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The 1991 Iraq War — A Messy End

An international coalition launched Operation Desert Storm, authorized by UN Resolution 678, on January 17, 1991, to force Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait. Iraq responded by launching missile and artillery strikes on targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia and invading Khafji, a small Saudi Arabian city. In some brilliant military maneuvering by General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, Coalition ground forces were able to move into Kuwait by February 24, a mere five weeks after the offensive had begun. By the 27th, Saddam Hussein ordered the retreat of Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The following day, President George H.W. Bush declared a cease-fire, marking the end of hostilities.

Despite Saddam’s crushing defeat and the Coalition’s unbelievably quick victory, there was disagreement in Washington and New York as to how the Coalition and the United Nations should proceed. As UN Ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering said, “One of the things that we do wonderfully is plan wars and execute them and one of the things we do traditionally terribly is to figure out on what basis to end them.”

Many criticized the Coalition for allowing Saddam Hussein to stay in power, as its forces never pushed through to Baghdad after driving the Iraqi army from Kuwait. By March 1991, Coalition troops already began to withdraw from the region. While Ambassador Pickering agreed with the decision not to attack Baghdad, he expresses his surprise that troops started withdrawing so early, as the “job was still partly half done.”

The third and final part of Thomas Pickering’s account on the Iraq War details how the United Nations went about negotiating the end to the war and specifically, UN Resolution 687 on sanctions, which included some purposefully ambivalent language on whether Saddam could stay in power. He also discusses the well-meaning but ill-fated oil-for-food program and how Saddam ironically proved to have more leverage in the UN than the victorious Coalition members did.

Read Parts I and II, the Gathering Storm. Go here for more on the Shia Uprising and U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman’s account of Desert Storm, The War Never Really Ended.


Phase Three — War Termination

PICKERING:  The third phase had to do eventually with the one I’ve just set the stage by talking about and that was war termination.

War termination took place in a couple of phases. The immediate phase in which I frankly was shocked was that we would designate a general officer to meet the Iraqis at a airfield, Safwan, in southern Iraq and negotiate the terms of the Iraqi removal from Kuwait with no U.S. government position and with no interagency consultations….

The expectation wasn’t that it was going to be over in a hurry, the expectation was that it would take time. The expectation was that we shouldn’t underestimate the 24 or 44 or whatever divisions the Iraqis had in Kuwait.

The truth is we did not estimate accurately the value of the bombing campaign, particularly with respect to the tactically deployed Iraqi forces and how effective it was and how demoralizing it was. The Iraqis fought pretty well in that one foray they tried to make into Kuwait….

They came into Saudi Arabia and we pushed them back. So they appeared to have some tactical confidence, not that they were the Wehrmacht on a blitzkrieg, but they were technically competent. There were a lot of stories. We built large desert hospitals, a series of hospital complexes, because we were wary of very high casualties and that played a role in our looking at this thing.

I had a very interesting vignette — sometime in late October I came down to Washington. Colin Powell was Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], he had asked me to stop by and see him from time to time. I took the opportunity to do so.

We sat alone in his office and talked a bit and I said, “You know I’ve been thinking, Colin, I’m not a military person, but a few years ago I did an overland trip. One leg of that was from Kuwait all along the Iraqi border up to Jordan inside Saudi Arabia.” I said, “It’s a wide open area and we initially went off the main road into the desert to camp in one of these places just about forty kilometers past the tri-point of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It looked wonderfully trafficable and very easy to pass.”

I said, “If I were you I would think about going up there and moving around the end of the Iraqi defense line.” He looked at me and said, “You know, that’s a consideration and we’ve looked at it but the logistics are too difficult.”

He wanted to get rid of that, he didn’t want anybody to talk about it. In light of what happened, it was interesting, not that this was a uniquely inventive idea — encirclement and outflanking are always real possibilities. But it was, I’m sure, very much on his mind and he was contending with the logistics of making that shift which we ended up doing beautifully.

