubiyan to Iraq. For the rest of the war, the question of demarcating the boundary and leasing the islands was left in abeyance. Instead of preparing to retreat, Kuwait built an economically useless bridge connecting Bubiyan with the Kuwaiti mainland, so purely symbolic that Kuwaitis jokingly referred to it as “linking nowhere to nowhere.” Kuwait announced plans to develop recreational and research centers, as well as fish-canning plants, on Bubiyan—never carried out.

Thus, with the exception of the 1963 agreement and collaboration during Iraq’s war with Iran, the past relations of Iraq and Kuwait were almost uniformly hostile. In 1961, Qasim had tried to do what Saddam attempted to do in 1990. The key to friendly relations between Iraq and Kuwait was the agreed demarcation of their boundaries, and so long as Iraq held out against it, unless Kuwait turned over Warba and Bubiyan, hostilities in some form were never far away.

For the rest of the world, those two islands have meant little or nothing. Yet they are a red thread that runs through the story. Again and again, Iraq claimed that it needed the islands, and Kuwait refused to give them up on any terms, doubtlessly fearing that giving up the islands was only a first installment of Iraqi demands.

It is not hard to see why any Iraqi regime would have considered control of the islands to be of high economic and military importance. The fault was in how Iraq and Kuwait had been laid out by their former British overseers. Iraq never resigned itself to Kuwaiti ownership of the two islands. With its far greater expanse of land and population, Iraq looked down on puny little Kuwait and its ten-fold coastline with envy and frustration. So long as the Ottomans and later the British stood between them, their natural antagonisms were leashed. Independence for both countries let loose the forces that finally resulted in Saddam Hussein’s brutal effort to undo what had been done when the century was young.

  1. 8

    Schofield, Kuwait and Iraq, introduction.

  2. 9

    For more detail, Schofield’s Kuwait and Iraq is highly recommended. For documentation, see E. Lauterpacht, C.J. Greenwood, Marc Weller, and Daniel Bethlehem, editors, The Kuwait Crisis: Basic Documents (Cambridge: Grotius Publications Limited, 1991).

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