Commentary (Sunday Times)

Gulf War: "Rape of the Gulf" (Insight account of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 5 August 1990
Journalist: Sunday Times Insight team
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4,953 words
Themes: Energy, Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (Middle East), Defence (general), Defence (Gulf War, 1990-91)

Edition 2*
SUN 05 AUG 1990

Rape of the Gulf


THE WHISPERS began two weeks ago in the quiet corridors of the Hotel Intercontinental, Geneva, where the plutocrats of the oil-producing world were in a state of shock. What are the chances, asked the murmuring voices, of killing him?

It seemed the only solution. President Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq and master of the biggest army in the Middle East, was on the rampage. He was throwing his weight about in the Opec oil cartel and threatening Kuwait, his minute but wealthy neighbour, with multi-billion dollar blackmail.

Behind the smiling Arab protocol of the Geneva summit, talk of a way to eliminate him continued. The robed delegates from Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbours in the Gulf, appeasers and flatterers of the tyrant for more than a decade, almost sounded serious in their desire to do something about a monster who was a threat to them all.

“They're in the mood to back almost any plan which would get rid of Saddam Hussein,” confided one delegate. But, as is so often the case in Arab politics, such talk turned out to be just that talk. It was already too late, anyway.

While they dithered, Saddam was preparing to strike harder and faster than any of them imagined possible. Deep in his massive command bunker outside Baghdad, he put into operation what could be the first stage of a plan to reshape the Middle East and create potential mayhem for the world's economic and political order.

It was a strategy on Hitlerian lines: the annexation by blitzkrieg of a weak neighbour in defiance of the great powers, whose likely reaction he expected to be little more than pious hand-wringing. It was not just the Arabs who would be caught off guard.

WESTERN leaders, basking in the peace of a post-cold war summer, did not expect him to invade either.

Western intelligence agencies insist they were well aware of the build-up to Saddam's aggression. The CIA says it provided American policy-makers with “very useful and timely information”. Others say it has been the biggest failure of Western intelligence since 1980, when the same people failed to spot that Iraq was about to invade Iran.

The inquest has only just begun, but the early indications point to a huge CIA miscalculation.

Last Tuesday the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency warned the Pentagon that Iraq was going to invade. Overnight the CIA wrote a conflicting analysis saying invasion was not on the cards and that it was going to be solved by diplomacy. Bush had the CIA report as Saddam's tanks rolled over the border. American spy satellites had spotted fuel, trucks, cargo planes and bridge-building equipment being shipped to the 100,000 Iraqi troops massed on the border, all strongly suggesting that Saddam meant to march south.

But within a few hours of the invasion, the CIA told a meeting of the American joint chiefs of staff that the invasion was just a brief incursion and the Iraqis would be back over the border in a few hours.

“The CIA believed this was a show of strength and the Iraqis would quickly leave,” a senior Pentagon source told Insight. “Everyone was caught off-guard by the massive nature of the invasion. On both occasions the CIA's analysis was wrong.”

But it was not just the CIA which got it wrong. So did plenty of officials in the White House, the Pentagon and State Department. Richard Haas of the National Security Council, the president's closest adviser on Middle East affairs, was particularly insistent that Saddam was bluffing.

As late as Wednesday afternoon, only hours before Saddam made his move, the president's men were still advising Bush that he would not invade. Assured by Saddam that his dispute with Kuwait was just an “Arab family affair”, the United States ambassador to Baghdad went on holiday on the eve of Saddam's push south.

There was no gloating in Whitehall at the American discomfiture. No British intelligence agency managed to predict the invasion either. The Foreign Office, which boasts an elite “camel corps” of Arab specialists, was similarily ignorant of what was about to happen.

THE Iraqi leader took his first step three months ago when he ordered key divisions of his battle-hardened army to prepare for the invasion of Kuwait, while he menaced the Kuwaiti royal family with huge compensation demands. He alleged that Kuwait was stealing oil from an oil field that straddled the Iraq-Kuwait border. He also wanted the emirate to join him in pushing oil prices up. It was economic warfare at its most intimidating.

