The human toll of the Persian Gulf war — as many as 100,000 deaths, 5 million displaced persons and over $200 billion in property damage — ranks this conflict as the single most devastating event in the Middle East since World War I.

At least three times as many people were killed during both the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the 13-year civil war in Afghanistan, but the loss of life in those conflicts was spread over many years. In contrast, the majority of deaths in the most recent war occurred in a six-week period, commencing with the start of the American-led bombing campaign in mid-January 1991 and ending with the 100-hour ground offensive in late February. A further period of massive bloodletting followed as the Iraqi army crushed popular rebellions in the south and north of the country.

It is also true that the continuing strife in Afghanistan has caused about 5 million people to flee their country, but their flight was spaced over years, allowing Iran and Pakistan, the principal host countries, to provide minimally adequate refugee assistance. In the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, the confrontation uprooted millions of people in two large tidal waves, August-September 1990 and March-April 1991, catching both governments and international refugee relief agencies woefully unprepared to cope with even the most basic needs of the displaced populations.

Finally, the destruction of Iraq’s and Kuwait’s industrial and transport infrastructure was on a scale comparable to the devastation of central and eastern Europe during World War II. The consequences of this death, displacement and destruction, in a period of less than nine months, have seriously disrupted countries and societies throughout the Middle East and South Asia for years to come.


The one irreversible consequence of war is death. In this war there may never be an accurate account of the number of people who lost their lives. During the occupation of Kuwait reports circulated that the Iraqis had killed at least 4,000 civilians suspected of participating in the resistance movement. [1] After Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, concerted efforts by human rights organizations to document the killings determined that the earlier estimates had been greatly exaggerated. Middle East Watch has ascertained that 300 of the 7,000-9,500 Kuwaitis taken out of Kuwait by Iraqi forces during the course of the occupation have been killed. This number may rise if some of the 2,000-2,500 persons still unaccounted for have in fact been killed. There are also reports of 28 civilian deaths in Kuwait during the allied bombing campaign; at least 30 foreign nationals murdered by Iraqi soldiers, apparently to cover up crimes such as robbery and rape; and up to 100 Iraqi soldiers assassinated by Kuwaiti resistance operatives. [2]

There are very precise statistics on the number of American casualties — 144 killed and 479 wounded. Two deaths in Israel were directly attributable to Iraqi missile attacks; another dozen Israelis died of heart attacks or suffocated under their gas masks, while at least eight Palestinians died in the Occupied Territories because the Israeli-imposed curfew prevented them from getting medical treatment in time. [3]

There are no reliable data at all on Iraqi casualties. The United States, along with Saudi Arabia, assumed de facto responsibility for burying many of the Iraqi dead. The US unofficially estimates the number of Iraqi soldiers killed as a direct consequence of the air and ground war in January and February 1991 to be 75,000 to 105,000. Senior US military officials have said that 60,000 to 80,000 Iraqis died in bunkers during the air assaults and an additional 15,000 to 25,000 were killed during the ground offensive. (An Iraqi doctor working in the Basra area told relief workers in Iraq that he estimated between 60,000 and 70,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the withdrawal, and that half of these could have been saved had medical facilities and supplies been available.) [4] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell said that Washington does know how many Iraqi soldiers the allies buried, but so far he has declined to make that figure public. Iraq, whose commanders were cut off from their troops on the battlefield due to the effectiveness of the allies’ bombing campaign, silently acquiesces in these US estimates. [5]

The dead represent only part of the total casualties. Thousands more were maimed. There are no reliable estimates of the number wounded. The rule-of-thumb ratio of three wounded to each death, which dates back to World War I, suggests that as many as 300,000 Iraqis may have been wounded during the six-week campaign. Since the ceasefire, an unknown number of Iraqis and Kuwaitis have been killed and badly injured by mines and other unexploded ordnance. [6]

The allied bombing campaign dropped over 2 million tons of explosive materials on Iraq and Kuwait. The US military’s reference to civilian casualties as “collateral damage” camouflaged the impact of the air assaults on the non-combatant population. The Iraqi government has cited a figure of 7,000 civilians killed in the air raids, most of whom perished in Baghdad, Basra, Falluja and Nasiriyya. Subsequent eyewitness reports do suggest that civilian deaths as a direct result of bombing were probably in this range. [7]

