U.S. vs. Iraq: Reflecting five months of conflict


It seems so long ago now, Aug. 2, the day Iraqi tanks rumbled through Kuwait and woke up a world dreaming of post-Cold War peace.

Americans opened their atlases to locate this new threat and asked questions that still resonate as the United States grips the trigger of war:

Does the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait threaten U.S. interests? How should we respond?

Battle looms -- a conflagration of such scope that a general warned that the first five minutes would be the most violent in history. A million men, girded by thousands of tanks, planes and ships, stand ready to fire the deadliest non-nuclear weapons ever made.

No one can be sure what will happen: peace or war, Armageddon or an easy victory. There are only hours left before the deadline for Iraqi withdrawal set by the United Nations: Time, if no one jumps the gun, to reflect on how this all came to be.


The line in the sand was drawn right after the invasion. From the start, neither President Bush nor Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has budged.

"We remain committed to take whatever steps are necessary to defend our long-standing vital interests in the gulf," Bush said Aug. 2, making a vow he would repeat many times later.

Some experts said immediately that the crisis could be resolved only with force.

"If I had to put money down, I would say the odds greatly favor directly military conflict," Seth Carus, an analyst with the Naval War College Foundation, was quoted as saying Aug. 8. "I think Saddam Hussein has gone too far to withdraw from Kuwait. The chances of a conflict have gone up very sharply."

Bush quickly determined Saddam was a menace who could never be trusted again. The Iraqi had given his word that he would not invade Kuwait and news accounts say Bush, who emphasizes personal relationships with foreign leaders, felt betrayed.

Bush quickly persuaded Saudi Arabia to accept American troops in its defense. In just a week administration officials were leaking word that the president might send up to 250,000.

"I don't rule in or rule out the use of military force," Bush said Aug. 22, heightening suspicions in some minds that he already was thinking of going on the offense. The next day, the Pentagon began calling up reservists and National Guard members.

While the early buildup continued, Bush enjoyed the support of Congress and the public, despite the instantaneous surge of oil and gasoline prices. Critics took him to task for likening Saddam to Adolf Hitler, but the record shows that Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the first to make the comparison, on Aug. 2.

Some lawmakers nettled Bush with the reminder that he and his predecessor, President Ronald Reagan, had earlier dealt lightly with Saddam.

"What was the administration's response when Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds two years ago?" said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. "Nothing, absolutely nothing. And so we reap what we see today."

The summer ended in September with Saddam holding foreign hostages and offering to negotiate a withdrawal from Kuwait as part of a broader agreement involving Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, U.S. troop strength in Saudi Arabia had increased to more than 100,000.

For a long while, conflict seemed so unlikely that entrepreneurs dared to market war games such as "Desert Shield" and sell toys such as the Iraqiwacker, a paddle-ball set with Saddam's face on the front.

And as the standoff in the desert continued, experts and commentators of all stripes chipped in advice, with only a few, such as New York Times columnist William Safire, beating the war drum. Much of the debate related to military action cited the Vietnam War and whatever lessons or legacy it offered.

In a column printed Oct. 4 in The Evening Sun, William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, said something that seems more sobering now:

"No one can accurately forecast the trend of war or its length. Therefore, it is prudent to prepare for the worst case -- a long, violent struggle. As in all wars, the aftermath is as important as the war itself, and our actions should consider that fact."

As for the economy, in the event of war the price of oil could go to $100 a barrel, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, the former Saudi Arabian oil minister, predicted in early October.

Even without war, oil prices rose, peaking for the year at $41.15 a barrel Oct. 10 and dropping below $30 at other times. In June, when Kuwait was still an independent nation, a barrel cost just $15.

The crisis took a sudden and fateful turn Nov. 8, when Bushbeginning to think sanctions would not break Iraq before the allied coalition crumbled, stunned many by ordering a huge increase in U.S. forces to provide an offensive capability.

Challenging Saddam, Bush said, "I'm convinced that this move will show him how serious we are as a significant partner in this coalition. And let's hope he comes to his senses and does tomorrow that which he should have done weeks ago, because this aggression simply will not stand."

