Oil pollution disasters are usually the result of human error or equipment malfunction, but 25 years ago there was one of the largest environmental catastrophes of all time involving oil — and it was no accident.
On August 2, 1990, on the orders of its dictator, Saddam Hussein, Iraq launched a surprise invasion of the small neighboring country of Kuwait. Kuwait was quickly overwhelmed and occupied, and Iraq announced that Kuwait was no longer an independent country but a province of Iraq.
A number of nations, including the United States, denounced the invasion and called for Iraqi troops to withdraw. The U.S. swiftly sent armed forces to Saudi Arabia to deter an Iraqi attack on that country; the U.S. operation, involving some 250,000 troops, was dubbed Operation Desert Shield.
On January 12th, 1991 the United States Congress passed a resolution authorizing President George H.W. Bush to use military force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Less than five days later the U.S. and its allies launched a massive air and missile assault on Iraq. This attack was code-named Operation Desert Storm.
Using high-technology equipment in combat for the first time – cruise missiles, laser-guided “smart” bombs and other ordnance – the Allies achieved rapid air superiority and scored hits against key military targets in Iraq.
After six weeks of round-the-clock bombardment, the Allies launched a ground offensive that quickly outflanked and overwhelmed the Iraqis. However, the Iraqis did set fire to hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait and dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf. The environmental damage was difficult to estimate. The dark smoke over Kuwait reduced the temperature some 20 degrees, and acid rain, rich in sulfur dioxide, threatened food crops in Kuwait and nearby Saudi Arabia. Kuwait was liberated on February 27th, 1991.
To learn more about the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield, and Operation Desert Storm check out American History Online or request a free trial.