The end of the war did not stop the killing. During March, thousands of Iraqi civilians and some troops and officials died in the unsuccessful popular uprisings against the government of Saddam Hussein. The estimates of those killed in southern Iraq start at 6,000. [8] Reports of political killings in the south continue in late May 1991. The estimates of the number killed during the fighting in the northern Kurdish region are lower, beginning at 2,000. Since the fighting ended, however, an estimated 20,000, mostly children, have died from disease and exposure in the overcrowded, squalid refugee encampments along Iraq’s borders with Iran and Turkey. [9]

Altogether, at least 100,000 and possibly as many as 200,000 Iraqis, civilian and military, perished as a consequence of the US-led military campaign and subsequent civil strife.

Displacement Before the War

Once the dead have been buried, the survivors try to get on with their lives. This will be tremendously difficult for millions of people directly displaced as a result of the war.

In attempting to determine the number of refugees, one again encounters the problem of inadequate data. During the initial phase of the confrontation (August 2-January 17), more than 2.6 million persons were displaced. This figure includes at least 1.6 million refugees who fled Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation, as many as 700,000 Yemenis forced to leave Saudi Arabia, and as many as 400,000 foreign nationals, mostly Egyptians, who managed to leave Iraq before the allied bombing campaign began.

The first refugees came out of Kuwait. Iraq’s occupation policies, combined with international financial measures such as freezing Kuwaiti assets, prompted 1.6 million people to flee the country. These refugees included Kuwaiti citizens and foreign nationals working there.

The experience of each group was very different. When Iraq invaded, the emirate’s resident population of approximately 2 million included less than 700,000 citizens. The remaining 1.3 million — 65 percent of the total — were expatriate workers and their dependents. An estimated 125,000 Kuwaitis had been outside the country on August 2, most on summer holidays, and chose not to return home. [10] They were joined in exile by nearly 300,000 more fellow citizens. These 400,000 exiles obviously were generally spared the privations normally associated with refugee status, because the Kuwaiti government-in-exile provided monthly stipends of $1,000 to $4,000 per family. [11] Following Kuwait’s liberation, the extent of devastation compelled authorities to discourage these refugees from returning immediately, but by mid-May most basic services such as piped water, sewerage and electricity had been restored to some degree and restrictions on the refugees’ return were lifted. [12]

Kuwait’s foreign nationals fared considerably worse, losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings. Some 1 million people, most of them breadwinners, saw their lives destroyed by Iraq’s invasion. Their losses amounted to far more than simple personal misfortunes: Hundreds of thousands of families throughout the Middle East and South Asia, financially dependent on the remittances sent home by these workers, were suddenly deprived of a primary source of income. There is no precise tally of the number of expatriates in Kuwait at the time of the invasion, since many foreign nationals were undocumented illegal aliens. Official government estimates for 1989 included 625,000 Arabs, 600,000 Asians, 60,000 Iranians, 3,000 Turks and 11,700 Westerners. [13]

The largest group of expatriates were an estimated 350,000 Palestinians. After the Kuwaitis and Westerners, who held the most prestigious jobs, the Palestinians generally held the emirate’s better-paying, professional jobs. Most of the Palestinians sent regular remittances to families living in Jordan, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories, many in refugee camps. About 200,000 Palestinian residents, including as many as 30,000 who were outside the country at the time of the invasion, fled Kuwait during August and September. The next largest group of Arab workers was an estimated 150,000 Egyptians, who sent home $500 million annually; approximately 90 percent of them fled Kuwait after the invasion. Together, Palestinians and Egyptians accounted for 80 percent of Arab expatriates in Kuwait. The remaining 125,000 Arabs included Jordanians, Lebanese, Yemenis, Moroccans, Sudanese and Tunisians; at least 80,000 of these Arab nationals also fled.

Kuwait’s 600,000 Asian workers principally came from the Indian subcontinent. The largest group were Sri Lankans, estimated at 200,000 and including several thousand Sri Lankan women who worked as maids in Kuwaiti homes. Other subcontinent expatriates included 172,000 Indians, 90,000 Pakistanis and 78,000 Bangladeshis. From beyond the Indian subcontinent were an estimated 45,000 nationals from the Philippines, including several thousand women who worked as nurses in hospitals and maids in homes. The remaining 15,000 Asian workers were from Thailand, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. More than 500,000 Asian workers fled Kuwait in the initial 10 weeks following the Iraqi invasion.

