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The 1991 Iraq War – The Battle at the UN: The Gathering Storm

Although several resolutions were passed by the UN Security Council imposing sanctions on Iraq, they did not have the desired effect of forcing Saddam Hussein to order his military to stand down and withdraw from Iraq. Saddam, in an effort to rally Arab support for his position, said he would only withdraw from Kuwait if Israel withdrew from the Occupied Territories and Lebanon, if Syria withdrew from Lebanon, and there were “mutual withdrawals by Iraq and Iran and arrangement for the situation in Kuwait.” Any agreement would also involve the reversal of sanctions and boycotts on Iraq. The United States was staunchly opposed to any concessions to Iraq. Although several UN members and the Secretary General tried to negotiate with Iraq, it soon became clear these efforts were going nowhere.

Eventually the “mother of all resolutions,” Resolution 678, was passed in the UN Security Council, which set a deadline of January 15, 1991 for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait before the member states of the UN used “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

In Part II, Tom Pickering continues in his recollection of his time as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations when intense negotiations took place to draft and then pass the UN resolutions. He also recounts how his team came up with a plan for monitoring Iraq after the war, along the lines of what was done in the Sinai, but which was ultimately rejected by the U.S. military.

Read Parts I and III here. Go here for Ambassador Chas Freeman’s account of Desert Storm. Read other Moments on Iraq.


“I discovered that, yes indeed, our military guys wanted to go capture these [Iraqi] tankers regardless of whether we had a Security Council resolution or not”

PICKERING: One of the first resolutions, long before the use of force resolution at the end of November,…predicated a narrow use of force against Iraqi tankers which had left Iraq in contravention of the blockade, carrying fuel, carrying oil. They were seemingly headed for the open ocean coming down the Persian Gulf.

It was in the view of everybody a violation of the blockade so what are we going to do about it? We had proposed a resolution, which would allow the naval forces of the coalition… to board and take control of these tankers. We didn’t say use force as I remember, but it was clearly implied.

The coalition had been established from the beginning because we had, in effect, a whole series of countries willing to contribute troops or moving troops to defend Saudi Arabia and which had begun to coordinate around the U.S. military commander. Staffs were being set up and all of that was going on. This was, I think, in the middle of the second week of August when this resolution came up.

I had been out at Aspen. There was a dyspeptic Canadian press conference earlier in the week about the U.S. seeming to move away from the use of the Security Council. I came back partly for this resolution, assured my Canadian friends we were staying on board and in the meantime discovered through the State Department that, yes indeed, our military guys wanted to go capture these tankers regardless of whether we had a Security Council resolution or not.

I said to [Under Secretary for Political Affairs] Bob Kimmitt and to the people working on the resolution, “Please tell the Secretary I think I can get this resolution in 24 hours and that we need the time to do that. But that’s not going to lose these tankers. However, if we don’t get the resolution, if we walk away from the Security Council, we will have walked away from all of the support, this huge anchor that we have built, the whole juridical business that gave in effect, a strong basis in legitimacy internationally in what we were doing. It would begin to pull apart in the coalition including some of the Arabs we wanted to have on the ground with us in Saudi Arabia.” We were working hard to bring in units of 300 Salvadorans and 15 Guatemalans in all in order to build up strength in the coalition, the usual thing that goes on.

So they came back right away and said OK. In the meantime I had a couple of problems. One of those, I think, was Yemen. The Yemenis were brought on board by our saying to the Yemenis, yes indeed, we would see as a favorable outcome of this if these two tankers went into a port in Yemen and stayed there forever, as long as the sanctions were on. So the Yemenis came back and said they were prepared to do that. We kind of worked that as a political way of dealing with this into the resolution….

Gathering Public Support Against Iraq

A lot of things we did were obviously public relations. We got to a point where it became clear from the reports we were getting from Kuwaitis and from reports that were coming out of Kuwait that the Iraqis had become very abusive and very punitive in their occupation — taking everything from military equipment and civil airplanes to archeological artifacts back to Iraq, making a lot of arrests and harsh interrogations, some murders, assassinations, and abuse of women. It was clear that Iraqi military force was not under total, strict control.

So we decided that we needed another resolution. We would in effect take on the opportunity to present to the Council, and get the Kuwaitis to sponsor this, a whole series of things, personal appearances, videos and others of people who had escaped, people who had endured Iraqi occupation, to describe it in some detail and we did. We put on a whole three-hour presentation in a public meeting of the Security Council, public meetings were all televised in those days, not just in New York but got a lot of national television because of the interest in this.

