The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Remembrance and rebuilding – Kuwait 19 years after invasion


Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 4, August 2009 - by Jeff Allan


Saddam Hussein’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait is but one of the many large scale crimes he committed during the course of his bloody reign as President of Iraq. While Saddam murdered thousands upon thousands in alternatively creative and disturbingly efficient ways, and even used chemical weapons against combatants and civilians alike in Iran and inside Iraq itself, much of the world did not know him for what he was until this very event. Even among the despots of the Middle East, Saddam distinguished himself time and time again with his brutality and total control over Iraq’s people, turning the cradle of civilization into a heavily monitored, sprawling prison in which a parent could face death for cursing Saddam in his own home if his son or daughter innocently repeated the parent’s statement in school the next day. After the invasion of Kuwait, the true nature of Saddam was there for the world to see. Indeed, it was this act of naked aggression that eventually paved the way for the strengthening of the Iraqi opposition and ultimate overthrow of Saddam’s regime 12 years later.


Kuwait Minister of Public Works and State Minister for Municipality Affairs Dr. Fadhil al-Safar (on left) at August 2nd Commemoration - Photo Courtesy Jeff Allan © Kurdish Herald 2009


Following the discovery of oil in Kuwait, the country, then a British colony, was known for maritime commerce and pearl diving. Local legend states that oil was discovered during a search for a spring in the desert, and, following this momentous event, the state became extremely wealthy. Later, in 1961, Kuwait became independent from the United Kingdom on amicable terms. Oil wealth has enriched Kuwait’s government and citizens, and helped give rise to today’s Kuwait, clean and efficient Gulf state with a high standard of living. Under the leadership of the Sabah family, which has ruled since 1763, the country transformed itself into an oil-powered welfare state in which citizens, who comprise a minority of residents due to the presence of large numbers of foreign guest workers, receive a stipend and other high quality support and services from the government and do not pay any taxes.

In the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, following disputes over oil drilling and other economic issues, Iraq invaded Kuwait by land, air, and sea, initially sending in numerous divisions of the elite Republican Guard to destroy Kuwait’s government and annex the country. After quickly gaining some measure of control over Kuwait and eliminating the role of the Kuwait government, the Iraqi regime and its armed forces attempted to erase all vestiges of Kuwaiti national identity, destroying all government buildings and taking a number of specific measures to erase any and all expressions of Kuwait independence. According to internal Iraqi memoranda, measures taken to reaffirm Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait included the prohibition of circulation of the Kuwait dinar, the changing of license plates from Kuwait plates to new places showing national affiliation as Iraq with Kuwait as the province name, the changing of place names to celebrate Saddam and his regime, the withdrawal of Kuwaiti national identity certificates and substitution for Iraqi identity cards, and a ban on the ownership of the Kuwaiti flag and images of members of the Sabah family. One of many Iraqi documents explaining these specific measures reads as follows:

Date: 15/9/1990


As we were moving about the zone assigned to the Third Bayan Unit, we noticed that there are still slogans glorifying Kuwait and its deposed Emir, together with the flag and map of Kuwait. This was the case at al-Sadiq Roundabout.


Remove these within 24 hours. The same applies to all traces of the former regime in your respective units.

As Kuwaiti men and women took to the streets to protest against Iraqi occupation, terse orders arrived telling Iraqi soldiers how to cope with demonstrators, as seen in an excerpt from this Iraqi document:

Date: 9/9/1990

… a plan is to be set including the following:

a) Move quietly towards the demonstrations area and dismount in an appropriate place
b) Approach the demonstrators from behind, as far as possible, and block avenues of withdrawal
c) Deploy an echelon and simultaneously open fire on demonstrators using rifles, machine guns, SPG9 guns, light launchers and flame throwers to kill all of them, so that this action may deter all outlaws.


Painting depicts Kurdish Genocide in Iraq at the National Memorial in Kuwait - Photo Courtesy Jeff Allan © Kurdish Herald 2009



Saddam’s efforts in Kuwait at erasing the identity of a nation are not unique, even for him, as the invasion of Kuwait followed his Anfal campaign of genocide against Iraq’s Kurdish people by just a few years. Those cognizant of Saddam’s Arabization campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan will be unsurprised at the means ordered by the despot in his efforts to Iraqify Kuwait. Just as the province of Kirkuk was remained Ta’mim (“Nationalization” in Arabic), various places throughout Kuwait were renamed to express their new Iraqi identity, bearing names such as Saddam and Rashid (after Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph credited by many for the flourishing of Baghdad).


It is no coincidence that the same man who directed the Anfal campaign, Ali Hassan al-Majid, was put installed as the military governor of Kuwait following the invasion. Furthermore, the organized plunder of Kuwait is completely in keeping with the character of the Saddam regime in its own systematic rape of Iraq and organized campaign of theft and neglect in regions of Iraq perceived to be hostile to the regime, such as Kurdistan and the predominantly Shi’ite south. The unambiguous methods used in confronting the peaceful expression of opposition views are also all too familiar to Iraqis who lived under Saddam’s iron fist.