In addition, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Asians, 90 percent of them from the Indian subcontinent, were working in Iraq on August 2. The overwhelming majority of these workers were repatriated between August and November. [14]

The remittances of Asian workers in Kuwait and Iraq not only sustained large families back home but also constituted an important source of hard currency for governments. The most severe impact was in Bangladesh. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), 78,000 Bangladeshi workers in Kuwait lost an estimated $1.4 billion in wages, savings, and personal property when they fled. [15] Thousands of destitute Bangladeshis were stranded at refugee camps in Jordan during August and September because Dacca said it did not have sufficient foreign currency to pay for their air fares home. Eventually Saudi Arabia footed the bill to fly them and thousands of other Asians home. [16]

The flight of expatriate workers and their dependents included 65,000 who fled to Turkey (3,000 of them Turks), 60,000 to Syria (apparently including a large number of Iraqi deserters) and some 100,000 to Iran. [17] The country most immediately affected was Jordan. Out of some 2.5 million foreign nationals in Kuwait and Iraq at the onset of the crisis, more than 1 million transited through Jordan. Most refugees were destitute and endured a grueling trek through the desert to the Iraq-Jordan border. Jordan was unprepared for such a flood of refugees, and received virtually no international assistance to deal with the problem. Thousands of Asians were stranded for weeks in the desert refugee camps where dehydration, diarrhea, scorpion bites and other ailments reached epidemic proportions. [18] Eventually the Asians were repatriated. About 250,000 refugees, including at least 200,000 Palestinians, were citizens of Jordan and remained there. Their remittances, estimated at $400 million per year just from Kuwait, had been one of the country’s major sources of income and foreign exchange.

Dealing with the refugee crisis was only the beginning of Jordan’s woes. As a result of developments related to the situation in the Gulf, Jordan suffered several devastating and simultaneous economic blows: 1) the loss of more than half its annual $800 million in remittances; 2) the task of absorbing thousands of working-age refugees when the country already was burdened with high unemployment; 3) the end of transit fees and the closure of export markets in Iraq, its primary trade partner, and Kuwait on account of UN-mandated sanctions, as well as in Saudi Arabia, which restricted Jordanian imports as a form of punishment for King Hussein’s reluctance to join the anti-Iraq coalition; 4) the termination of low-priced oil imports from Iraq (because of the UN embargo) and Saudi Arabia (again, as a punishment); and 5) the retaliatory cutoff of $500 million in grants — supplying one third of the state budget — from its main foreign benefactors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who were displeased with Jordan’s perceived sympathy for Saddam Hussein. [19]

Jordan’s economic difficulties spilled over into the Israeli-occupied territories. An unknown number of Palestinians possessing Jordanian passports actually resided in the West Bank. According to Palestinian economist Samir Hleileh, less than 1,000 Palestinian wage earners from the Gulf were able to return to the Occupied Territories. The economies of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip heavily depended on remittances from the Gulf and wages earned by 120,000 workers who commuted daily to jobs in Israel. The intifada had already reduced remittances, estimated at $300-$500 million annually in 1987, to only $50 million per year by August 1990. [20] Now even this amount was eliminated.

From the start of the crisis, Israel severely restricted the movement of Palestinian laborers who normally worked in Israel. During the six-week air war, when occupation authorities enforced curfews on the West Bank and Gaza an average of 21 hours per day, fewer than 20 percent of those Palestinians who had jobs in Israel were able to reach their workplaces on any given day, resulting in lost wages estimated at $2 million daily. [21]

The displacement suffered by Palestinians is likely to continue. Those 150,000 who remained in Kuwait experienced along with Kuwaitis the brutality of the seven-month Iraqi occupation, and a few of them even participated in resistance activities. Nevertheless, the Kuwaiti mood has been directed not at showing appreciation to those who cooperated with the resistance but rather at harassing virtually all young Palestinians because a few did collaborate with the Iraqis. Amnesty International reported that as of early April, of the some 600 Palestinians in prison, scores had been summarily executed, and at least seven more had died as a result of torture during interrogation. [22]