Two weeks ago, Saddam sharpened the dispute when he accused Kuwait and another tiny Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), of plunging a “poisoned dagger” into Iraq by driving down the price of oil. He said they had been cheating on their Opec quotas and flooding the market with cheap oil. He put the cost to Iraq at $14billion in lost oil revenue.

He also revived territorial claims against Kuwait which go back to the days of the Ottoman empire, when Kuwait was part of southern Iraq. This particular territorial ambition had not been mentioned during the 1980s, while Kuwait and other Gulf states had funded the war with Iran. But Saddam was not thinking of paying back that $10billion of debt either.

When Iraq reiterated that Kuwait had stolen $2.4billion-worth of oil from Iraqi fields, it was clear the dispute was escalating. When he accused the Gulf states of conspiring with America and Israel to weaken Iraq's economy and undermine its military strength, it was clear he was in no mood to compromise.

As Saddam stepped up his war of nerves, the UAE gave in and agreed to cut oil output. Kuwait's parliament, however, denounced Iraq's tirade. Kuwaiti officials suggested Iraq's aim was to force its creditors, including Kuwait, to write off billions of dollars in debts from the Gulf war.

As Arab leaders, led by Egypt's President Mubarak, strove to defuse the crisis, oil prices rose and the Pentagon sent warships and aircraft on a “short-notice exercise” in the Gulf in support of the UAE, about 600 miles southeast of the Kuwait-Iraqi border.

Saddam was unimpressed. When he said he would not be intimidated by Washington, Kuwait ordered a state of alert. By this time thousands of Iraqi troops and armour were massing on the border.

It was at this point that Opec ministers met in Geneva. Under the growing shadow of Saddam, they hurriedly pledged to halt over-production in a bid to push up the price of crude oil. Kuwait and the UAE joined in pledging to abide by the agreement. Saddam was still dissatisfied. He warned that Kuwait must meet his “legitimate rights”.

Insight has learnt that, as the situation deteriorated early last week, King Hussein of Jordan secretly visited Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam to stay his hand. Hussein supported his powerful neighbour during the Gulf war and has a respectful relationship with him. The Jordanian king feared that Saddam's ambitions were dragging the Middle East towards an all-out war.

What he discovered in Baghdad shocked him. Saddam was not sabre-rattling, as every Western and neighbouring government believed. He was preparing for military action. By the time an Iraqi delegation met the Kuwaitis in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to negotiate the oil and border dispute last Tuesday, the horde of Iraqi troops on Kuwait's border had risen to 100,000, dwarfing the Kuwaiti army of about 20,000.

As the two delegations met in Saudi Arabia, King Hussein pleaded with Saddam back in Baghdad; but he returned home on Wednesday convinced that invasion was inevitable. He called Mubarak in Cairo to detail his fears. Incredibly, they decided to keep what Hussein had discovered to themselves. According to high-placed sources, Mubarak warned Hussein that America or Israel might launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq and plunge the Gulf into conflict if the West was told the truth. The best hope of avoiding disaster, they decided, was to stage a discreet diplomatic offensive against Saddam. But it was all too late.

At the negotiations with Iraq in Jeddah, the Kuwaitis remained defiant. The talks broke down. It was what Saddam had been waiting for. In the early hours of Thursday morning, his armour poured across the Kuwaiti border.

THERE was no question of stopping them. The Iraqis, in their dark green uniforms, are known by their fellow Arabs as the Prussians of the Middle East. Blooded in the Gulf war, they are regarded as invincible. The army is the biggest in the region and is reckoned to be a match for Nato powers such as Britain, let alone the Kuwaiti palace guard.

The Israelis monitored the invasion with growing respect for a power they believe they will inevitably have to fight themselves before long.

The Iraqi ground force, consisting of columns of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, were supported by seaborne and airborne special forces units, which took control of facilities and strategic points a combined operation demanding planning skills and discipline.

Helicopter-borne commando units took over the international airport south of Kuwait city, before a larger force was ferried in by transport plane. This second force moved quickly into the city, set up roadblocks, and took over the emir's palace and radio and television stations. Another force came in from the sea to prevent the sabotage of oil terminals.