The Difficulties of the Peace Process

Q: Making peace is an obvious thing that diplomats do, and normally something that generals don’t do. Were you getting any of this through the Washington bureaucracy?

PICKERING: I talked to [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, pictured] Bob Kimmitt and said, “Who’s the State Department representative?” and they said, “We don’t have one.”

So I said, “Why would you do that? We at least have people who speak Arabic, who know the situation, who have been around Iraq and you guys must have thought we’ve sent you a lot of ideas, you must have a distillation of ideas about what you want to do right and do you want to permit this all this to happen?” [i.e., the conclusion of the war and lack of consequences for Iraq]. Well, it was what was going to happen I guess….

As [the Iraqi Armed Forces’] reward for this remarkable lightning victory, they went to the table and, of course, out of that had come things like, “It’s OK to fly your helicopters.”

I think [Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command] General Schwarzkopf maybe meant “It’s OK to come in and out of these peace talks by helicopter,” but they [the Iraqis] said, “Oh terrific, we will fly our helicopters all over the country,” and proceeded to do so and we did nothing.

I think that aided them remarkably in defeating the Shia in the end when the Shia uprising took place. We were a little bit uncertain as to whether we would encourage it or discourage it. But the [Shia rebels] had the feeling that we were ready to go and support them.

They rejected this idea about these big UN zones, which I thought would have made a lot of sense in moving ahead.

About that time, in fact on the afternoon of the last day of ground war, I talked to my staff, and we came up with an idea — that I call Bob Kimmitt about it. It was late in the afternoon of the day the war was over….

I said, “I worked with al-Anbari, the Iraqi Ambassador here for a long time. I can tell you that I think he knows how to deliver messages at home and he’ll deliver them well, he’s a professional.” I said, “I think I ought to go meet with al-Anbari right away and set up that channel.”

In 15 minutes he came back and he said, “Do it.”

I called al-Anbari and he said, “Well, I’ve been waiting for months by the phone to hear from you.” He said, “Come now.” So I went up and we set up a channel.

I said, “I will call you and come by to see you to deliver messages. Here’s the message.” I gave him the President’s statement on the end of the war. “But I want you to stand by for more messages and I hope you’ll be available on very short notice.” And he said, “Anytime, I’m available, it’s been awful” right in his residence, which I’m sure was bugged by his own security services.

It was remarkable in New York walking into a room with a large picture of Saddam glowering down, but we used that channel for three months or four months. I incorporated from time to time the British and the French in it. Sometimes we delivered tripartite messages. Sometimes we delivered the toughest messages I’ve ever delivered diplomatically to anybody and we usually got a response back within 48-hours that Iraq will comply — so it was a very effective channel.

In fact, in conveying to Saddam what it was what we expected him to do, I don’t think we made as much use of it for as long as we could have, but we made quite exemplary use of it during that period of time….

Saddam (still) at the helm:  “I was surprised we got out so early because I thought the job was still half done”

[Many thought,] there is always a chance that [Saddam] won’t survive because he’s committed all of these sins in the eyes of the Iraqi people.”

But he had this Iraqi monolithic security establishment which, if anything, got worse as we later looked at it. It was patterned certainly on what Stalin did, it was the model, but it was even more ruthless and was even more draconian. It involved everything. It included inducements to kind of immediate assassination in a public forum of individuals.

We were talking the other night at a group about how Saddam called the cabinet together in a large room, immediately announced the replacement of the cabinet by a new cabinet list and then made every one of the new cabinet members go out and shoot his predecessor right there in the anteroom to the assembly hall. …It was televised. So the notion of an early collapse was not so easy to envisage.

The other issue that was around and it is a military issue and it’s one that I looked at later but I didn’t have much feel for it during the time was that a large number of Revolutionary Guard troops ended up on the south side of the Euphrates — I guess, under the guns of the most advanced American elements.

The war ended in a way and under circumstances where very significant numbers of their armored vehicles could be withdrawn and brought up over bridges and taken back to Baghdad rather than in fact made to stay in place and be surrendered to American forces.

This allowed the reconstitution of the Revolutionary Guards in a way that made them more robust than they would have been had they in fact all been surrendered. Nobody thought about that very much and thought about where it was to go.…

Q: There is a lot of debate whether we should have taken another 24-hours and taken the Revolutionary Guards. 

PICKERING:..I think we could have gotten another 24-hours or even 36-hours out of that war. I didn’t feel that we were being overwhelmingly pushed at the UN to end it and I think certainly we could have held off a meeting particularly if we said that the war will be over in 36-hours kind of thing, that we are just mopping up. So I didn’t feel that.

I was quite surprised that we got out so early in part because I thought the job was still partly half done. I was totally convinced in those days that going to Baghdad was not a good idea. Going to Baghdad was not a good idea because in fact we had not set the political predicate for it in the resolutions. Partly, I thought it was a bad idea because I didn’t know what kind of fighting we would get into in the heart of Baghdad.

I was not interested in seeing huge casualties from the U.S. side as a result of city fighting or to the same degree a huge fight and casualties on the Iraqi side in a kind of indiscriminate destruction that often takes place in city fighting. I don’t think we were prepared to do that, had no mandate and were not called upon to do so.

There was this argument about not fighting in summer and undoubtedly we would have been pulled into the summer fighting 100 percent. I think the real question was: Could we have carried our allies, probably not too many of them, if that was the case? So all of those fitted together as a piece and I think the President was deeply committed not to go on to Baghdad….

But the question was, in winding up the phase we were engaged in [withdrawal from Iraq/end of Gulf War]:  Did we do the best of all possible jobs? I certainly have severe doubts.

UN Resolution 687: “So we didn’t go to Baghdad. Instead, we went to New York and the Security Council.”

I think things began to come apart as we moved out of the combat phase and into essentially the diplomatic phase. Now, I have to say that in New York the two pieces I’ve just talked about were preliminaries. The big piece was the notion of a resolution that we would put in place which would define the time and circumstances of Iraqi actions, from the international community, and impose those on Saddam with respect to his future.

So that while we didn’t go to Baghdad. Instead, we went to New York and the Security Council. There we attempted to put into place with our friends and allies and the other members of the Security Council a construct that could deal with the myriad problems that came out of the war and the things that we wanted to have done. This became and still is in many ways a groundbreaking Resolution 687.

It had a lot of different pieces and parts but it was a resolution that people had begun to think about in Washington and London and Paris. It was a resolution that brought together arms control considerations, typical UN peacekeeping, the notion of finance and who pays and compensation, the return of prisoners and captured material, all of those kinds of things. Those formed the four corners of that resolution.

We worked extensively on the language in New York because we had in effect the group that was prepared to do that. We got a lot of language from Washington, but in the end it was a resolution we put together. It came in three parts, which was unusual for a UN resolution. Most of it was under Chapter VII, so it was mandatory and we set forth a whole set of obligations and requirements.

One of the most interesting, of course, was under what circumstances would the sanctions come off. The sanctions were going to come off when Saddam had complied. My view in working out that resolution was that we actually had agreed to provide a time and circumstances, not a date certain, but a condition certain, for the removal of those sanctions.

Over the years since, we have evolved a different view of that and that view was, in effect, that it’s highly unlikely if Saddam is still there we will take off the sanctions. There was no way that Saddam could, by staying in power, meet the conditions of the removal of the sanctions under Resolution 687. That was a bone of contention later on with our friends and allies.

I had the pleasure of giving a speech explaining that resolution which articulated both the terms. And [future Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright later said, “You know I was confused about this so I went back and read your speech, Tom,” and she said, “I’m still confused.”

I said, “You should have been because, in fact, I had to keep faith with the people I negotiated with by putting one thesis in and I was instructed by the State Department to put the other one in so rather than worry about the calamity of two different points of view, I just found a way to get them into different pieces of the speech.”…

It took quite a bit of time between us, the British and the French and then we went into a lot of discussions with the Russians and the Chinese to bring them along with the various concepts, explain what was going on to take into account their views.

One of their critical views was that we had to be prepared to lift sanctions on the basis of full compliance by Saddam. We agreed to that in New York. Washington later changed its mind about whether that was a good thing, but it was done with Washington’s full knowledge and it was done as an absolutely necessary basis to get the resolution….

Oil-for Food, Reparations and Resolutions

In a sense this resolution was fascinating because the primary area where it broke ground was to say that we are concerned about weapons of mass destruction. Admittedly, we have an international non-proliferation issue, but here we have a state that’s made a huge mistake and ended up getting egg all over its face and defeated militarily.

Can we now impose on that state a whole series of rigorous disarmament requirements in the weapons of mass destruction area, including a very intrusive inspection mechanism? And we all said yes, we think that this not only is deserved, but it’s necessary.

There was a serious concern about proliferation and how [Saddam] would handle a nuclear weapon if he got one, to say nothing of his vast experience with chemicals and a deep concern about biological weapons and what he would do with bugs. So, this part I think took a lot of work, but it was put together very carefully and we had to sit down and we created a new piece of the United Nations.

We brought the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] in, although I can tell you that’s because the IAEA inspection up until about then was regulated by subsidiary agreements to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore required a continuing deference to state sovereignty and a state’s ability to say yes to inspections.

It was uncertain in the United States as to whether we could wean the IAEA away from that culture. We tried with a set of regulations and rules in the resolution that said in fact that Saddam didn’t have a choice in this regard that he had to accept these inspections. While it did not say what the punishment would be for non-compliance, one area was self-evident that sanctions would continue.

Then we had to discuss what are we going to do about the humanitarian tragedy that we are seeing in Iraq among the Iraqis and how do we deal with that. We said there has to be in this resolution a statement that, of course, food and medicine can continue to flow to Iraq.

Not only that, we are prepared to work out with Saddam a mechanism to use the revenue from his oil exports and to permit those oil exports — they were prohibited under the sanctions — for the purpose of the feeding and taking care of the health of his own people. So we put that in without the mechanism which was later negotiated and that took time. It took him five years to come around to that.

At the same time, we said we would put in a UN peacekeeping force, but we had a kind of wimpy force a mile deep into Kuwait on the border and almost nothing in Iraq or maybe a mile into Iraq, but nothing much — contrary to this much more extensive UN program we in New York had suggested. We fought over that and fought over that from New York, but eventually lost because Washington and the Defense Department didn’t want to take care of that or have the obligation to do anything like it. They were very short sighted, but that was that!

We set up a Claims Compensation Commission of the UN which in effect got a significant share of the oil export money once it started to flow. It went into an escrow account and set itself up as a juridical body to decide the claims that people had against Iraq for the damage done to them during the war, against including Kuwaitis who had an early call on the money, as well as people around the world who had suffered damages.

I forget whether we put a priority on the claim for civilian damages, I don’t remember yet whether we excluded or not governmental damages. We were not going to get the Iraqis to pay for the whole cost of the war in the U.S. because we had already been around with a cup in hand and gotten the Saudis and the Japanese and other people to do that.

But this was a hugely new effort, totally unforeseen in the United Nations, embarked upon by the UN and requiring the setting up of another organization in the system to function and to carry this out, including what rules it should apply and how it should work and that kind of thing. They handled billions of dollars in the end.

We set rules, not to the degree of fine detail, but on the basis of general principles which we had to put together in this resolution as we went ahead. Then, of course, it went through all of the other questions — all the materials stolen from Kuwait, the return of prisoners, that kind of thing was all part of this resolution.