About 1.2 million foreign nationals, including 1 million Egyptians, were employed in Iraq when that country invaded and occupied Kuwait. The freezing of Iraq’s assets and the international embargo on its trade led to widespread layoffs that affected thousands of workers. After Cairo joined the coalition allied against Iraq, Egyptian workers were often harassed, prompting many of them to obtain the requisite visas to depart Iraq — a bureaucratic headache in the best of times. [23] At least 350,000 Egyptians managed to get out of Iraq by mid-January. Including the estimated 135,000 Egyptian workers who returned from Kuwait, this meant approximately half a million extra workers looking for jobs in an Egyptian economy already plagued with high levels of unemployment, and the loss of hard currency remittances estimated at over $1 billion per year. [24]

Egypt was able to weather this economic crisis far better than Jordan or the countries of South Asia. Because it had joined what Jordanian commentator Rami Khoury calls the “cash register coalition,” Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE rewarded Egypt financially by providing outright cash grants, forgiving more than $6 billion in accrued debts, and extending new low-interest loans. The US wrote off more than $7 billion in Egyptian military debt, and the Paris Club of Western creditor governments wrote off another $10 billion in late May. [25] Nevertheless, the expatriate workers who returned home as refugees benefited little from this state to state largesse. The promise of hundreds of thousands of jobs for Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait has yet to materialize.

At least 700,000 Yemeni nationals — out of more than a million living and working in Saudi Arabia — were forced out of the kingdom between September and December 1990 in retaliation for Sanaa’s refusal to join the American-led coalition. Riyadh also cut off aid, loans, trade and preferential oil shipments. [26] Most of the Yemenis were able to take some savings and possessions with them, which helped cushion the blow of unexpected displacement. When personal savings are exhausted, these returned workers may become an economic burden and a source of political instability for the newly unified country. [27]

Thousands of other workers were also displaced. Virtually all of Kuwait’s estimated 60,000 Iranian expatriates, most of them descendants of immigrants who had settled in Kuwait between 1935 and 1955, fled to Iran, leaving behind businesses and property worth up to $10 billion. [28] According to private voluntary aid agencies, more than 35,000 Sudanese worked in Iraq and Kuwait before the crisis; they remitted an estimated $2.7 million per year back to one of Africa’s most impoverished countries. According to Khartoum, Sudan also lost $3.4 billion in project loans because the Bashir regime failed to join the anti-Iraq coalition. [29]

Displacement Before the War

The difficult situation for the Gulf’s expatriate work force pales in comparison to the refugee situation that developed after the war as a result of the unsuccessful uprisings in southern and northern Iraq. During March and April, as many as 2.5 million Iraqis — 14 percent of the country’s total population — became refugees, fleeing from the soldiers of the Baghdad regime.

These uprisings seem to have begun spontaneously in the cities and towns of both southern and northern Iraq following the country’s sudden and humiliating military defeat at the end of February. In the predominantly Shi‘i south, hastily organized resistance groups attacked party headquarters, offices of the secret police and other symbols of repression in all the major cities, and destroyed many key government installations. Because Iraq’s population is up to 55 percent Shi‘a, senior US officials expressed concern that the Shi‘a of southern Iraq were rebelling against the government in Baghdad because it was Sunni, and aimed to set up an Islamic republic allied to Iran. [30] More likely, the people of southern Iraq disdained the Baath government, whose officials are of both Shi‘i and Sunni origins, for the same reasons as their fellow Iraqis in the central and northern part of the country: They were tired of living in a police state, and weary from the two devastating wars this regime had started.

The people of southern Iraq felt emboldened after February 27 because they witnessed firsthand the disorganized retreat of the Iraqi military as the allied forces moved into the region. It is significant that the rebellion started in al-Zubayr, a mainly Sunni town on the outskirts of Basra and the first town that soldiers retreating from Kuwait passed through. Many frustrated army conscripts were prepared to use their weapons against the government they believed was responsible for the debacle, and it was they who sparked the uprising. The rebels captured virtually all cities and towns in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, from al-Zubayr north to Karbala’, and took grisly reprisal against local Baath Party functionaries, government officials and suspected secret police informers. [31] Their victories, however, were short-lived. Although Iraqi troops completely lacked the morale that would have enabled them to put up a fight against the well-organized and technologically superior American-led coalition, the regime’s Republican Guard units did have considerable experience in suppressing poorly armed civilians and disgruntled draftees. Using brute force, they crushed the disturbances in the south within two weeks.