This was very important because then it helped us to pass a resolution, which in fact, put Iraq on notice that it was in the zone of war crimes and carrying out activities in Kuwait, which were contrary to international law. They would be personally responsible for them.

Negotiating the Use of Force Resolution

So this build-up went on and it moved along pretty well. We had another serious hiccup near the end of November. By the end of November the resolution on the use of force had begun to take shape in capitals. We had little to do with it, but at that point we knew it was coming. We had a very rough idea of what it would include and that Secretary [of State James] Baker had done trips to meet almost all of the foreign ministers of the members of the Council including a lot of heads of states. President Bush had called a lot of them personally.

Critical calls were [to Eduard] Shevardnadze, who was then Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, and [Mikhail] Gorbachev to bring them on board. The British and the French, of course came on. They had some of their own considerations that had to be factored in. The resolution authorized states cooperating with the coalition to use “all necessary means” to in effect achieve the objectives of the first resolution — liberate Kuwait.

It was interesting because while all that was going on, we were given an opportunity within a few days of the presentation of that resolution to work with the other delegations in New York to make sure that we had the wording right and the technical stuff right. There were a few open questions. There was a certain date after which the resolution would become effective. There was, in a sense, a grace period in the resolution to permit Iraq to participate one way or another in getting out of Kuwait, whether through negotiation or otherwise.

The resolution came and we had discussions in the P5 [Permanent Five Members of the Security Council]. There were few if any changes, they had all been informed and they knew where they were. Actually Secretary Baker came up and met with the Cuban Foreign Minister…to try to talk him into being supportive of this; he wasn’t. He talked to the Yemenis; they were not….

We decided to have the meeting at the ministerial level to pass the use of force resolution. We would have the ministers in the chair, which was unusual, it happened maybe once, or twice before what we did. The U.S. was President of the Council.

Secretary Baker came up and chaired the meeting — the ministers all spoke. It was clear that Yemen was not going to support us, but I think we had twelve, the Chinese abstained, and the rest did…maybe one of the others abstained, but we had a comfortable majority for that resolution and it went through.

At that meeting, Secretary Baker offered to have a meeting with Saddam Hussein and or the Iraqis to discuss the whole situation. So we opened up a potential negotiating path….The effective date for the implementation of the resolution was the 15th of January, some 45 days after passage to allow time for negotiations. The announcement on our willingness to meet Iraq was done after the vote but it was done confident that we would get a pretty good vote and it was done confident that an approach like this would be helpful in bringing on the rest of the world community.

Meet the Press

During this whole process from August to the end of November at the UN, we had avid and intense press interest in what was going on, near a feeding frenzy. There were several press stakeouts, one on the entrance into the Security Council area, coming in and going out.

The press, of course, could cover live the formal meetings which were held in the open Security Council chamber and the stakeouts were used by the parties including the U.S. to talk through the press to both to the members of the UN, but even more importantly to the general public about what was going on, where we were headed, what our objectives were and what our views were on about achieving those objectives.

So there was a lot of opportunity to talk to the press. I used it as frequently as I could in a way with the first priority being that to assure in fact that the membership in the UN, the states members, were fully conversant with what was going on and were not going to get wobbly on me or move off the bandwagon.

There was a growing push back on us and the actions we were taking in the Council. It had come to a head around the use of force resolution and I did not want to see it undo all that we had put together….

Behind the Scenes Influences and Controversy

One of the things you have to remember in those days was that Brazil was the largest exporter of military equipment to Iraq after Russia, I think, and maybe even ahead of France in those days.

Yes, they sold a lot of armored cars and some artillery and trucks and things of that sort. So they all were heavily dependent on petroleum and so for them this was a next-door trade issue. They were certainly not out of it or thought that this was remote in any way beyond where they were.

So the use of the press there [in Latin America] was a fundamental tool. My own view was that later on I think that there was certainly a — and I got reflections on this — concern in Washington that Pickering was too much in the press. But it was a concern not that I wasn’t being effective or certainly no one conveyed concern to me that I had articulated a view that wasn’t U.S. policy, but just concern there was too much. It happened without a full understanding either of what this meant both in being able to be successful in keeping the UN part of this effort mobilized. I think secondarily because the UN was a big center of attention in keeping the world moving with their part of it….

I had been down fairly often to see both the President and the Secretary and Baker had been up to see me. None of that was expressed. Occasionally, I would get a view about why did I say a particular thing and I would say I said a particular thing because we needed that to go where they wanted me to go and I thought it was in the authority that I had on the basis of existing policy….

