25 years on, Iraq’s Kuwait invasion remains a source of bitterness
A quarter of a century has passed since Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, as war reparations and missing POWs remains a major issue between both countries
Speak to any Kuwaiti who resided in their country 25 years ago, and they will describe exactly where they were when Saddam’s Iraqi army invaded.
Mohamed Ghanem al-Rumaihi, professor of political sociology at Kuwait University and Editor-in-Chief of pan-Arab Al Arabi magazine at the time, was vacationing abroad on an annual summer trip when he was asked to return to Kuwait at the last minute.
“While I was abroad, I got a message from the then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad who needed my help in responding to a very provocative letter from Tariq Aziz (Foreign Minister of Iraq, 1983–1991) and I headed back to Kuwait in the last week of July 1990,” Rumaihi told Al Arabiya News.
“I predicted that the Iraqis’ remarks and behavior at the time were similar to what Iraq was voicing against the Iranians in the previous decade. I wrote a column on this and asked to return to my vacation. The next day on August 2, 1990, Saddam’s army invaded Kuwait,” Rumaihi said.
Exactly a quarter of a century ago, nearly 100,000 Iraqi troops and 700 tanks drove into Kuwait at 2 a.m. local time.
Within two days of intense combat between the two countries, most of the Kuwaiti armed forces were either overrun by the Iraq’s Republican Guard or were forced to fall back to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of suppressing the price of oil by producing more than they were declaring, which in turn hurt the oil-dependent Iraqi economy.
Analysts, however, told Al Arabiya News that it was the debts incurred by Saddam after a lengthy war with Iran, in which Kuwait contributed nearly $14 bln, that was the real motivation behind the invasion.
The previous decade’s Iran-Iraq war lasted until 1988. Kuwait had helped its Iraqi neighbor by functioning as a major port after the city of Basra had been shut down because of the fighting.
By the time the Iran–Iraq war ended, Iraq was in a desperate situation, trying to repay nearly $14 bln that it had borrowed from Kuwait to finance its war with Iran. Saddam then requested Kuwait to forgive the debt, Kuwait reluctantly objected.
London-based Iraqi analyst for Al-Bayan Center for Studies and Planning in Baghdad Sajad Jiyad told Al Arabiya News that despite 25 years passing since the invasion took place, the events of 1990 still haunt Iraqis as much as the Kuwaitis.
“For both countries the anniversary is a painful one, unfortunately it is just another one in Iraq's long history of conflict so there is even less reason for Iraqis to reflect on it,” Jiyad said.
The war, deemed as “Saddam’s worst mistake,” has left Iraq in a financial crisis ever since. The cash-strapped country attempts to pay back international war reparations, especially to the Kuwaitis, while trying its best to rebuild the country through a tight budget.
In December 2014, Kuwait accepted an Iraqi request related to reparations imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
Major powers at the U.N. Compensation Commission (UNCC) came to a consensus in allowing Iraq to postpone its final payment of reparations to Kuwait for the 1990-91 Gulf War. This means Iraq will have until January 2016 to begin paying its oil-rich neighbor the remaining $4.6 bln for oil fields destroyed during its invasion and subsequent seven-month occupation.
Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah was quoted at the time as saying: "The brothers in Iraq have presented the request formally and unilaterally and Kuwait has accepted and responded to this request," reported KUNA.
Political analysts still debate whether current-day Iraqis can reasonably be expected to continue paying for Saddam-era mistakes. Ibrahim al-Marashi, assistant professor at California State University, San Marcos and researcher on modern Iraqi history, told Al Arabiya News that it was an “ethical” question.
“From an ethical standpoint, Kuwait, as a war victim, is entitled to compensation. That is why the delay of reparation payments is an important development. In this manner, Kuwait says while they are entitled to reparations for the actions of Saddam, they are willing to forgo payments for the sake of Iraq’s security,” Marashi said.
For many Kuwaitis, the Gulf War still leaves a bitter in their mouths as the fate of some of their countrymen and women, who were either taken captive or killed, remains unknown. Of the nearly 600 people who were abducted by Iraqi forces, only 246 remains have been found or identified, according to the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA).
Dahem al-Qahtani, a Kuwaiti political writer, described the invasion of his country as a “shock” and “stab in the back”. He was only 22-years-old during the fateful summer of 1990 when his country was invaded and says that Kuwaitis find the anniversary of the invasion went on for too many years to be marked.
“With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the Baath Party and the Iraqi rapprochement with Kuwait under the new regime, and the fact that 60 per cent of Kuwaitis were born after the invasion, people no longer feel the need to mark the anniversary, especially those in the media,” he said.
“People have now coexisted with the Iraqis and with the new conditions. But the volatile regional instability has made Kuwait focus on ensuring the security of its people in every way and focus on the future instead of living in the shadows of the past,” al-Qahtani said.
Analysts told Al Arabiya News that the invasion of 25 years ago has had an immanent effect on Kuwaiti politics, especially on the foreign front. Diplomacy has become much more of a focus for Kuwaitis as the Gulf Arab State has learned that it cannot live isolated while geographically situated in the middle of a volatile region.
“The Kuwaiti elite believed in the pan-Arab movement of the time but soon found out that many were quick to abandon them except for Saudi Arabia, some Gulf States and Egypt. But many others had left Kuwait in the dark,” Rumaihi said.
Perhaps evident of Kuwait’s evolving policies of foreign engagement can be seen in their foreign aid donations efforts. Over the last decade, Kuwait has been one of the largest government providers of humanitarian assistance, globally ranked 21 by the Global Humanitarian Assistance Program (GHA). Its annual humanitarian assistance increased by 2,315% in 2013.
On the domestic front, Kuwait has not been immune from violence inflicted by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from spilling over their borders. A suicide bombing on a Shiite mosque on June 26 killed 27 people and left more than 200 others injured.
Kuwait then launched a heavy security crackdown on Islamist militants and declared itself at war with them, saying that the bombing, Kuwait's worst militant attack, was aimed at stoking sectarian strife in the majority Sunni state where the two sects have traditionally co-existed in peace.
It is this assertiveness in balancing engagement with other countries while protecting its border where analysts say Kuwait learned its most valuable lessons from 1990.
“The final message in the end is that the pre-1990 Kuwait has ended forever and has been replaced with a Kuwait that is engaged with the outside world abroad but one which does not compromise with anyone, especially on its security front,” Qahtani said.
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