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15 Years After Desert Storm, U.S. Commitment to Region Continues

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2006 – Fifteen years after the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm kicked off in Iraq, its impact remains ingrained in military operations, a defense official told American Forces Press Service.

Operation Desert Storm ushered in a new phase for the U.S. military. It boosted the military transformation effort, demonstrating the value of stealth aircraft, precision-guided "smart" munitions, and other new technologies. It redefined the role of the reserve components in U.S. national defense plans after more than 200,000 were called to active duty to support the operation. It also helped break down barriers for women servicemembers, ultimately opening many positions that previously had been denied to them.

Operation Desert Storm also sent a strong message to the world about the U.S. commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East -- a commitment U.S. forces continue to carry out today in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the official said.

Fifteen years ago today, U.S. and coalition forces were poised along a 300-mile front that stretched from the Persian Gulf far into the desert, awaiting orders to launch the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm into Kuwait and Iraq.

President George H.W. Bush had issued a final ultimatum on Feb. 22, 1991, demanding that Iraq begin withdrawing its troops from Kuwait the following day. "We are drawing a line in the sand," Bush said.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had launched an invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and refused to submit to international outcries and economic sanctions. Iraqi armor and mechanized infantry units troops had moved across the Kuwait border, occupying strategic posts throughout the country, historical documents show. They quickly overwhelmed the Kuwaiti army, but the Kuwaiti air force managed to flee to Saudi Arabia. News reports told of atrocities against Kuwaiti citizens during the Iraqi occupation.

On Aug. 8, Iraq declared parts of Kuwait to be extensions of the Iraqi province of Basra and the rest as a 19th Iraqi province.

The first U.S. forces arrived in Saudi Arabia Aug. 7 in an effort named Operation Desert Shield. They were the first of a force that would ultimately grow to more than 500,000 to prevent Iraq from expanding into Saudi Arabia. In addition to Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps elements, the operation also included coalition forces from 31 nations, 3,400 tanks, 3,700 artillery pieces, 4,000 armored personnel carriers, 2,000 helicopters and about 2,600 aircraft.

During the coalition buildup, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991. When the deadline passed, coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm in the early morning hours of Jan. 17.

"Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of the United States Central Command, this morning at 0300, we launched Operation Desert Storm, an offensive campaign that will enforce the United Nation's resolutions that Iraq must cease its rape and pillage of its weaker neighbor and withdraw its forces from Kuwait," Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement at the war's start.

"My confidence in you is total. Our cause is just," Schwarzkopf said. "Now you must be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm."

The offensive began with 38 days of continuous air attacks. Coalition warplanes began flying more than 1,000 sorties a day, according to historical documents. Top priority in the air war went to destroying Iraq's air force, anti-aircraft and command and communication capabilities, as well as other military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

Despite attacks that continued around the clock, Saddam continued to reject Bush's ultimatum to begin removing forces from Kuwait by Feb. 23. On "G-Day," at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 (8 p.m. EST on Feb. 23), U.S. and coalition forces began moving into Iraq and Kuwait for the ground assault phase of the operation.

The ground offensive had three main fronts and included a tactical plan of deception designed to leave a gaping hold in Iraq's defenses. Schwarzkopf concentrated the initial troop concentrations and attacks along the Saudi border with Kuwait in hopes of tricking the Iraqis into thinking the main offensive would come there.

Three commands held the eastern third of the front. The far eastern flank along the Persian Gulf was made up of Joint Forces Command East, which included armies from six Gulf Cooperation Council members. To their left was the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, with the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions and the 1st "Tiger" Brigade of the Army's 2nd Armored Division. To their west was Joint Forces Command North, with units from Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

To further confuse the Iraqis, the 1st Cavalry Division moved into position near Kuwait, later joining 7th Corps units that made up the coalition's center front. That element included the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st and 3rd Armored divisions, the British 1st Armored Division, the U.S. 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 11th Aviation Brigade.

The biggest surprise of the campaign was the western "hook" to the far west -- undetectable to the Iraqis because their intelligence capabilities had been virtually wiped out during the air war. The 18th Airborne Corps held the far western flank, with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), the French 6th Light Armored Division, the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 12th and 18th Aviation brigades.

The ground offensive advanced quickly, with coalition troops making steady progress against Iraqi troops, many of them deserters waving white flags.

By the third day of the offensive, allied troops had liberated Kuwait City. Bush declared a cessation of hostilities at 8:01 a.m. Feb. 28, just four days after the ground war began. On March 3, Iraqi leaders formally accepted the cease-fire terms, and the first U.S. combat forces returned home five days later.

While Operation Desert Storm was noted for its speed and low number of coalition casualties, it included some low points. The war left 148 Americans killed in action and 145 from other causes. Another 467 were wounded in action. The most tragic day of the war came on Feb. 25, 1991, when an Iraqi Scud missile hit a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 reserve-component troops and wounding almost 100 others. Most of those killed were members of the Army Reserve's 14th Quartermaster Detachment, based in western Pennsylvania.

At the war's end, Schwarzkopf reflected on the tremendous challenges overcome to carry out the fastest deployment of more than 500,000 troops and their equipment in U.S. history. "The Middle East was very far from America, and we had nothing in Saudi Arabia," he said. "We had to build up a large quantify of fuel and ammunition and find a way to house and feed the soldiers. It was a huge logistical challenge."

Schwarzkopf offered high praise for the military members who made Operation Desert Storm a success. "They didn't want to go to war. They didn't want to leave their families. But when their country asked them do, they did, because they thought it was the right thing to do," he said.

The general, who gained widespread public popularity during the war, reflected credit to those he said deserved it most. "It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle," he said. "It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle."

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