The air war by the Allies begins. The Allies started jamming Baghdad’s radar defences. The jamming gave the game away. Iraqi radars were blinded, but 3,000 anti-aircraft guns and 60 missile batteries began firing wildly into the sky.
Allied missiles destroyed the main telephone tower. Another laser-guided bomb hit the headquarters controlling Baghdad’s air defences. Other pilots destroyed government ministries and a key communications tower.
With Baghdad’s air defence headquarters destroyed and its radar system in chaos, hundreds of Iraq’s fighters couldn’t operate. Only a few struggled into the air. With hundreds of allied aircraft flying, AWACS planes packed with computer equipment helped control the battle.
On the first night the coalition armada systematically attacked Iraq’s war machine. The factories that made chemical and biological weapons, the Scud missile plants – in all over 200 different targets were hit.
It was a new benchmark in the history of warfare, the first time the world had seen precision bombing on a vast scale. And defying all expectations, only one allied pilot, an American, had been killed. With air superiority established over the Iraqis, the coalition air planners were now confident enough to launch conventional aircraft on massive daylight raids.
When Saddam met with his ministers after the first night’s bombing, he had already ordered action he believed would shatter the coalition of Western and Arab countries attacking Iraq. Scud missile launchers hidden in the desert fired at Israel. The Scuds were fired indiscriminately at Israel’s largest city. Saddam calculated the Israelis would retaliate and join the conflict. The Arabs in the coalition would then refuse to fight alongside Israel. The coalition would collapse and so would the war.
Soon more Scuds were on the way. Israel’s nuclear forces now went on full alert. Sixty Israeli jets took to the skies. Early warning radar appeared to show Iraqi bombers headed for Israel. In the Pentagon, the defence secretary picked up the hotline to Tel Aviv. Israeli retaliation seemed inevitable. The Israeli Army reported nerve gas in the debris of one of the missiles. Israelis prepared for the worst. Ultimately, none of the eight Scuds that landed proved to have chemical warheads. After some discussion, Baghdad had decided the Israelis might retaliate against a chemical attack with nuclear weapons.
The man who would decide what happened next was Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He and George Bush disliked each other and when Bush telephoned him, Shamir angrily told the president that if America couldn’t stop the Scuds, the Israeli Air Force would. The Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Arens, told us that Bush said to Shamir, pleaded with Shamir, tried to cajole Shamir that Israel not take any military action, that this would be injurious to the allied cause, that in the final analysis, that this would also be injurious to Israel’s cause.
Shamir told us what he said to Bush – “It’s very difficult, Mr. President. It’s very difficult. I don’t know what the day of tomorrow will bring, but at this moment, we will act accordingly, accordingly with your concepts.”
On February 21st, forty-eight hours before the ground attack was due, Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, arrived in Moscow. Saddam’s admission that he was willing to withdraw from Kuwait had led to some frantic Soviet diplomacy to save their old ally from defeat. Aziz went straight to the Kremlin. The Soviet president was waiting. Aziz told Gorbachev Saddam wouldn’t accept the U.N. resolutions that called for Iraq to recognize Kuwait’s independence and pay it compensation. But, he said, Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait.
Gorbachev thought this was good enough. He called the White House. The president summoned his key advisors to discuss the Soviet offer. If Iraq withdrew, it would mean no bloody ground war, but Saddam would walk away unpunished, his war machine undefeated.
At dawn the president called Gorbachev to tell him the deal was unacceptable. Bush’s carefully crafted international coalition was fragmenting. The French president, Francois Mitterrand, called to demand more time for diplomacy. As hundreds of oil wells blazed across Kuwait, the president issued a final ultimatum.
Saddam ignored the warning. To obey, he believed, would have humiliated him in the eyes of the Arab world.
Within a month of the air war, the ground war by the Allies began to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It was a very short and comprehensive victory.
Part five of a 6 x 50-minute documentary series on the first Gulf War. These films can be bought individually or as a series.