29 years before Saddam invaded Kuwait, another Iraqi leader tried but failed

Iraqi premier Abd al-Karim reasoned that if Abdel Nasser could rule both Egypt and Syria, then he could rule both Iraq and Kuwait

Al Majalla takes a look at Iraqi Premier Abd al-Karim Qasim's  attempt to invade Kuwait in 1961 and explains why Saddam felt that he could succeed where Qasim failed.
Al Majalla takes a look at Iraqi Premier Abd al-Karim Qasim's attempt to invade Kuwait in 1961 and explains why Saddam felt that he could succeed where Qasim failed.

29 years before Saddam invaded Kuwait, another Iraqi leader tried but failed

Iraqi troops amassing on the Kuwaiti borders, along with fiery statements coming from Baghdad about the need to “restore the newborn to the lap of his mother” (in reference, of course, to neighbouring Kuwait).

High alert within the international community topped with urgent meetings at the Arab League premises in Cairo, with Arab and foreign troops flocking into the Arab Gulf to defend Kuwait from the territorial ambitions of Iraq and its president.

Anybody who reads those lines would think they came from the hot summer of 1990 when Saddam Hussein decided to invade and occupy Kuwait. That, of course, was an ill-advised decision that opened the gates of hell for Saddam and Iraq, which continues to suffer more than three decades later from his terribly wrong decision.

But in reality, all of this happened before, at different times with different players and different circumstances, when his predecessor Abd al-Karim Qasim tried to invade Kuwait, 29 years before Saddam's incursion.

Iraqi Prime Minister and military officer General Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963), dressed in a military uniform, appears at an official function in Baghdad, Iraq, December 27, 1961.

Historic claims to Kuwait

Qasim’s erratic decision was based on historic Iraqi claims to Kuwait, which, until the year 1914, was part of the vilayet of Basra under the Ottomans. Many Iraqis half-heartedly accepted Kuwait’s newfound borders, unable to complain so as not to anger the British.

Things changed, however, when on 19 June 1961, the emir of Kuwait Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah declared the complete independence of his country, after terminating the Anglo-Kuwaiti Agreement of 1899.

Qasim's erratic decision was based on historic Iraqi claims to Kuwait, which, until the year 1914, was part of the vilayet of Basra under the Ottomans.

Abd al-Karim Qasim was Iraq's new premier Baghdad, having reached the post after slaughtering members of the Iraqi royal family in the 14 July Revolution of 1958.

From left, seated: Iraqi politician Abdul Salam Arif and Iraqi Prime Minister Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, are surrounded by the members of the Iraqi pan-Arab Ba'ath (Renaissance) party in the 1960s in Baghdad.

Role model-turned-rival

Although originally inspired by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had also come to power after overthrowing the monarchy in his country, the two men quickly parted ways after Qasim began seeing him as a competitor for leadership of the Arab world.

Abdel Nasser was at the apex of his career in 1961, ruling over both Egypt and Syria, which had merged under his rule into the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. If Abdel Nasser could rule both Egypt and Syria, Qasim reasoned, then it was only logical that he too could rule over Iraq and Kuwait.

The Iraqi leader sent a note to the emir of Kuwait, congratulating him on terminating the Anglo-Kuwaiti Agreement that he described as "fraudulent" and "illegal," making sure to avoid any mention of Kuwaiti independence.

Then on 25 June 1961, he called for a press conference at the Iraqi Defence Ministry, officially demanding the incorporation of Kuwait into Iraqi territory while symbolically appointing the Kuwaiti emir as qaimaqam (governor) of Basra.

He was effectively trying to turn back the clock to Ottoman times — or so he thought — when Iraq had been divided into three vilayets (Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra) with Kuwait no more than a caza (a subdivision of a Turkish vilayet) of Basra.

Based on Qasim's declaration of war, the First Division of the Iraqi army (responsible for the Kuwaiti borders) was put on high alert, awaiting orders to invade and occupy. The 14th Infantry Brigade was moved from the city of al-Nasriya on the lower Euphrates towards the border area, along with a tank battalion from the Fourth Armoured Brigade in Baghdad.

Iraqi army unit (cavalry) on parade in 1957.

Commander of the First Division, General Hamid al-Hassounah, was categorically opposed to the invasion and so was Iraqi Foreign Minister Hashem Jawad who tried talking Qasim into a political solution, suggesting that rather than invade Kuwait, he could take its case to the International Court of Justice (ICC).

The exact reason why Qasim made his territorial claim is unclear. It might have been partially triggered by Kuwait's request for admittance to the League of Arab States, which was presented formally on 23 June 1961, just two days before Qasim's press conference. 

He was furious with the Arab League's swift decision to grant Kuwait full membership, withdrawing ambassadors from Arab states that had supported the decision and recognised Kuwait's independence — mainly Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia.

Swift Arab and British support

The Kuwaiti emir invested heavily in this Arab support, requesting that Arab troops defend his country against Iraqi aggression. The first to respond positively was Saudi Arabia, with its king, Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, replying: "We are with you through thick and thin, and will make sure to uphold our pledge."

The first Arab country to respond positively to Kuwait's plea for help was Saudi Arabia. King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said: "We are with you through thick and thin."

On 1 July 1961, a Saudi military force entered Kuwait, composed of 100 parachuters and 1,200 trained soldiers, followed by troops from Egypt, Sudan, and Jordan. Great Britain was also quick to respond, sending 5,000 troops to Kuwait.

Everybody seemed in a hurry, given that if Abdul Karim Qassim carried out his threats, his 60,000-strong army could easily overrun the tiny country, with its small force of anywhere between 2-3,000 troops.

Faced with what now seemed like an all-out war, Qasim began a slow retreat with maximal face-saving. He "froze" the decision to invade, before discarding it altogether and saying, on 27 January 1963: "I refused to attack Kuwait so as not to spill Arab blood (and so that) our Arab brothers don't enter a war that will be in nobody's interest, except that of Imperialism."

Such rhetoric didn't convince any of the Arab leaders, led by King Saud, who still had doubts about his intentions and territorial ambitions. Arab troops would remain in Kuwait until 20 February 1963, when they finally withdrew days after Qasim was toppled and killed on 9 February.

Where was Saddam?

An interesting question would be: where was Saddam Hussein when all of this was happening? And didn't he learn anything from Qasim's failed attempt at occupying Kuwait?

Qasim's era had started off with positive relations between him and Iraqi Ba'athists, but they were to quickly deteriorate due to rising tensions between him and Abdel Nasser.

When it was clear that they had reached a dead-end, the Ba'athists decided to kill him and on 7 October 1959 they carried out an ill-planned assassination attempt against the Iraqi premier on al-Rashid Street in Baghdad. His driver was killed and Qasim was wounded in the arm and shoulder.

Iraqi soldiers patrol downtown Baghdad on 8 February 1963 after members of the pan-Arab Ba'ath (Renaissance) party led a successful coup d'etat against the brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963).

Firing the bullets was none other than Saddam, who fled to Syria first and then to Egypt, where he would stay until 1963, studying law at Cairo University.

Perhaps he was too busy with his studies to pay any real attention to what was happening on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti borders in 1961, or his gigantic ego got the best of him – as typical of Saddam – to the extent that he might have said to himself: "I am smarter than Qasim, and, where he failed, I will succeed."

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