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American Crime Case #32: The 1991 Persian Gulf War – “Operation Desert Storm”

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.




From January 16 until February 27, 1991, the U.S. led a massive war of aggression, based on lies, against Iraq, a war which killed some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, wounded another 300,000, and led to the deaths of 70,000 civilians by January 1992.

On August 2, Iraq’s army invaded and occupied the neighboring country of Kuwait, a U.S. ally. President George H.W. Bush denounced Iraq’s action as “unprovoked aggression” and declared that it “will not stand.” Over the next five months, the U.S. built a military coalition and deployed more than 500,000 American and 200,000 allied troops to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. and its allies pushed through UN Security Council resolutions demanding an Iraqi withdrawal and the imposition of punishing sanctions.

Throughout these months, Bush claimed that “America does not seek conflict.” Yet Bush and his team rejected Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s offers to leave Kuwait, and at least 11 other international proposals to head off a U.S. attack. Bush secretly told his cabinet, “We have to have a war.”1

Phase I: “Instant Thunder.” The U.S.-led war began on the night of January 16, 1991, five months after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, with an unprecedented bombing assault code named “Instant Thunder.” For the next 43 days and nights, U.S. and British bombs and missiles pummeled Iraq from above. Coalition warplanes flew 109,876 combat sorties and dropped some 250,000 weapons—6,000 a day. The 88,500 tons of bombs were the explosive equivalent of six atomic bombs dropped on a country the size of California.2

Coalition planes targeted Iraq’s leadership and government and its military facilities and forces. But they also targeted Iraq’s civilian economic and social infrastructure—a war crime. U.S. and British bombs and missiles destroyed 80 percent of Iraq’s oil and gas refineries, many of its telecommunications centers, more than 100 bridges,3 and 11 of Iraq’s 20 power-generating stations. By the war’s end, Iraq’s electrical generation had been slashed by 96 percent.

Without electricity, water couldn’t be pumped, sewage couldn’t be treated, hospitals couldn’t function, and Iraq’s drinking water system was soon “in or near collapse,” according to the World Health Organization.4 Iraqi deaths from the devastating combination of contaminated water and crippled medical care began to soar. The old and the very young were hit hardest.

It was estimated that by January 1992, some 70,000 Iraqi civilians had died due mainly to the destruction of water and power plants. This hidden slaughter would continue for over a decade, taking the lives of at least 500,000 Iraqi children, as the U.S. and its allies imposed crippling sanctions that prevented Iraq from repairing this damage.5

Phase II: the ground war. On February 24, at 4:00 am local time, the U.S. launched its ground war from Saudi Arabia, moving into Kuwait and then southern Iraq.



On February 26, 1991, Iraqi forces were retreating north from Kuwait City to Basra in a long convoy of tanks, personnel carriers, trucks, buses, and cars. U.S. planes attacked both ends of the convoy, blocking off any escape, and for the next 48 hours Coalition aircraft and ground forces attacked anything that moved along that strip of roadway. Thousands were slaughtered, and the six-lane “highway of death” was left littered with burnt-out vehicles and charred bodies. Above photo: AP. Below photo: Kenneth Jarecke


The next day, February 25, Iraq announced it was pulling out of Kuwait, and made clear it would accept any U.S. or UN terms in return for a ceasefire. That day U.S. forces used tanks with plows mounted on them to push tons of sand into the World War 1-style trenches Iraqi troops were fighting from and bury them—some while they were alive—as heavy machine gun fire was also directed into the trenches. “What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people’s arms and land [sic] things sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed thousands,” said the colonel in command.

The morning of February 26, Bush rejected Iraq’s offer and other pleas to end the fighting. That day Iraqi forces were retreating north from Kuwait City to Basra. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell ordered U.S. forces to “cut them off and then kill them.”

U.S. planes attacked both ends of the convoy, blocking off any escape, and for the next 48 hours coalition aircraft and ground forces attacked anything that moved. Thousands were slaughtered, and the six-lane “highway of death” was left littered with burnt-out vehicles and charred bodies. Many were noncombatants, just trying to escape. One U.S. soldier said it was like “a medieval hell.” The White House declared the dead to be “torturers, looters, and rapists.”

The London Observer called it “one of the most terrible harassments of a retreating army from the air in the history of warfare.” Only after the slaughter was complete did Bush declare a ceasefire, at midnight on February 27.

