British papers detail role of oil in '60s gulf crisis

January 02, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- British Cabinet papers from 1960, released yesterday under this country's 30-year disclosure rule, show that the last time outside military power was used to protect Kuwait, the most important strategic aim of the operation was the security of oil supplies.

Britain, with U.S. backing, went to Kuwait's aid in July 1961, after the then-Iraqi leader Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem seized on Kuwait's independence from Britain to declare it an "integral part of Iraq." Troops were dispatched to forestall an Iraqi invasion. They were joined by a U.S.-armed Saudi force.

The confrontation, then as now, was provoked by Iraq's territorial claim. Then as now, Iraq was isolated. It eventually denied any aggressive intent.

Kuwait's ruler at the time, Sheik Abdallah el Salim el Sabah, asked Britain to pursue a settlement with Iraq, but the British decided there was no need to rush to the negotiating table.

In the buildup to the crisis, the British Chiefs of Staff sent a top-secret directive to the commander-in-chief of British forces in the gulf.

It outlined three strategic British interests in the area, clearly citing the security of oil-producing areas as the most important.

There was less confusion in the analysis of the situation in the gulf 30 years ago than there has been recently, with President Bush accused of varying his rationale for the deployment of the U.S.-led multinational force now confronting Iraq.

The oil priority of the military brass in 1960 was shared by the Foreign Office's top Arabist of the time. Sir Richard Beaumont, head of the Foreign Office's Arabian department, sent a letter to Britain's political resident in the Persian Gulf, Sir George Middleton, saying: "The irreducible interest of the [United Kingdom] in Kuwait is that Kuwait shall remain an independent state having an oil policy conducted by a government independent of other Middle East producers [or most of them] and also having a policy independent of Communist or satellite influence; other interests, though most important, are subsidiary to this."

Britain's Prime Minister in 1960, Harold Macmillan, regarded an independent Kuwait as the cornerstone of any Middle East policy.

The papers also say that at the time, U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter suspected King Hussein of Jordan, of showing signs of "mental derangement." The king was actively trying to persuade the West that supporting him was their "best policy" in the region. In a meeting in Geneva, recorded by Britain's then-Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, Mr. Herter commented on King Hussein's "megalomania ideas" of taking over Iraq.

Selwyn Lloyd later met King Hussein in London and reported finding "absolutely no sign" of mental instability in the young monarch.

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