Witnessing the Gulf War through Salim's eyes

Dr Salim Ahmed Salim. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Salim's notes capture the initial stages of a war that would reshape the geopolitical landscape. As the ground offensive unfolded, critical questions lingered.

Dar es Salaam. The air hung heavy with anticipation on February 24, 1991. For 39 days, a tense standoff had gripped the Middle East.

The relentless air campaign had left Iraq's infrastructure in ruins, and allied forces claims of crippling Iraqi armour painted a bleak picture for Saddam's forces. Salim Ahmed Salim, Secretary-General of the OAU, recounts the agonising wait in his notes.

The US ultimatum to Saddam Hussein demanding Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait had expired, and the world braced for a ground war.

Salim had spent the night glued to the radio, the silence broken only by the tick-tock of the clock. News reports hinted at an imminent assault, but dawn arrived without a ground offensive.

Finally, by mid-morning, the news broke: a US-led coalition had launched a massive ground attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq. Across the globe, reactions began to ripple. President Bush, in a televised address, declared the "final phase of the liberation of Kuwait" had begun.

In a 20-minute televised address to the American people, President Bush stated that he had directed the Commander of the U.S. and allied forces in the Gulf, General Schwarskopf, to use all the available means, including ground forces, to evict the Iraqi Army from Kuwait,” writes Salim.

Bush expressed confidence in a swift and decisive victory while urging Americans to pray for their troops.

Across the globe, reactions unfolded. British Prime Minister John Major accused Saddam Hussein of prevarication and blamed him for the war's devastation. France committed its troops, while Saudi Arabia vowed to fight alongside the allies.

Meanwhile, the US clamped down on information. Secretary of Defence Cheney cited "military security" in announcing a news blackout.

“Within minutes after President Bush's televised address, U.S. Secretary of Defence Dick Cheyney held his own press conference at the Pentagon. He said that the flow of information will now flow to a trickle.” 

Salim further adds: This, he said, was done for security purposes. Any information divulged could be used by the Iraqi military, which may now be confused about allied intentions and operations and whose intelligence is clearly deprived of basic information. He therefore announced that the regular military briefings in Washington and Riyadh have been suspended.

This move, Salim observed, effectively silenced any Iraqi intelligence gathering and ensured the element of surprise remained with the allies.

Egypt, a key player in the region, also shifted its stance. Gone were the earlier pronouncements of coexistence with Saddam Hussein.

Egypt's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali, had been quoted in a BBC interview as saying that Egypt did not harbour any desire to destroy Iraq or its military machine.

“Egypt's only objective is the liberation of Kuwait. Furthermore, he categorically asserted that Egypt can live with Iraq under President Saddam Hussein,” writes the former Tanzanian top diplomat.

Now that the goalposts had changed, Egyptian officials echoed the US goal of Saddam Hussein's removal. This abrupt change, Salim noted, underscored the true US agenda—the dismantling of Iraqi military power and the ouster of its leader.

The Soviet Union's last-ditch diplomatic efforts, spearheaded by President Gorbachev, were brushed aside.

“It is also significant that President Bush gave the go-ahead to the ground war to start today in total disregard for the appeal by President Mikhail Gorbachev or the Allies to delay the offensive for one or two days to give diplomacy a chance,” he writes.

The US, Salim argued, had always viewed these peace proposals as a mere "sideshow."

The meticulously planned ground war, set in motion regardless of the Soviet appeals, laid bare the true US intentions.

“This attitude towards President Gorbachev's serious peace moves in many ways demonstrates the devaluation of the Soviet power in the real power equation of the contemporary international system,” argued Salim in his notes.

Salim's notes capture the initial stages of a war that would reshape the geopolitical landscape. As the ground offensive unfolded, critical questions lingered.

Would Iraq's resistance be fierce, fulfilling Saddam Hussein's promise of a "mother of all battles"? Or would the technologically superior US-led coalition achieve a swift victory, as President Bush predicted?

Three days later, on February 27, US-led allied forces entered Kuwait City. President George W. Bush then declared the suspension of offensive combat operations against Iraq.