The Pentagon later estimated that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 300,000 wounded during the war. Meanwhile, 147 U.S. soldiers were killed in combat, another 235 died of other causes, and 467 were wounded.6


President George H.W. Bush. Bush pulled together an international war coalition based on a campaign of deliberate lies and insisted in the face of global protests and peace initiatives that the U.S. wage war, and carry it out with maximum destruction.

Bush’s war council, the so-called “Gang of 8”: National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and his deputy Robert Gates, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of State James Baker, and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.

The U.S. military, in particular Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell, committed war crimes and waged what has been described as one of the most one-sided slaughters in history.

The United Nations. The UN Security Council (controlled by the world’s biggest powers) passed 12 resolutions against Iraq. The Bush administration saw these resolutions as its primary vehicle for building a war coalition and giving Desert Storm “a cloak of acceptability,” as Scowcroft put it.

The U.S.-led coalition of 28 countries that participated in one way or another in the U.S.-led and -controlled war on Iraq. These included—in various ways and to varying degrees—Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.

The U.S. media. The U.S. media overwhelmingly cheered on the Gulf slaughter. They broadcast hours of footage selected by the Pentagon to present an image of a clean, surgical war, and refused to show pictures of Iraqi casualties, which were readily available in the Arab media.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had instituted a press blackout banning media from the front, and any dispatches were vetted by the military. “More than 150 reporters who participated in the Pentagon pool system failed to produce a single eyewitness account of the clash between 300,000 allied troops and an estimated 300,000 Iraqi troops,” Newsday’s Patrick Sloyan reported. “There was not one photograph, not a strip of film by pool members of a dead body—American or Iraqi.”7


The U.S. concocted “satellite intelligence” showing Iraqi troops massing on Saudi Arabia’s border, when there were none, to justify sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the Gulf. To whip up war fever, it had a young Kuwaiti woman testify that she’d seen Iraqi troops in Kuwait take babies out of incubators and left them “to die on the cold floor,” and then spread what she said through the media. The story was made up; the young woman was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S. The U.S. also claimed war had been forced upon it after its “months of constant and virtually endless diplomatic activity” had been “totally rebuffed” by Iraq.

Bush said the coalition air war was aimed at “Saddam’s vast military arsenal,” not civilians, and that the U.S. simply sought to remove Iraqi troops and restore the “legitimate government of Kuwait,” and force Iraq’s compliance with UN resolutions.

On January 16, as the air war began, Bush declared:

This is an historic moment. We have in this past year made great progress in ending the long era of conflict and cold war. We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order—a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.


Control of the Middle East, with its vast petroleum reserves and location at the junction between Asia, Africa, and Europe, had been a key pillar of America’s global imperialist empire since the end of World War 2. That control had been exerted through U.S. bullying, threats, CIA coups, military assaults, and a network of regional “allies”—murderous U.S.-backed regimes including Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like Kuwait. The Bush administration felt Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was intolerable because it represented a potential threat to these allies, this setup, and to America’s domination of the whole region.

But Bush and the U.S. rulers weren’t just focused on Kuwait and the Middle East—they had their eyes on the whole world. Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was taking place when the Soviet Union was engulfed in crisis and its empire was breaking apart. The Soviets had been the U.S.’s main global rivals for decades and their “Cold War” conflict had brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation more than once.

Bush and his main adviser, Brent Scowcroft, realized that with their main rival imploding (the Soviet Union collapsed shortly after the Gulf War), they were at an historic turning point which they could seize to create “a new world order”—not of human emancipation but of unparalleled U.S. imperialist global domination.

This realization shaped how the Gulf War was fought.8 Bush and Scowcroft wrote, “In the first days of the crisis we had started self-consciously to view our actions as setting a precedent for the approaching post-Cold War world.” Scowcroft called the Gulf War “the bridge between the Cold War and the post-Cold War eras.”

This gave the U.S. rulers the freedom and the necessity to carry out this most direct, massive, and devastating U.S. military intervention in the region.

The U.S. rulers had backed, armed, and unleashed the Hussein regime to batter Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war9 and to some degree built up its military capacity—including enabling it to develop chemical and biological weapons. And in the immediate aftermath of that war, the U.S. continued to work with the Iraqi regime. But the U.S. had sharply clashed with Hussein’s regime in the 1970s, and still didn’t trust him. Hussein had longstanding ties with the Soviet Union, was not fully under the U.S. thumb, and had ambitions for Iraq in the region (including stated opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian people) that clashed sharply with U.S. interests.