Estimates of the number killed during the civil strife in the south range around 6,000. Shi‘is who participated in the rebellion claim the toll is as high as 100,000. Most non-partisan observers accept the lower figure. Joost Hiltermann, an editor of this magazine, toured the cities of southern Iraq in April, and concluded that “a few thousand deaths,” rather than tens of thousands, likely occurred during the civil war in the south. Another 10,000 to 20,000 persons may have been wounded. Damage in residential neighborhoods was very extensive, especially in the cities of Najaf, Hilla, Karbala’ and Kufa, where entire blocks of houses were demolished. [32]

As the army crushed the uprising, over 100,000 civilians fled. An estimated 40,000 sought refugee behind the American ceasefire lines in Iraq, and some 70,000 crossed into Iran. The status of these refugees, most of whom seem afraid to return to their homes, has been difficult to resolve. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia — but not Kuwait — have agreed to maintain refugee camps indefinitely.

The fighting in the Kurdish areas of the north was far less intense than in the south. Kurdish casualties were considerably less than those in the south. The refugee situation that developed out of the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion, though, was horrendous. Iraq’s Kurds number more than 3.5 million, more than 20 percent of Iraq’s total population, and live predominantly in the mountainous north. They took over the main towns of Iraqi Kurdistan almost without a fight, and held them for two to three weeks. When the Iraqi army turned its attention from the south to the north at the end of March, the badly organized Kurdish fighters abandoned the towns for the mountains. Once the Kurdish population realized they were defenseless, they panicked and fled, literally overnight. In all, at least 2.3 million people, mostly Kurds but including some Iraqi Turkmen and Christian Chaldeans and Assyrians, headed toward the Iranian, Turkish and Syrian borders. More than 1 million refugees had entered Iran by mid-April, and an estimated 450,000 more were camped on the roads leading to Iranian border checkpoints. At least 500,000 fled into Turkey, and an estimated 350,000 more were in the mountains overlooking the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Why did so many Kurds flee? The one-word explanation of a Kurdish teacher — “Halabja” — may be the most plausible explanation. Halabja is the town in Iraqi Kurdistan that Saddam Hussein ordered bombed with chemical weapons in March 1988 during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war. An estimated 5,000 Kurds, mostly women and children, died in that attack. This was followed five months later by the chemical bombardment of Kurdish guerrilla bases and the panicked flight of over 100,000 Kurds into Turkey and Iran. During the 1980s, Kurds had already watched Iraqi military forces destroy an estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages and disperse their inhabitants. Since Halabja, virtually all Kurds are convinced that the Baghdad regime would exterminate them if given an opportunity. (According to reliable Iraqi opposition sources, Tariq Aziz acknowledged that the army had used a non-toxic gas to frighten the population in this latest campaign.) This is the kind of fear that drives millions of people to flee for their lives and to refuse to return despite regime assurances of their safety.

The sheer number of refugees overwhelmed the ability of local and international relief agencies to care for them, leading to appalling camp conditions. Diseases swept the camps, claiming the lives of thousands of infants and children. [33] The United States, which maintained throughout March that it would not get involved in Iraq’s internal affairs, finally felt compelled to join its European allies in the establishment of a “safe haven” zone in the north. By the end of May, the presence of US and European troops in a few small towns of northern Iraq had encouraged 350,000 Kurds to return to their homes or to resettle in special refugee camps, but the majority remained wary of returning to Iraq.

The uprisings and their consequences in southern and northern Iraq overshadowed the dislocations that had directly resulted from the allied war of January and February. According to the United Nations, which dispatched a special mission to Iraq to assess the humanitarian needs of the country in the aftermath of the war, as many as 72,000 people were left homeless by the war. [34] Saudi Arabia evacuated several thousand civilians out of the Khafji area before it became a battle zone. Finally, there are three additional categories of displaced persons being handled by the International Committee for the Red Cross. These include an estimated 16,000 Iraqi prisoners of war who refuse to be repatriated and remain in limbo at a POW camp in Saudi Arabia, up to 4,000 Kuwaitis still missing and believed to be in Iraq, and several thousand stateless persons — bidun — mostly tribespeople of Iraqi and Iranian origin who had lived in Kuwait for decades without citizenship and whom the Kuwaiti government now will not permit to return. [35]


