You are here

The Gulf War 1990-1991 (Operation Desert Shield/ Desert Storm)

1990 -1991
  • In Memoriam

    Between the War for Independence and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the armed forces of the United States have participated in twenty-one principal wars and in numerous smaller conflicts and operations. In each of these American men and women have paid a high price for the nation's freedom, selflessly sacrificing life or limb for an honorable cause.

    Principal sources of information for the figures, explanatory text and illustrations appearing below include the National Archives and Records Administration; U.S. Navy Historical Center; Department of Defense; Department of Veterans Affairs; and The Oxford Companion to American Military History, from which all quotations are taken.

    Gulf War:  Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 1990 -1991

    The Gulf War, also called the Persian Gulf War, (1990–91), was an international conflict triggered by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and occupation of Kuwait with the apparent aim of acquiring that nation’s large oil reserves, canceling a large debt Iraq owed Kuwait, and expanding Iraqi power in the region. On August 3 the United Nations Security Council called for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, and on August 6 the council imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq. (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8.) Iraq’s invasion and the potential threat it then posed to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, prompted the United States and its NATO allies to rush troops to Saudi Arabia to deter a possible attack.  Egypt and several other Arab nations joined the anti-Iraq coalition and contributed forces to the military buildup, known as Operation Desert Shield.  Iraq meanwhile built up its occupying army in Kuwait to about 300,000 troops.

    On November 29 the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. By January 1991 the allied coalition against Iraq had reached a strength of 700,000 troops, including 540,000 U.S. personnel and smaller numbers of British, French, Egyptians, Saudis, Syrians, and several other national contingents. Saddam steadfastly refused to withdraw Iraqi forces from Kuwait, however, which he maintained would remain a province of Iraq.

    The allied coalition’s military offensive against Iraq began on January 16–17, 1991, with a massive U.S. led air campaign that continued throughout the war. Over the next few weeks, this sustained aerial bombardment, which had been named Operation Desert Storm, destroyed Iraq’s air defenses before attacking its communications networks, government buildings, weapons plants, oil refineries, and bridges and roads. By mid February the allies had shifted their air attacks to Iraq’s forward ground forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq, destroying their fortifications and tanks.

    A massive allied ground offensive was launched northward from northeastern Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and southern Iraq on February 24, and within three days Arab and U.S. forces had retaken Kuwait city in the face of crumbling Iraqi resistance. Meanwhile, the main U.S. armored thrust swept around some 120 miles (200 km) west of Kuwait and drove into Iraq, attacking Iraq’s armored reserves from the rear. By the end of February these forces had destroyed most of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard units and U.S. President Bush declared a cease-fire for February 28 as Iraqi resistance had completely collapsed.

    There are no official figures for the Iraqi military operation. Estimates of the number of Iraqi troops in the Kuwait theatre range from 180,000 to 630,000, and estimates of Iraqi military deaths range from 8,000 to 100,000. The allies, by contrast, lost about 300 troops in the conflict.

    The terms of the peace were, inter alia, that Iraq recognize Kuwait’s sovereignty and that it divest itself of all weapons of mass destruction (i.e., nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons) and all missiles with ranges exceeding 90 miles (150 km). Pending complete compliance, economic sanctions would continue.