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Monday, 15 January, 2001, 17:53 GMT
Flashback: Desert Storm
USAF F18 fighter
The Gulf War is often described as the first televised war
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

The launch of Desert Storm, the allied military operation led by the United States to liberate Kuwait, was no surprise.

If the Iraqi army had not withdrawn from its southern neighbour by 15 January as demanded, a UN Security Council resolution authorised the use of force to reverse the invasion.

From the archive: Click here to watch John Simpson's report from 10 years ago

What came on the 16 January at 23:30 GMT was a devastating and sustained aerial bombardment involving cruise missiles launched from US warships and US, British and Saudi Arabian fighter planes, bombers and helicopters.

More than 1,000 sorties were flown in the first 24 hours of Desert Storm. The main targets were military, but Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, was heavily hit and there were many civilian casualties.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein confounded many by not withdrawing his troops from Kuwait at the last minute

All over the world, television audiences were able to watch the war unfold on their television screens.

By the end of February, the Iraqi army had made a desperate retreat from Kuwait. A three-day land campaign ended on 27 February when US President George Bush declared victory.

Waiting for war

Early January 1991 had seen a flurry of diplomatic attempts to try to end the crisis without the use of force and, as the days ticked by, there was an increasing foreboding that war was coming.

Bridge destroyed in Baghdad
Desert Storm devastated much of Iraq's infrastructure
Arab attempts to resolve the crisis had failed completely. The UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and could not convince him to withdraw or even engage in talks on withdrawal.

On 9 January, talks between US Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz also ended in failure.

With Washington arguing that it had tried everything to achieve a diplomatic solution, the US Congress voted to approve war against Iraq on 12 January.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein confounded many by not withdrawing his troops from Kuwait at the last minute. Even a partial withdrawal might have split the international coalition ranged against Iraq and forced the US and Britain to delay the launch of Desert Storm.

By 15 January, large-scale war seemed an inevitability. And when it came, it was announced on television by the CNN news presenters from their Baghdad hotel.

Television war

The 1991 Gulf War is often described as the first televised war. Daily, pictures of missiles launching and fighters taking off were broadcast. The devastating results of the bombing also made it onto television screens.

Tomahawk cruise missile
Cruise missiles hit Iraqi targets from US ships in the Arabian Gulf
The allied forces were keen to describe what they depicted as the minute accuracy of their missiles and bombs.

The daily briefings given by the allies used video footage and satellite pictures to show that military targets were being devastated and that every effort was being to avoid civilian casualties.

Terms like "collateral damage" and "surgical strike" were staples of the briefings which gave the bombing campaign the air of a computer game. In reality, the devastation on the ground was very messy.

Baghdad devastated

In the capital, military and communications installations were targeted, as well as the parliament, airport, defence ministry, and various palaces.

All over the country the major cities and military targets were hit, as were Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

Outside the Amirya shelter
The scene outside the Amirya bomb shelter in Baghdad
On 13 February what became known as the Amirya bombing shook the US-led alliance and brought home the human cost of Desert Storm.

A US stealth bomber dropped two laser-guided bombs on what the allies had pinpointed as an important command and control bunker.

The bombers had intended to drop the 900kg bombs into the ventilation shafts of the shelter. One missed and exploded nearby, blocking the only escape route.

The second plunged into the bunker and exploded in the middle of the largest room on the upper floor.

The effect was terrible: 314 people are believed to have died, 130 of them children.

Allied forces were unaware that hundreds of women and children had been routinely using the shelter since the start of Desert Storm.

The scenes of badly burnt bodies being pulled out of the devastated shelter and distraught relatives waiting outside shocked the world.

The bombing was quickly exploited by the Iraqi authorities who allowed Western television crews to report the event uncensored.

Desert Storm achieved the aim of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, though Saddam Hussein remained in control in Baghdad.

Nevertheless, the conflict changed perceptions of modern warfare. The heavy reliance on air power and sophisticated technology employed to such deadly effect set the scene for future engagements by the West, notably in Yugoslavia almost a decade later.


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04 Jan 01 | Politics
01 Jan 01 | Middle East
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17 Dec 00 | Middle East
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