It remains to be seen if the Kurdish refugee problem can be resolved through repatriation and/or resettlement. At that point Iraq can get on with rebuilding its shattering economy. Authorities estimate that the destruction of bridges, roads, rail lines, port facilities, homes, shops, hospitals, factories and oil installations amounts to $170 billion. It is unclear whether this figure includes the considerable damage in both southern and northern Iraq inflicted during the post-war uprisings. Southern cities such as Karbala’ and Najaf, which were spared during the allied bombing campaign, were particularly hard hit during the anti-Saddam rising, and whole neighborhoods were demolished by tanks. [36] More immediately serious has been the destruction of infrastructure directly related to the health of the population: water purification plants, sewerage lines and electric generating stations. By one estimate, 80 percent of the country’s electric power generating stations were destroyed. [37] A ten-member Harvard University medical team visited Iraq in early May and reported that 18 out of Iraq’s 20 generating plants were incapacitated or destroyed. In the three months after the ceasefire, Iraq has raised its generating capacity from 4 percent to 22 percent of pre-war capacity. The inability to provide sanitary water, especially in the urban areas of southern Iraq, makes it difficult to contain potentially deadly communicable diseases such as gastrointestinal infections, typhoid fever and cholera, all of which had appeared in the Basra area by April. The Harvard team’s report stressed a direct correlation between this destruction and the subsequent breakdown in public health, and forecast that in the next year a minimum of 170,000 additional children under the age of five would die from infectious diseases as a result. [38]

The damage in Kuwait was at least as extensive. Authorities have estimated that it will cost at least $60 billion to repair the damage to infrastructure, including streets, roads, electrical grids, medical facilities, the airport, harbors and oil installations. It is expected to take as long as five years to restore the country to the status it was before the invasion. Even then, Kuwait may not be as well off as before this catastrophe. The 600 oil wells that Iraqi forces set afire as they left the country were burning away around 2 million barrels of oil per day — more than Kuwait used to produce. As of late May, less than a quarter of those fires had been extinguished.

Kuwait’s burning oil wells are causing unprecedented environmental damage and affecting the health of millions of people in the area. The smoke darkens the skies over Kuwait, southern Iraq and southwestern Iran for the greater part of the daylight hours. It also pollutes the air with gases such as sulphur, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon that interfere with breathing, especially in persons with respiratory ailments and young children. These noxious pollutants are equivalent to ten times the average daily emissions from all US industrial and utility plants. [39] The soot and gases from the oil fires mix with atmospheric moisture to form acid rain. This blackish and oily rain has damaged crops in both Iraq and Iran, raising concern for this year’s grain harvests. The acid rain has spread as far as southern Turkey and western Pakistan. [40]

The acid rain also seeps into groundwater supplies where chemicals such as lead and cadmium contaminate drinking water. World Health Organization director-general Hiroshi Nakajima reported in April that samples of drinking water from southwestern Iran contained levels of lead that were up to six times higher than what was considered medically safe. Regular ingestion of even small amounts of lead can cause mental retardation in children. Since the area of highest water lead levels, the flat plain extending from the Shatt al-‘Arab, borders southern Iraq, it is likely that Iraq’s groundwater supplies also are contaminated. As Kuwait’s burning oil well fires are extinguished, the health risks from the toxic smoke and acid rain will diminish, but oil industry experts predict that it will take at least a year to put out all of the fires — along enough period to build up unhealthy accumulations of dangerous chemicals in soils and water sources.

The several million gallons of Kuwaiti oil that the Iraqis spilled into the Persian Gulf in January will have long-term environmental consequences for the region. The largest oil slick, estimated to contain at least 3.3 million gallons of oil, continues to endanger the unique marine life of the gulf: coral reefs, sea turtles, sea cows, shrimp beds, special fish species, and various local and migratory birds. The slick has remained in the northern gulf, and so far has not threatened the major water desalinization plant at the Saudi port of Jubayl. It may actually be moving gradually westward, toward the Iranian coast. There are also dozens of smaller oil slicks in the northern gulf. The slicks are beginning to take their toll on the fishing industry. In southern Iran, where fish constitutes an important source of dietary protein, complaints that fish smells oily and sometimes is inedible has sharply reduced the market for fresh fish, idling many fishermen.