We were continuing a [military] buildup and that build up continued until the 15th of January. The bulk of that buildup took place probably after September, in October, November, December.

The view already came over to us that the Americans can’t fight in hot weather and so we have to finish this all before the summer of 1991 and therefore there is an imperative. I didn’t necessarily accept that view as dispositive, but I accepted it as a clear indication of a timetable. I had no role in trying to reset the timetable or to change the approach.

I think we all felt we had to live with it. We had some regret obviously that Saddam wasn’t wise enough to wake up in advance and understand what was going to hit him and accept sanctions and a withdrawal. On the other hand, I think that as time went on we had become pretty confident that he wasn’t going to do that and the use of force was the direction in which we were headed….

Inside the Mind of Saddam Hussein

I think we read [Saddam] as someone who was marching to his own drummer, difficult to predict, very obdurate, certainly totally confident in his own efforts. His own confidence had obviously increased remarkably by his ability rapidly to knock off Kuwait in 24 hours.

I think this all added to his own misplaced sense of where he stood in the world firmament and I think this led him into one disaster after another.

We had another difficult thing that happened in the end of the first phase, slopped over into the second phase. There was very clearly the development during this period beginning fairly early on but much more intensively as time went on as where Saddam saw the Security Council going. He wanted to hook himself in to the Arab-Israeli situation and become the champion of the Arab cause. He wanted to convert the invasion of Kuwait into a new jihad which he would lead, the “new war” against Israel and therefore we were very, very careful to try to keep things separate. Kuwait was the first stop on the road to liberate Jerusalem and expel the Israelis.

It happened sometime in November, I recall maybe early or mid-November before we got the use of force resolution and I was President of the Security Council in November, which means I was in the chair…

In the meantime we had a big dustup on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, such that Israelis fired upon a crowd, I think seven or nine people were killed, maybe many more. The crowd had been throwing rocks over the Western Wall on Jews who were praying at their holiest shrine, which is the western abutment of the Temple Mount. So the Israeli police went up to stop it and firing had broken out. These people had been killed; there was seesawing civil commotion and riots.

Of course, immediately the Arabs tried to bring this into the Security Council and we were at risk of losing the coalition…

Phase 2: Last-Ditch Efforts to Negotiate with Saddam

Then what happened was interesting because the next phase was characterized by a serious disinterest in the part of the U.S. and the others in doing anything in the Security Council. We had achieved the epitome: we had gotten all of these resolutions, including the crowning 12th, Resolution 678 on the use of force, all passed.

While we had suggested negotiations, which took place in Geneva between James Baker and [Foreign Minister] Tariq Aziz, his opposite number from Iraq, they got nowhere. They took place I think in late December. There were then several other currents astir. One of these was that Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary General, felt that he in his own role as Secretary General of the United Nations could not escape an opportunity to at least do what he could with the Iraqis to see if he could get them to withdraw. This raised the potential of a negotiation and all the difficulties that that would portend.

Secondly, we had the creation in the Security Council, essentially of a Gang of Four. I think it was Colombia, Malaysia, Cuba and Yemen. Their next tactic was to push for negotiations with Iraq….

I took the position that anybody could try to negotiate with Saddam if they wanted. I couldn’t block that and the U.S. couldn’t stop that, but that any state that wished to negotiate, especially, including members of the Security Council, would be totally bound by the resolutions of the Security Council. They could not negotiate outside of the four walls of those resolutions, and they provided for a removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait as rapidly as possible with nothing else to be paid for; that and the return of the two islands in particular, which would have been disputed and were now occupied by Iraq — Warbah and Bubiyan.

So that set up a whole lot of things that made a negotiation nearly impossible. The issue never really got there because Saddam at every stage rebuffed the offers. He never connected in any serious way with the Gang of Four effort or said he was interested in it. The Secretary General actually did either meet Tariq Aziz or might have actually gone to Baghdad, but anyway he made an effort.

I made it a point to go by and see him and take a message and say the message is that you’re a creature of the Security Council in this issue more than anybody else and so whatever you negotiate has to be totally in accord with the resolutions that have been passed. You cannot negotiate those away or renegotiate those resolutions. Those negotiations never prospered and Saddam lost a chance to drive some serious wedges between members of the Council and the Secretary General and the Council had he played it more intelligently. It was clear that he was not interested in working out a negotiated solution.

What we were worried about was that there would be a position along the following lines: that Saddam would agree to take his forces out of Kuwait, but in return he would get confirmed transfer of the two main islands south of the entrance to the Tigris and the Euphrates that had been in dispute for a long time, Warbah and Bubiyan — these were in a sense almost title flats but big.