Following the January 17, 1991 initiation of UN-sanctioned, US-led military action aimed at driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, orders came from the highest levels in the Iraqi regime to steal everything possible from Kuwait. These orders were handwritten note on Iraqi Ministry of Oil stationary by Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam’s then powerful son-in-law and cousin, to Ali Hassan al-Majid on February 19, 1991 stating that Saddam had ordered Iraqi forces to “haul all possible possessions from the Kuwait Governorate… which could contribute to build up network facilities.” The note concluded, “Do your best to facilitate this mission. Victory is ours.” This final stage of robbery of the highest degree was viewed as a victory by Saddam and his henchmen.

Following the liberation of Kuwait on February 26, 1991, Kuwait began the process of rebuilding and recovery from the Iraqi occupation. The plunder of Kuwait’s resources was a sort of modern scorched earth campaign that left over 700 oil wells burning and millions of gallons of oil dumped into the Persian Gulf and included the organized destruction and looting of educational, scientific, and cultural institutions and landmarks such as the Kuwait Towers and the Kuwait National Museum. UNESCO labeled the actions of the Iraqi forces, many of whom were acting in accordance with strict orders from the highest levels of leadership, as a “premeditated, preplanned devastation.” Today’s Kuwait is a modern, expensive, consumer driven state with clean streets and modern, high rise buildings and reliable basic services. The scars of the tragic events of 1990-1991 are only outwardly available when they have been intentionally left in place for the purpose of remembrance, or where immortalized in war era photographs displayed in places such as the Kuwait Towers or the Sheraton hotel.

Nineteen years after the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaitis remember the Iraqi invasion all too well as the most calamitous event in their nation’s history. While Kuwait has visibly recovered, the events of 1990-1991 are undoubtedly etched into the Kuwaiti national consciousness. The book is not yet closed on this war. Years ago, 605 Kuwaitis abducted during the Iraqi occupation were still unaccounted for. After the removal of the Saddam regime in Iraq, the bodies of over 200 of these missing Kuwaitis were found buried in Iraq, though over 300 remain unaccounted for. A close look into the Kuwaiti reflections on the nation’s recent tragedy can be found at the Kuwait House of the National Memorial, the museum dedicated primarily to the events of 1990-1991. A tour of this modest, but nonetheless impressive and informative site, can teach a visitor a great deal about Kuwaiti perceptions of the war and all parties involved.


The Kuwait House of the National Memorial, also known as Beit al-Watani (the shortened Arabic form of its proper name), briefly addresses Kuwait’s pre-war history and asserts Kuwait’s historical existence as a geographic unit distinct from what is present-day Iraq. It then presents an account of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and its subsequent liberation, placing a great deal of emphasis on both the criminality of the Iraqi regime’s actions and the steadfast opposition to Iraqi opposition by the Kuwaiti people and the Kuwaiti resistance forces.


Interestingly, the Iraqi people are not vilified. It seems that efforts have been taken to show sympathy with the Iraqi people who suffered as a consequence of Saddam’s wars, as footage is shown of refugees crossing Iraq’s borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and, later, Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians is depicted and condemned. This, among other atrocities including the use of chemical weapons on Iran and the torture and execution of Kuwaitis, is featured in a hall entitled “The Iraqi Regime Crimes – Mother of all Crimes”.


Photos in memory of victims of chemical attacks in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan at National Memorial in Kuwait - Photo Courtesy Jeff Allan © Kurdish Herald 2009


Rather than unfairly indicting the Iraqi people for the events of 1990-1991, Beit al-Watani seems more concerned with proving time and time again the criminal nature of Saddam Hussein and his willing accomplices. New exhibits celebrate the capture of Saddam and picture Iraqis celebrating the downfall of Saddam’s regime and, later, the news of the dictator’s arrest. The head of a large statue of Saddam rests on the floor of the museum, peering out of a replica of the “spider hole” in which Saddam was found on the day of his capture.

On August 2 of this year, a special event was held at the presentation center of Beit al-Watani commemorating the anniversary of the invasion. This event featured a film on the war followed by a play which depicted different scenes from the war including one event which was a common experience for Kuwaiti families under Iraqi occupation – the arbitrary capture of young Kuwaiti men and their subsequent torture and execution. Following the play, young Kuwaitis wearing a variety of the costumes depicting people from all walks of life sang patriotic songs and, one by one, stepped forward and loudly proclaimed in Arabic, “I love Kuwait.” The event was as much a remembrance of the terrible events of the invasion and occupation as a demonstration of patriotism. This event was attended by Dr. Fadhil al-Safar, Minister of Public Works and State Minister for Municipality Affairs, a senior representative of the Kuwaiti government.

Nineteen years and many thousands of deaths later, the darkest day of Kuwaiti history cannot be forgotten as it also proved to be a watershed in the modern history of the Middle East. For the first time ever, the world was unable to ignore the brutality of Saddam and his regime. Indeed, for the first time, an Arab country was harshly victimized by Saddam, just years after he waged a war against Iran which he claimed was fought in defense of the entire Arab world. Today, partially as a result of Saddam’s ill-fated adventure in Kuwait, the Middle East is a very different place. One must hope that other dictators and murderers in the region will soon also face justice, and that the lessons of the 1990-1991 war and its legacy can be studied and learned from by many in the years to come.





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