So began the big gamble, that only the threat of war would compel peace. Congressional and popular support of Bush plunged so deeply that members of his own party said "Whoa!" and threatened to convene a debate on Capitol Hill.

Among many who warned that assembling such a force inevitably would lead to its use, columnist George Will recalled "the outbreak of World War I, when mobilization acquired a deadly momentum. France set in motion 3 million men on 4,278 trains, an intricate operation that, once begun, was almost impossible to modulate."

The demand that Bush clarify the nation's goals and interests in the Persian Gulf increased. Bush responded, but polls showed the public confused as to whether the chief objective was oil, punishing aggression or taking out Saddam before he could develop nuclear weapons.

Bush, leaving on a Thanksgiving trip to see the troops, tried to focus and reassure Americans by saying Saddam is "trying hard to get an atomic weapon" and, "There's not going to be any long, drawn-out agony of Vietnam."

In Saudi Arabia, Army Sgt. Cedric Clay was thinking about his mother in Baltimore, his wife at Fort Lewis, Wash., and contemplating what he would tell Bush if he could: "I would greet the president, say it's a pleasure to see him, and I'd ask him, 'When are we going home?' "

On Nov. 29, Bush's policy passed its most critical test when the United Nations Security Council voted to allow the United States and its allies to use force against Iraq to unless it withdrew from Kuwait by Jan. 15.

With that war resolution in one hand, Bush grabbed an olive branch with the other and announced he would "go the extra mile for peace" by opening high-level talks with Iraq. That began a frustrating effort to set a date and place that would not result in a meeting until the New Year.

Meanwhile, Saddam countered with a move of his own Dec. 6, directing the release of all hostages. Though Bush welcomed the news, it tended to undercut enthusiasm for force. Bush was undercut again Dec. 19 when a senior U.S. military commander said allied forces wouldn't be ready to attack Iraq by Jan. 15.

Bush, suddenly optimistic, told Time magazine he had a "gut feeling" Iraq would withdraw, but Iraq continued fortifying its positions.

Nobody expected talks last Wednesday between Secretary of State James Baker 3rd and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to produce much, but when they didn't, Congress rallied around the president and on Saturday passed the supportive resolution Bush sought.

Persian Gulf crisis: A chronology

Aug. 2: 100,000 Iraqi troops invade Kuwait. President Bush organizes world trade embargo.

Aug. 3: Gasoline and crude oil prices spurt up.

Aug. 8: First 2,300 U.S. troops arrive in Saudi Arabia; Bush likens Saddam Hussein to Hitler.

Aug. 12: Saddam offers to pull out if United States withdraws troops and Israel and Syria give up control of disputed territories.

Aug. 23: Pentagon begins calling up reservists and National Guard members. Saddam ruffles a boy's hair in televised meeting with British hostages.

Sept. 11: U.S. troops exceed 100,000.

Sept. 17: Air Force general fired for describing war plans to kill Saddam and hit economic targets.

Oct. 24: U.S. forces total 220,000.

Nov. 8: Bush orders huge increase in U.S. forces to provide offensive capability.

Nov. 19: Iraq orders 250,000 more troops sent to Kuwait.

Nov. 20: About 40 House Democrats file suit challenging Bush's power to wage war without congressional approval.

Nov. 29: The U.N. Security Council sets Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw or face war.

Dec. 6: Saddam urges Iraqi Parliament to free all foreign hostages.

Dec. 14: U.S. ambassador to Kuwait returns to United States.

Dec. 19: A senior U.S. commander warns that allied forces won't be ready to attack Iraq by Jan. 15.

Dec. 30: Bush reportedly tells Time magazine he has a "gut feeling" Iraq will withdraw.

Dec. 31: Oil prices end the year at $28.44 a barrel, midway between the June low of $15 and the high of $41 on Oct. 10.

Jan. 2: A U.S. military official says Iraqi troops are fortifying their positions.

Jan. 5: Bush warns Saddam, "Withdraw from Kuwait or face the terrible consequences."

Jan. 9: Talks between Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz produce no breakthrough.

Jan. 12: Congress approves a resolution authorizing Bush to use force if necessary following U.N. deadline Jan. 15 -- today.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad