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The long road from Gulf War I to the brink of Gulf War II

WASHINGTON—In a speech to the American people on Feb. 27, 1991, President George Bush announced a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War and declared himself satisfied with the outcome. "Kuwait is liberated," he said. "Iraq's army is defeated."

What about Saddam Hussein? he later was asked. Would the United States let the dictator remain in power?

"We are not targeting Saddam," Bush said.

But that was then.

A dozen years later, a second President Bush appears set to open a second gulf war with the express purpose of toppling Saddam, who has retained a ruthless hold on Iraq while tenaciously resisting international efforts to make him give up his weapons of mass destruction.

The long, pothole-filled road from Gulf War I to the on-ramp of Gulf War II has included 17 United Nations resolutions, all of which Iraq has defied in one way or another.

It has included economic sanctions costing Iraq billions in oil revenue. It has included the imposition of no-fly zones restricting the mobility of the Iraqi air force. It has included the probings of weapons inspectors. Twice, it has included spurts of American and British bombing after Iraqi intransigence.

In the view of the current Bush administration, Saddam has proved willing to let his nation pay any price so long as he can hold on to his ambition of acquiring the nuclear weapons that would make him a power in the region and a player on the world stage.

The only solution, the administration appears to have decided, is to take him out. That means war.

Had the United States and its allies continued the ground war in 1991 beyond the 100 hours that President George Bush decreed, Saddam would have been history then. The road to Baghdad was open. The elite Republican Guard was in pell-mell retreat.

But Bush ordered a halt.

"People forget, we had a U.N. resolution to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but we did not have a resolution to completely pulverize the Iraqi army, which we could have done," said Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists, a research center in Washington.

There were fears, then as now, that Iraq would break into ethnic pieces in the event of a power vacuum and the whole Middle East would erupt in turmoil if the United States took over the capital of an Islamic country.

Saddam agreed in 1991 to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction and not to acquire new ones.

Hardly anyone thought then that Saddam could hold on for as long as he has. The first President Bush urged Iraqis to revolt and take care of him themselves.

Taking this cue, Kurds, in the north of Iraq, and Shiites, in the south, rose up within weeks of the war. But the United States and its coalition of 32 nations then stood by as Saddam's army crushed the rebellions.

That began a long series of miscalculations by the United States, the United Nations and the community of nations on how Saddam would respond to either the carrot or the stick.

The United Nations Special Commission, established to rid Iraq of chemical and biological weapons, quickly found itself in a game of cat and mouse.

In a pattern the United States says has persisted to this moment, Iraq typically would declare that whatever the inspectors were looking for didn't exist. If inspectors then came upon evidence of its existence, the regime would say it had been destroyed.

If the inspectors found a weapon—as they did many times—the regime would say, well, that's it, there are no more.

Secretary of State Colin Powell called this "a policy of evasion and deception that goes back 12 years."

Despite the obstacles, "the inspectors accomplished quite a bit," Oelrich said. "They destroyed large amounts of chemical weapons. They did less with biological weapons."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, at the same time, found and got rid of electromagnetic separators that could be used to build an atomic weapon. It removed uranium oxide. It melted down steel alloys that Iraq could have used for a centrifuge to produce nuclear material.

But in 1995, with the defection of Saddam's son-in-law, the United Nations learned that Iraq's biological weapons development had progressed far beyond what anyone had suspected.

After the U.N. inspectors stepped up the intrusiveness of their probe, Saddam went from dragging his feet to digging in his heels.

Finally, in 1998, he balked at letting inspectors go into one particular building they suspected was a weapons site. The inspectors said they could no longer do their jobs, and they went home.

President Clinton authorized Operation Desert Fox, a cruise-missile attack on all suspected weapons sites in Iraq.

That marked the second time the United States had bombed Iraq since the Gulf War. The first time was in 1993, after Saddam plotted to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait.

By 1998, Iraq was on the back burner of America's attention. It would remain there until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.

Within days, political hawks who had long wanted to remove Saddam from power began to argue that finding Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida operatives wasn't enough. On Sept. 13, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the United States should consider "ending states" that back terrorists. He meant Iraq.

Powell replied sharply: "Let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself."

Gradually, though, the Wolfowitz view took hold in the White House. Powell at least was able to convince President George W. Bush to give the United Nations one more shot at disarming Saddam.

Bush went before the U.N. General Assembly last Sept. 12, telling the world it either had to confront "the grave and gathering danger of Iraq" or America would.

Former Vice President Al Gore said a rush to war wouldn't help the war on terrorism, but would undermine it by discrediting the United States in the eyes of the world. Other Democrats joined in arguing against an Iraq war, or at least against the United States going to war alone.

On Oct. 10, the House of Representatives voted 296-133 to authorize the use of force against Iraq. On Oct. 11, by a vote of 77-23, the Senate did also.

The U.N. Security Council shortly afterward voted 15-0 for Resolution 1441, which told Iraq to disarm and cooperate with inspections or face "serious consequences."

Iraq said it would cooperate, but declared it had no banned weapons. The Pentagon, meantime, began to deploy 225,000 U.S. naval, air and land troops in the gulf region in preparation for war.

In November, inspectors returned to Iraq under the authority of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission.

On Jan. 9, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said at the United Nations: "We have now been (in Iraq) for some two months and have been covering the country in ever wider sweeps, and we haven't found any smoking guns."

International wavering on a second U.N. resolution—to authorize war more explicitly—turned into efforts to block any such a move. First Germany, then France, then Russia declared hostility to a new resolution.

"The opponents (of war) keep saying, give the inspections a few more months to work," said Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a public policy group in Washington. "But the reason we're here today, 12 years after (the Gulf War), is because, for 12 years, we've been saying, give it a few more months."

For Bush, the course now seems clear. Time, he has said over and over, is running out.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.