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In Review : THE YEAR GONE BY : Iraq swallowed tiny Kuwait and touched off a crisis; two Germanys became one; the Cold War thawed; the Thatcher era ended, and South Africa broke out of its paralysis. . .

January 01, 1991|JANE ENGLE from Times staff and wire reports


Oil and Threats: It was a crisis that caught the world by surprise. Still, looking back, there were disturbing signals early on. In the spring, suspicious equipment bound for Iraq started turning up at world ports. In Britain, authorities seized U.S.-built capacitors--devices for triggering nuclear weapons--after a lengthy investigation. Then, there was the bizarre "super-gun" affair. British Customs impounded a shipment of Iraq-bound steel tubes, which they visualized as the barrel of a giant gun capable of firing nuclear or chemical weapons hundreds of miles.

Iraq resolutely denied military intentions.

But by mid-July, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was sounding bellicose. His nation's oil-dependent economy was awash in red ink from his 1980-88 war with Iran, and he wanted the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to set higher oil prices. He accused Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates of undermining prices by producing over OPEC quotas. Finally, he threatened violence if they didn't stop.

While Mideast diplomats shuttled back and forth trying to cool down the dispute, Hussein moved 30,000 troops to the Kuwaiti border. Even then, everyone read it as a bluff. OPEC blinked and agreed to boost oil prices by $3. Iraqi and Kuwaiti negotiators met in Saudi Arabia but failed to resolve anything.

It was Aug. 1.

Kuwait invaded: The word outmatched hardly conveyed it. About 100,000 Iraqi troops with tanks rolled into virtually unarmed Kuwait early Aug. 2, taking it in a matter of hours and forcing the emir into exile. Hundreds died.

That single act was to ensnare the world in its first major post-Cold War crisis. By year's end, 28 nations had sent troops to the Persian Gulf, and a U.S.-led force of 500,000 squared off against 500,000 Iraqis across the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. Soaring oil prices, trade sanctions and the exodus of nearly a million refugees combined to touch almost every nation. Old alliances were frayed and new ones stitched together.

On the very day of the invasion, the U.N. Security Council condemned it. The next day, the United States announced a naval force for the gulf. Hussein began massing troops on the Saudi border, threatening the Mideast's biggest oil "barrel."

In the next weeks, events snowballed. The Security Council imposed a trade embargo on Iraq. Baghdad rounded up thousands of Westerners and shipped some of the men to strategic sites as "human shields" against attack. President Bush dispatched troops and warplanes. Nations around the world agreed to send troops.

It was still August.

In the ensuing months, most of the world united against Hussein, even as he became a nationalist hero to many Palestinians and other downtrodden Arabs. The Security Council passed more than a dozen resolutions against Iraq. On Nov. 29, it authorized use of force for the first time since the Korean War, giving Hussein a deadline of Jan. 15, 1991, to pull out of Kuwait or face invasion. The vote was seen as a triumph for Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Meanwhile, the military buildup continued. Hussein freed Western women and children in small batches, playing host to pleading foreign visitors ranging from Muhammad Ali to former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. It was a drama that transfixed the world. Finally, on Dec. 7, the Iraqi leader rang down the curtain: He ordered all the captives released.

The end of the year found the world still wondering if there would be war in 1991, as saber-rattling alternated with diplomacy. But it was clear that the Mideast power balance was shifting faster than the desert sands in a windstorm.MIDEAST Israel Polarizes: Battle lines hardened in this Jewish state between Jew and Arab, leftists and rightists, Israel and the world community. As for U.S. relations, an exasperated Secretary of State James A. Baker III summed them up with this sarcastic advice: "When you're serious about peace, call us."

From March through June, the country was virtually without a government after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost a no-confidence vote in the Knesset (Parliament). The issue: his refusal to accept Baker's plan for peace talks with the Palestinians. Despite weeks of furious horse-trading, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres couldn't cobble together a Cabinet, and Shamir tried his hand. Months later he succeeded. But his Cabinet was the most narrowly right-wing in years, shutting out leftist Labor. Peace talks with Arabs were not on the agenda.

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