Sanctions and humanitarian supplies:  “Saddam was in the catbird seat”

It was, in many ways, one of the most complex, one of the largest groundbreaking resolutions in the entire UN history. If people are looking for precedents of how the international community can come together and act with respect to a state that violates the rules and can do so on a coalition basis and work hard to get them back on track, this is not a terrible precedent.

Admittedly, there were huge problems with oil for food. In my view that was true not because it wasn’t well prepared, but in part because at the time that it was negotiated, Saddam had more leverage among the parties and in the Security Council in 1995 than he had back in ’91 when the concept was first put in place.

Secondly, that it was impossible to substitute UN officials for Iraqi officials in the distribution of the food and in the oversight of the medicines. It was just too big a burden for the international community to take on especially since they did not control the territory. So in effect in the end he was in the catbird seat with respect to this.

I think that we and the rest of the world were so traumatized by the reaction of many people with humanitarian preoccupations which he played on, that this wasn’t working well, that we refused to intervene especially when we knew that Saddam was gaining kickbacks from the money from oil contracts he was awarding because in the end he awarded the contracts for the food and medicine and for the oil sales to the people he most wanted to influence. So there was an uncannily large amount of this that went to France and to Russia.

As a result in effect he bought influence and used kickbacks from this program in a way that took advantage of it to a great extent. I’m not blaming the humanitarian people for saying this program wasn’t working. Of course it wasn’t working, not because the UN was at fault, but because Saddam himself refused to distribute the food and medicine fairly.

He kept it in warehouses for his close friends from Tikrit and from other places in Iraq to build up his own domestic position. The poor, the disadvantaged were badly dealt with and so it was in a sense a failure as a program done with the very best of intentions of the international community.

Searching for WMDs — “The UN destroyed a great deal and so did Saddam”

In the end I don’t think it argues that you shouldn’t do such a program, but it argues that you have to nail it down and do a lot more to control it, and maybe use the international community a lot more. But Saddam was a particularly difficult character because in the end he tried to thwart UNSCOM [United National Special Commission] and keep them out of places.

Early on UNSCOM would come to me and I would say my instructions are to tell you that you have the full support of the United States and I am ready to go to the Security Council and we are ready in fact to fly the airplanes and roll the tanks and make all the right noises and gestures and efforts to make sure that this worked.

[Director of the UN’s Special Commission on Iraq, pictured] Rolf Ekéus, who was running it, came to me several times and said, “Without your support, your ability to do this, we would have been dead.” We would not have done anything, but we were able to do that and, of course, we used the [Iraqi Ambassador to the UN] Al-Anbari channel on a lot of these occasions to send these messages that helped to reinforce Iraqi behavior at least temporarily.”

UNSCOM, later UNMOVIC, the United Nations inspection mechanism for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was headed by a Swede, Rolf Ekéus. Bob Gallucci became his first deputy for a couple of years and it had an interventional inspectorate and many of them did a terrifically good job. We provided them with support and advice and other countries did and they developed a mechanism to do this.

They developed a mechanism in which they would have limited distribution access to very sensitive information about what was going on in Iraq. We were able to give it to them and they used that among other things to try to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Other countries did as well. Sometimes that information was bad and they got zero; other times it was very good.

Sometimes they would hit an Iraqi place where they would get blocked as they watched Iraqis try to go out through the back door. They got smart enough to go around the other side so at least they could see it coming, but they were not armed. They were not a military force. They were there for the purpose of inspecting Iraqi establishments.

They discovered a huge amount. They destroyed a great deal and so did Saddam and they provided what was a remarkable example of an imposed disarmament regime on a bad acting country in a way that achieved very important objectives.

In the end as we know, unbeknownst to all of us, certainly to me at the time of my departure from the Clinton administration at the end of the year 2000, they for one reason or another were successful enough and were thus able to convince Saddam that he should get rid of this stuff.

And he actually did get rid of his nuclear program and I believe part of his chemical and biological programs, if not all, as we found out in 2003 and 2004, when we occupied Iraq and had a chance to look for it all.