They bordered the main shipping channel that his shipping was using to get in and out of the oil ports at Umm Qasr near Basra that was transporting a lot of Iraqi oil. He just didn’t like having to see Kuwaiti territory on the southern boundary of his main export channel or give Kuwait overlook that activity.

Secondly, even more, we were concerned that the huge Rumaila oil field, the northern portion of which was in Iraq, and the southern contiguous portion was in Kuwait, would be taken as the Iraqi prize for getting out of Kuwait. So we were concerned about deals of that sort, as well as obviously leaving him scot-free of any responsibility for the aggression and damage.

We saw plenty of propensity for people “thinking creatively” to go for deals like that. Those deals were directly contrary to the resolutions, but nevertheless it was not impossible that somebody would try. So we saw the build-up, if you like, of a kind of potential for this to do everything possible to avoid a conflict. To use a negotiating route in effect, which would leave Kuwait bereft of some of its most important resources and territory as a result of the Iraqi invasion.

Certainly a result that in the end would only have encouraged more bad behavior on the part of Iraq to say nothing of what it would have done to the recognition of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kuwait.

“One of the things we do wonderfully is plan wars and execute them and one of the things we do terribly is to figure out on what basis to end them”

When this got started, I didn’t see much response in Washington about what to do about it. I had a young man who had come from UNAUSA [United National Association of the U.S.A.], very bright, Peter Fromuth, working for me as a kind of policy planner. I said, “Peter, our first new big task, yours and mine, is to sit down and figure out what the U.S. position must to be with respect to a negotiation between Iraq and somebody over withdrawal from Kuwait.”

So we did and we quickly evolved at his suggestion — why not borrow Henry Kissinger’s model from the first Sinai disengagement, on which I had worked. The model we developed was fairly simple:  that the end result of a negotiation over Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait had to involve a few elements on our side.

Those elements would be that Iraq would remove itself essentially from all the desert (low population) territory along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border back to the areas of population or 200 miles, whichever was less, into Iraq. So it meant that in effect we would create a UN zone in southern Iraq that would be occupied by UN forces as a peacekeeping mission that would cover all of that desert area including the northern portion of the Rumaila oil fields and right up to the outskirts of Basra and to the major towns along the Euphrates as it went through that desert up to 200 miles inside Iraq.

Beyond that we would create additional zones of disarmament, the first being that there would be no tanks, artillery or anti-aircraft weapons for another hundred kilometers or so. These were zones of limited armament. Each zone would be limited in equipment. The nearest to the outside would have the greatest limitations beginning with tanks and artillery, then anti-aircraft weapons and so on. We favored a no-fly zone over all of Iraq including rotary wing aircraft.

So it was a forward move effort rather than to say what is it we will give up from Kuwait. It was a step further to protect Kuwait and to say “Iraq, you accept now the responsibilities for this.” This was put together, we sent it to Washington, Washington said they liked it, they thought it was the right way to proceed. I wanted a starting point. I didn’t think we were going to end up here necessarily….

All of that stuff was folded in and some of this anticipated what came in Resolution 687. But the most interesting thing was that at the end of this second phase, just as we were about to terminate the war, we re-submitted this whole proposal and said this should be our approach to war termination. We pushed it hard. Secretary Baker via Bob Kimmitt said he pushed it. It was killed by the military, I think principally by General [Norman] Schwarzkopf in part because he didn’t understand it and two he thought it was going to involve a big effort on the part of the United States military to have to impose this and or to man it.

In the meantime, I talked informally with the British and the French. They were all for it certainly at the UN, but I’m sure they discussed it in capitals and they thought in fact that the ground forces could come exclusively from outside the U.S., but that the U.S. would have to provide the air forces to patrol this. And, in fact, of course as you know, we provided both ground forces and air forces throughout that whole period of time.

So the objection was that what we ended up having to do anyway we would have had to have done. The difficulty was that we lost the opportunity to be in direct touch with the Shia, who went after Saddam right after he pulled out of Kuwait.

And we lost the opportunity to limit Saddam with respect to the use and deployment of many of his military forces and to squeeze him into a smaller area — a step that was complemented a few days after the end of the war by the French-inspired resolution protecting the Kurdish territories in the north.

So in effect we would have pushed Iraq in terms of Saddam’s continuing control out of the Kurdish areas and out of most of the desert areas, including anything that went over toward the Jordanian borders. We would have control of that through the UN.

My own feeling was that it was a huge missed opportunity, but 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. This was, I think another remarkable example of that.