This war has been an unmitigated disaster for millions of people in the Middle East and beyond. The many tens of thousands killed, the billions of dollars of property destruction, the millions of displaced persons and disrupted lives, the uncounted thousands with permanent physical and psychological scars, and the badly damaged economies are far more devastating than anything that has happened in the region in this century. Living conditions in Iraq, Kuwait and throughout the Middle East and South Asia are deteriorating badly as a direct consequence of this war, which has shattered the morale of millions of people. In Iraq and Kuwait, and even in nearby Iran, disease from contaminated water and polluted air will be killing and maiming innocent people for years to come. According to UNICEF, the war will result in deprivation for some 5 million children in Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen and the occupied Palestinian territories. “We can speak with alarming, grave assurance of a lost generation,” says UNICEF’s Middle East regional director Richard Reid. [41] The political, social and economic consequences of the US assault on Iraq, and the Iraqi regime’s consequent assault on its own people, will afflict the region and the world well into the next century.


[1] See for example George Joffe. “Kuwait: Systematic Terror.” Middle East International, October 12, 1990.
[2] Telephone interview with Aziz Abu Hamad of Middle East Watch, May 28, 1991; and New York Times, April 2, 1991.
[3] A total of 343 allied soldiers died during the six-month confrontation including 266 US deaths (122 of them non-combatant accidents); other fatalities included 44 British, two French, one Italian, 29 Saudis, nine Egyptians and six from the United Arab Emirates. See William Arkin et al, On Impact: Modem Warfare and the Environment: A Case Study of the Gulf War (Washington, DC: Greenpeace, May 1991). Information on Palestinian deaths collected by Joost Hiltermann, an editor of this magazine, from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and Maqassed Hospital in Jerusalem, during a trip to the West Bank and Gaza, April 22-May 7, 1991, on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights.
[4] The “official” unofficial estimate is in New York Times, April 9, 1991. The Iraqi doctor’s estimate is from Joost Hiltermann, who visited Iraq from March 23 to April 10, 1991 on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights.
[5] For a sobering survey of the munitions used by US and European forces in the war, see Michael Klare, “High-Death Weapons of the Gulf War.” The Nation, June 3, 1991. The estimated 100.000 battle deaths comes on top of eight years of war with Iran that resulted in at least 100,000 Iraqi deaths. although the Iraqi government has yet to publish any reliable figures on its casualties during the war with Iran. For a brief discussion of the problems with casualty data see Joseph Kechichian, “National Security,” in Helen C. Metz, ed., Iraq: A Country Study (Washington: Library of Congress, 1990), p. 245.
[6] Iraq’s population was 17.5 million in the 1987 census. and is growing at a rate of more than 3 percent a year. 100,000 battle deaths is equivalent to the United States losing over 1.4 million in the war, and 300,000 wounded is equivalent to about 4.25 million non-fatal casualties.
[7] Interview with Joost Hiltermann. For an early discussion of civilian casualties, see Hiltermann, “Calculating Collateral Damage” Middle East Report 169 (March-April 1991), p. 3.
[8] Washington Post, April 9, 1991.
[9] There are no accurate data on the number of refugees who died during April and May due to the lack of proper medical care. The UN, relying upon information provided by various international voluntary agencies, reports that as many as 2,000 persons per day were dying in the Iranian camps during the height of the health emergency in late April. See further New York Times, April 28, 1991.
[10] Middle East International, August 31, 1990, p. 10.
[11] Washington Post, May 2, 1991.
[12] New York Times, May 11, 1991. The US Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for most of the restoration of services which had occurred.
[13] See Middle East International, August 31, 1990, p. 15; Martha Wenger, “Who Are the Refugees,” Middle East Report 168 (January-February 1991), p. 32; and Washington Post, March 30, 1991.
[14] Estimates on Asian workers in Kuwait and Iraq are adapted from Middle East International, August 31, 1990, p. 15; The Independent, August 30, 1991; Washington Post, March 30, 1991; and United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator, “Tentative Numbers of Displaced Persons in Jordan,” March 12, 1991.