Jeremy Upton, a 28-year-old from Suffolk who works for an international shipping agency in Kuwait, was woken by the sound of shooting early on Thursday morning.

“I was woken up by a loud bang at 5am,” he said. “There were Iraqi troops everywhere. I realised what was happening because we knew an invasion was in the air.”

He roused his Kuwaiti wife, Asmahan, and with their two-year-old daughter drove to the British embassy. However, before they could reach it they were stopped by Iraqi soldiers.

“They were very polite. They said there was a lot of fighting and that it would be safer for me to be at home.”

By now the city was shrouded in smoke from exploding artillery shells and Upton decided it would be safer to try to escape over the border to Saudi Arabia. He drove south and near the border joined a queue of refugees heading for the kingdom.

At the frontier, the family was stopped at the customs post. “It was very orderly. There was no panic and when I got to the front of the queue I was amazed to find an Iraqi soldier directing the traffic.”

An hour later, Upton and his family were through the border, and after a long drive through Saudi Arabia and Qatar they reached the safety of Dubai.

Military analysts say the invasion and its planning were in line with modern military doctrine, and its execution was thorough. They also give high marks to Iraqi intelligence, which appears to have advised Saddam that the United States would be powerless to respond immediately.

Against this co-ordinated onslaught, the puny Kuwaiti forces fought back with honour. At the Dasman Palace, near the British embassy, the emir's guards trained sustained firepower from light arms on advancing Iraqi tanks. Most of the 200 Kuwaiti dead and injured fell here, among them Sheikh Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, 45, brother of the emir. He died with a pistol in his hand on the palace steps.

The emir, 62-year-old Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Saber, fled to Saudi Arabia; the rest of the royal family escaped to various other destinations where they are safe but stateless. Saddam had annexed their country, like a thief in the night. The world watched, wondering what he would do next.

GEORGE BUSH was relaxing in the private quarters on the second floor of the White House shortly before 9pm on Wednesday when Brent Scowcroft, his close friend and national security adviser, came in and broke the news that Iraqi troops had crossed Kuwait's border two hours earlier.

The president immediately convened an inter-agency crisis meeting in the “situation room”, a small conference room located in the White House basement. For the next 12 hours, Scowcroft was huddled there with General Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and senior officials from the National Security Council (NSC), the Pentagon and the State Department. Scowcroft monitored intelligence reports about the Iraqi army's rapid progress. At 5am he awoke Bush to sign two presidential orders freezing Iraq's assets in the United States and banning trade with the aggressor. As he did so, senior defence department officials met at the Pentagon's national military command centre to consider military options. They were few and unattractive.

Powell and Dick Cheney, the defence secretary, met Bush at 8am on Thursday. America spends $300 billion a year on defence; but the president was told that immediate American military intervention to roll back Saddam's forces was out of the question.

Kuwait is 9,000 miles from the United States and Washington has no major military bases in the area. To repel Saddam's invasion force, America would have to fly in at least five divisions about 90,000 troops complete with armour, weapons and supplies. Use of Saudi Arabian military bases would be essential, but by no means certain to be allowed by the Saudis.

Even if they did agree to station American troops, success could not be guaranteed. “Saddam has 1m men under arms. The entire US Army is only 700,000 men,” said George Carver, a former senior CIA official. “He has 4,500 tanks. That is more than Eisenhower, Montgomery and Rommel combined had in Africa, more than the Soviet Army has in Eastern Europe.”

Cheney told Bush that his only realistic immediate military option was an air strike at targets inside Iraq. Non-nuclear cruise missiles on board eight American warships in the Persian Gulf could quickly take out a large number of Iraqi military facilities, including some that harbour chemical weapons.

But there were grave political difficulties with this option, Cheney told the president. An American missile strike would not change the situation in Kuwait; but it would endanger the lives of 300 Americans in Baghdad and 4,000 in Kuwait; and it would plunge America and Iraq into war.

