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

January 15, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

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.

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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.

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