Kuwaiti oil wells were set on fire by retreating Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm. Mar. 2 1991

First Gulf War, 1990-1991

This was a short war but marked the beginning of an extended period where the eyes of western nations again became fixed upon the Middle East.

Months Active

Australians Served

Australians Wounded

Australians Killed

As the oil producing nations of the middle east produce over 60% of the world’s oil supply, the strategic importance of stability in the region has long been recognised across the globe. Upheaval to supply dynamics whether through political or market-led forces brings with it global economic, political and security consequences.

Within the region, there had been a history of tension between Iraq and its tiny Gulf-state neighbour since the Kuwaiti declaration of independence in 1961. Iraq maintained that the land within Kuwait’s borders was in fact a legitimate part of Iraq.

Furthermore, in the years immediately prior to the hostilities of the first Gulf war, Iraq was in Kuwait’s debt for material assistance provided to them in their 1980-88 war with Iran. The refusal of the Kuwaiti government to forgive the loan and its perceived use of oil production volumes and price to impede Iraq’s international commercial capacity was viewed as antagonistic by Iraq. Further, Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil from across the border through “slant-drilling”.

On 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait.The invasion was widely condemned and four days later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously approved a trade embargo against Iraq to force its withdrawal by non-military means. A blockade of Iraq’s access to the sea soon followed, as the US assembled a large multinational task force in the Persian Gulf, while another was formed in Saudi Arabia.

Portrait of the ship’s company of the guided missile frigate, HMAS Sydney (IV), taken on deck in the United Arab Emirates: Dubai, 22 February 1991.

Australia was one of the first nations to join the coalition force, under the auspices of the UN. Over 1,800 Australian defence personnel were deployed from August 1990, comprising units from the Army, Navy and Airforce. Three Australian navy warships conducted blockade operations in the Persian Gulf, to enforce the UN sanctions. In addition to naval units, Australian personnel took part on attachment to various British and American ground formations.

By the end of 1990 the coalition force numbered some 40,000 troops from 30 countries. This was the largest military alliance formed since World War II and was code-named Operation Desert Shield. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein responded by massively increasing troop numbers in Kuwait.

The UNSC set 15 January 1991 as the deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait but Iraq failed to comply. On 17 January full-scale war erupted when coalition forces began an air bombardment of Iraqi targets. This campaign of direct military engagement became known as Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi response included the launch of Scud missiles against coalition military targets in Saudi Arabia and against Israel.

On 24 February 1991, after more than a month of air attacks, the coalition’s ground forces moved against Iraqi positions in Kuwait and in Iraq itself. Within four days, coalition forces destroyed the Iraqi invading forces and drove the remnants out of Kuwait. The magnitude and decisiveness of these strikes destroyed what was left of Iraq’s capacity to resist. After two days of air strikes, Baghdad radio announced that Iraq’s armed forces had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait to the positions they had occupied before August 1990. Two days after this order, the coalition ceased hostilities and declared victory.

Coalition losses amounted to 358 killed and nearly 500 injured. Although her ships and their crews were in danger from mines and possible air attack, Australia’s war was relatively uneventful and there were no casualties. Dependent upon source, estimates on Iraqi deaths vary widely, but a figure in excess of 25000 people inclusive of military and civilian deaths is sometimes cited.

The UNSC passed a resolution on April 3 in order bring a formal end to the conflict. The resolution removed some economic sanctions on the country but left a ban on oil sales, with removal of the ban being conditional upon requiring the destruction of weapons of mass destruction that the coalition asserted Iraq possessed, under UN observation. Australia later provided weapons inspectors in Iraq to monitor the discovery and disposal of such weapons.


Australian War Memorial
World Atlas

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