Bush did not relish an all-out war for the sake of Kuwait, but he understood perfectly well that there were larger issues at stake like Saddam, as the Gulf superpower, having control of 65% of the world's oil reserves. So the White House was adamant on one score: America would take military action if Saddam's troops marched into Saudi Arabia; and even if Saddam did not invade, Washington would consider stationing a multinational force in Saudi Arabia to deter him.

To the public, Bush's only response was to send more warships steaming towards the Persian Gulf, which was hardly likely to make Saddam quake in his boots. A serious military response, it seemed, was not being considered. The “butcher of Baghdad” had successfully called the White House's bluff. Or so it seemed. BEHIND the scenes, however, the American government was preparing to deploy enough military power to deter an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia; or if that happened too soon to stop it, to go to war with Iraq.

The American joint chiefs of staff drew up detailed plans to “carpet bomb” a number of key sites if Iraqi forces crossed the Saudi border. The targets include the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and troop formations near the Kuwait-Saudi border.

“We could turn Baghdad into rubble, there is no doubt about that,” a senior American military official told the Washington Post yesterday. American air bases in Europe have been put on alert for Middle East action. If that happens, F-111 bombers would play a key role in any American air raids, supported by F-14 and F-16 fighter planes from USAF bases in Spain and West Germany, and A-6 bombers from the USS Independence aircraft carrier, which is steaming towards the Gulf.

The Pentagon is also considering the use of B-52 long-range bombers based on the American mainland. These were last used to bomb Cambodia in the early 1970s. Conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles based on American warships in the Gulf could also be used to strike heavily guarded targets, such as chemical and ballistic weapons plants.

American military strategists have concluded that major airstrikes would be the only way to halt an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. The alternative of flying in enough American troops and tanks to rebuff Saddam's forces would take up to 45 days, by which time Iraq would be in complete control.

Launching such a large-scale bombing operation would be a massive international operation. The United States would need the co-operation of numerous countries to allow American military aircraft to fly through their airspace.

If F-111s from Britain were used they would need to be refuelled in the air for the trip to Iraq and back, as they were when they were used to bomb Libya. American officials are divided about the likelihood of an Iraqi move into Saudi Arabia. On Friday night, however, American spy satellites spotted Iraqi troops within five miles of the Kuwait-Saudi border; and yesterday there were reports out of Washington that Iraqi troops had entered the neutral zone on the border.

WHILE the Bush administration desperately scrambled to find ways of going to Saudi Arabia's aid, it also worked on another plan which, if fully implemented, would also lead to an armed confrontation with Saddam.

The idea, simply put, was to declare economic war on Iraq and starve it into submission with an oil blockade and comprehensive sanctions. The United States could not do this alone. It would need the support of its allies in Western Europe, the Far East and the Middle East, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Since Thursday morning, Bush has burned the international telephone lines trying to drum up support for economic sanctions. On board Air Force One en route to see Margaret Thatcher in Aspen, Colorado, he spoke at length to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, discussing a wide range of options, including a Bush suggestion tat Saudi Arabia block the Iraqi pipeline that crosses its territory.

That pipeline is one of two through which virtually landlocked Iraq gets its oil to the coast. The other is in Turkey. If both were shut down and the Persian Gulf blockaded to prevent oil tankers escaping from Iraq, Saddam's lifeblood his oil revenue would dry up.

For Fahd, the flaw in this plan was that it would require a large American military presence in his country to prevent an Iraqi invasion. He preferred giving the Arab League a chance to persuade Saddam to withdraw. Bush received similar messages from King Hussein of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt and Yemen's General Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The only good news Bush received on Air Force One was a message from James Baker, American Secretary of State, who called from Mongolia to say that the Soviet Union was willing to make a joint statement with the United States condemning the invasion. That historic statement was issued on Friday in Moscow.

In Aspen, Thatcher was predictably supportive. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush, she called for collective international action against Iraq under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter. “None of us can do it separately,” she said.

On Friday, Bush spoke to Turkey's president, Turgut Ozal, whose support would also be essential for a successful oil blockade. Bush refused to divulge details of the conversation, but some sources say the Turks show no interest in antagonising their powerful southern neighbour. One American official described their behaviour as “ostrich-like”.