[15] For further statistics on the impact of the war on Bangladesh and other Asian countries see UNCTAD, “Report on the Economic Consequences of the Gulf Crisis on Low-Income Countries” (New York, March 1991).
[16] Middle East International, September 14, 1990, pp. 12-13; and Yahya Sadowski, “Arab Economies After the Gulf War: Power, Poverty and Petrodollars,” Middle East Report 170 (May-June 1991), p. 5.
[17] See the General Accounting Office report to the chair of the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Persian Gulf Crisis: Humanitarian Relief Provided to Evacuees from Kuwait and Iraq (March 1991) (GAO/NSIAD-91-160). The information on those fleeing to Syria comes from Iraqi sources in Damascus.
[18] UNDRC, “Tentative Numbers.” See also New York Times, September 4 and 7, 1990; and Financial Times, September 4, 1990.
[19] Sadowski, p. 10; UNICEF, Jordanian Children in the Eye of the Storm (Amman, February 1991).
[20] Hleileh provided his estimate to Joost Hiltermann in early May 1991. See also Daoud Kuttab, “The Palestinian Economy and the Gulf Crisis,” Middle East International, September 14, 1990, p. 16.
[21] For more on the problems in the Occupied Territories as a result of the war, see The Middle East, (March 1991), pp. 36-37; Penny Johnson. “Letter from the Curfew Zone,” Middle East Report 170 (May-June 1991). pp. 38-39; and The Palestinians and the War in the Gulf (Washington, DC: Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, February 1991).
[22] Amnesty International press release, April 18, 1991.
[23] On the problems of Egyptian workers in Iraq, see Middle East International, February 22, 1991, p. 6.
[24] Sadowski, p. 10.
[25] Sadowski, p. 5; New York Times, May 27, 1991.
[26] Sheila Carapico, “Yemen: Unification and the Gulf War” Middle East Report 170 (May-June 1991), p. 26.
[27] Conversation with Robert Burrowes of the University of Washington, Seattle. For a more optimistic assessment of Yemen’s adjustment in the aftermath of the war, see Middle East International, April 19, 1991, p. 25.
[28] See Iran Times, September 7 and 14, 1990.
[29] “The Economic Impact of the Gulf Crisis on Third World Countries,” memo to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee [of the British House of Commons) by Oxfam, World Development Movement, Save the Children et al (March 1991), p. 6; the figure on remittances and project aid is from al-Majalla, January 16-22, 1991, provided by Khalid Medani. Doug Henwood also provided valuable assistance in compiling displacement figures.
[30] This view was conveyed at several off-the-record press briefings at both the Pentagon and State Department in late February and early March 1991.
[31] Washington Post, April 9, 1991. See also Joost Hiltermann. “Bomb Now, Die Later,” Mother Jones (July-August 1991).
[32] Hiltermann interview, May 18, 1991.
[33] For a detailed and graphic description of medical conditions in refugee camps along the Iraq-Turkey border, see transcript of the radio interview with Joanie Guptil of Medecins Sans Frontiers, “As It Happens,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. May 3, 1991.
[34] “Report to the Secretary-General on Humanitarian Needs in Kuwait and Iraq in the Immediate Post-Crisis Environment,” United Nations S/22366, March 20, 1991, p. 11.
[35] Interview with Red Cross spokeswoman Yetta Sorenson, on “As It Happens” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, May 3, 1991. See also Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1991.
[36] Interview with Joost Hiltermann, May 18, 1991.
[37] Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi banker and exile opposition figure, provides this estimate in Washington Post, April 9, 1991.
[38] See the accounts in the Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1991, and New York Times and Washington Post, May 22, 1991.
[39] New York Times, April 28, 1991. On environmental damage from the Gulf war, see also: Gulf War Environmental Information Service, Impact on the Land and Atmosphere (World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge); Potential Environmental and Public Health Effects from Attacks on Petrochemical Facilities (Friends of the Earth, Washington, DC); The Hidden Casualties: The Environmental Consequences of the Gulf Conflict, interviews by John M. Miller (Arms Control Research Center, San Francisco); The Long-Term Impact of Oil Spills, Chemical Weapons in the Persian Gulf, and On Impact: Modern Warfare and the Environment: A Case Study of the Gulf War (Greenpeace); and War in the Gulf: An Environmental Perspective (Political Ecology Group, San Francisco).
[40] Iran Times, March 1, 1991.
[41] Guardian, March 28, 1991.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "The Other Face of War," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

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