Hussein’s sudden takeover of Kuwait represented a threat for all those reasons, especially because Iraq now had a large army, chemical and biological weapons (thanks to the West), and was pursuing the capacity to build nuclear weapons. Allowing Hussein to negotiate his way out of Kuwait, as he immediately tried to do, with Iraq’s military in one piece, its political weight increased, and its weaker Gulf neighbors intimidated, could alter the regional balance of power and pose dangers for key U.S. clients like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and allies like Israel and Egypt.10

So removing the danger Iraq posed and solidifying America’s grip on the region and the world required war—to crush Iraq as a regional player and send a clear message of U.S. power and dominance—across the region and around the world.

Scowcroft called “destroying as much of the Iraqi military machine as possible” their “foremost” objective.11 And Air Force strategists admitted that bombing Iraq’s civilian infrastructure was part of a deliberate strategy to give the U.S. post-war “leverage” over Iraq by destroying “valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance.”

The U.S. rulers could not create their “new world order” with their military encumbered by the legacy of its defeat in Vietnam. So the Bush leadership worked to rebuild the confidence of the U.S. armed forces and public support for military action abroad. “This will not be another Vietnam,” Bush declared. This dictated a strategy of overwhelming force, minimal U.S. casualties, and quick victory. “A spectacular victory was required,” Powell said.

This, and overall U.S. objectives, necessitated a military strategy that made the Gulf War one of the most one-sided slaughters in history and insured that tens of thousands of civilians would be killed—many during the war and far more afterward.12 Chillingly, the U.S. also had some 600 nuclear weapons in the region and was prepared to use them if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons.

On August 8, days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush declared the U.S. did not “seek to chart the destiny of other nations.” In reality the U.S. was seeking to violently “chart the destiny” not merely of nations, but of the whole world.


1. Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (Simon & Schuster, 1999), p. 185, corroborated by George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 463 [back]

2. The U.S.-led air war terrorized children: “I have a son 5 years old. During the air raid he was shaking, shivering, saying ‘Bush is coming, Bush is coming,’” one Iraqi said. Air Force Lt. General Charles A. Horner, who had overall command of the air war, called such psychological terror a “side benefit.”  [back]

3. Coalition warplanes hit roads, highways, railroads, hundreds of locomotives and boxcars full of goods, radio and television broadcasting stations, cement plants, and factories producing aluminum, textiles, electric cables, and medical supplies.  [back]

4. This destruction was compounded by U.S. attacks on plants making water purification chemicals such as chlorine.  [back]

5. U.S.-led forces fired 320 tons worth of DU (depleted uranium) munitions, generating tens of thousands of pounds of dust and debris that are both radioactive and toxic. They attacked Iraqi oil refineries and chemical weapons depots, which together with Iraq’s actions, triggered massive oil spills and released a toxic stew of chemical agents, pesticides, acid rain, soot, and smoke from burning oil wells into the atmosphere.  [back]

6. “Why U.S. casualties were low,” Dennis Cauchon, April 20, 2003, USA Today citing Department of Defense figures.  [back]

7. Some reporters did resist the Pentagon’s blackout. According to Sloyan, “More than 70 reporters were arrested, detained, threatened at gunpoint and literally chased from the front lines when they attempted to defy Pentagon rules.” In the end, all the press accounts of the highway of death came from reporters working outside the Pentagon pool.  [back]

8. Scowcroft later wrote: “The final collapse of Soviet power and the dissolution of its empire brought to a close the greatest transformation of the international system since World War I.” World Transformed.  [back]

9. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was one of the wars since Vietnam with nearly a million people killed or wounded. It was launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with a green light from the U.S., in order to weaken and possibly overthrow Iran’s new Islamic Republic, which had come to power in 1979. The U.S. armed both Iraq and Iran at different points, dragging out the war to weaken both countries, and thus contributing directly to the extent of the slaughter.  [back]

10. The U.S. “liberating” Kuwait meant restoring a despotic and decadent monarch ruling a country where a mere 3.5 percent of the population—literate male citizens over the age of 21—were allowed to vote, where nearly two-thirds of the pre-war population of 1.9 million were non-citizens who performed 80 percent of the labor, and where women were relegated to inferior, second-class status.  [back]

11. The day after Iraq’s invasion, Bush ordered the CIA to draft plans for overthrowing the Hussein regime through an “all-fronts effort to strangle the Iraqi economy, support anti-Saddam resistance groups inside or outside Iraq, and [to] look for alternative leaders in the military or anywhere in Iraqi society.”  [back]

12. Greenpeace called the U.S.-led Gulf War “the most efficient killing campaign ever executed by any military force.”  [back]



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