American officials at Nato headquarters in Brussels also ran into trouble with some of their European allies. Only Britain and France were willing to impose comprehensive sanctions against Iraq. West Germany, where companies have been accused of shipping chemical weapons components to the Middle East, agreed to control military exports only. Outside Nato, Japan, one of Iraq's major trading partners, showed no immediate willingness to impose any strong sanctions.

However, by the weekend, after considering the options, the Europeans came into line. They announced their agreement to an oil and arms embargo and the freezing of all Kuwaiti and Iraqi assets.

Yesterday, Bush and his senior advisers met again at Camp David. This time, shorn of all illusions about Saddam's intentions, they were unconvinced by Iraq's promise, announced late on Friday, to start withdrawing from Kuwait today.

THE prospect of Saddam slowly gaining hegemony over the Gulf and its massive oil reserves sends shivers down the spines of Western policy makers everywhere.

An avowed anti-Westerner with a massive military machine to feed, he would undoubtedly use the oil weapon ruthlessly. When that was last done, the West was thrown into an inflationary recession.

In 1973 the oil price quadrupled from $2.50 a barrel to $10 a barrel; and in 1978 the price doubled from $12.50 a barrel to around $25 a barrel. Both generated inflationary pressures worldwide.

After 1973, Britain absorbed the oil price hike at the cost of a steep rise in inflation, followed by a period of tight monetary policy. After the oil-price hike in 1978, the whole world went into a slump.

Since then, the world economy has expanded for eight consecutive years, spurred on by a sharp fall in oil prices in 1985, when the Opec cartel fell apart because of the problems of holding its members to their production ceilings.

Analysts predict that a price rise to $25-$30 a barrel may dampen world growth slightly and boost inflation only mildly. They warn that the consequences for growth will be more severe if central banks respond by raising interest rates.

Anything above a $30 a barrel price rise and the consequences for world growth would be more severe.

Opec has paid for its past belligerence. Its previous price rises reduced demand and increased the supply of non-Opec oil, causing the cartel's share of world oil production to fall from close to 50% in 1979 to 36.5% in 1989.

Higher prices have also provoked consuming countries into insuring against future supply interruptions or price jumps.America now gets 70% of its oil from non-Arab Opec sources, and has a strategic oil reserve of 600m barrels, the equivalent of 81 days' supply. Moreover, American economic activity is slowing, and with it the growth in demand for oil.

In Britain, the direct impact of a rise in the price of oil to $28-$30 is predicted by the London Business School as a slight reduction in economic growth in 1991 and 1992, an exacerbation of the upward trend of unemployment, and an additional 0.5% to the underlying rate of inflation (see Section 4, page 4).

Overall, however, the effect of a Saddam-led Opec could be catastrophic for the Western economies. That is why the Bush administration, and after yesterday's meeting in Rome, the European Community, are determined to nip his expansionist ambitions in the bud. It will not be easy.

IF Iraq and Kuwait are blockaded, cutting about 4m barrels a day from world supplies, other Opec members friendly to the West could make up about 3m of the shortfall, with the rest coming from stockpiles, says the oil industry.

But all these predictions fall apart if the Middle East plunges into a war.

Avoiding one depends not just on America, its Nato allies and the Soviet Union, but on Iraq's rival superpower in the Middle East Israel.

Recently, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, obtained a sample of the Iraqi president's handwriting, and passed it to a graphologist for analysis. His report, relayed to policy-makers in Jerusalem, read: “This man should be committed immediately. He makes hasty decisions, tends toward extreme moods, is willing to take extreme decisions and implement them, tends towards violence and is dangerous to society.”

Dangerous certainly, but Israeli military leaders believe Saddam to be rational also. “He may be impulsive, violent and radical, but I reckon that even a madman knows to be careful of the counter-blows he will receive,” says General Dan Shomron, the Israeli chief of staff.

In Shomron's view, war is not imminent. But the conviction is growing in Jerusalem that, sooner or later, Saddam will turn his sights on Israel for two reasons: because he regards it as the traditional Arab enemy; and he wants to avenge the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Israelis maintain that their country still has the edge over Iraq, but are concerned at the speed and skill with which the Kuwaiti invasion was carried out. They insist that while Israel is prepared to help America in the present crisis, it has no intention of taking military action against Iraq. Of prime concern to Israel is the stability of the two buffer states between itself and Iraq: Syria and Jordan.

Military co-operation between Iraq and Jordan has increased dramatically over the past year, as Jordan's King Hussein struggles to cope with social ferment and economic collapse. Joint tank manoeuvres have been held in southern Jordan, Iraqi planes have flown reconnaissance missions along the Israeli border, and a joint air squadron is planned.

Any Iraqi land attack on Israel would have to be via Syria or Jordan. Such an attack would enable Israel to retaliate in depth, far from the Israeli population centres. An Iraqi missile attack, possibly with chemical weapons, would be more likely than an outright invasion, though Israel says it has developed effective counter-measures.

Two weeks ago, Israel sent a message to Saddam via Egypt that Israel would regard the entrance of Iraqi troops into Jordan as an act of war. It went unanswered. As they wait for his next steps, Israelis do not hide the fact that they seek comfort in the chimera that the Opec delegates tried to conjure up: Saddam's assassination, not by Israeli commandos, but by his own people.

It may seem inconceivable that anyone inside Iraq could stand up to Saddam and live, so complete is his power. Yet a precedent exists.

In 1958, King Faisal II was overthrown in a coup led by a senior officer, Abdul Karim Kassem, who then became head of the new Republic of Iraq. Kassem was harsh and repressive. After putting down a subsequent rebellion in 1959, he banned all political activity and carried out mass arrests of his enemies. Saddam, a young rebel himself, was sentenced to death but escaped and fled to Cairo.

Four years of megalomania later, Kassem was seized by a group of officers and executed, Ceausescu-style, in front of the television cameras.

Saddam has praetorian guards to protect him every hour of the day. But, as he devours Kuwait and inspires fear throughout the Middle East, the question remains: who will guard the guards?

IN the early part of last week, the debates within the US administration focused on prospects for an early Iraqi withdrawal an option suggested by the CIA or the comfort of an internal revolution in Iraq. On Thursday, when Bush met his senior advisers, he remained largely neutral in the heated debate which went on around him.

However, by the Friday night meeting of the National Security Council the president had come to recognise that there were going to be no easy answers when it came to dealing with the ambitions of Saddam.

The final decision to bomb Iraq, if it were to attack Saudi Arabia, was taken at that meeting in the White House's cabinet room on Friday. It was attended by the president and all of his top foreign policy aides, except James Baker, the secretary of state, who was flying back from Moscow. Among those gathered around the cabinet room's large oval conference table were the vice-president Dan Quayle, defence secretary Dick Cheney, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and America's top military officer, Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Aides set up large maps of the Middle East and diagrams of Iraqi military installations. Powell laid out the military options to the president. The chairman of the joint chiefs had spent much of the previous 36 hours in the Pentagon's National Military Command Centre, monitoring the Iraqi invasion and weighing up possible American responses.

Powell told Bush mass air strikes on targets inside Iraq were the only feasible way of rebuffing an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. Sending in enough ground forces to take on Saddam's army was impossible, given the geographic and time constraints.

Powell argued that a rapid response was essential to prevent Iraqi forces overrunning Saudi Arabia and becoming immovable. Moreover, the strike would have to be large enough to persuade Saddam to turn back. The A-6 bombers on board the warships in the Gulf would not be able to deliver such a blow alone. They would need to be augmented by B-52s the massive long-range bombers last used to attack Cambodia and maybe even F-111s based in Britain.

The president enthusiastically endorsed the military solution. He told his advisers that this was one occasion when America had to stand up and set an example to the rest of the world. The United States, he argued, could not be pushed around by a dictator like Saddam. If war between the United States and Iraq was the price that America would have to pay to defend the free world against a despot, that was a price President Bush was willing to accept.