The 1991 Gulf War shaped much of modern Iraqi history. One major way was that the opening bombing destroyed the country’s electricity network, which was never fully rebuilt because of sanctions. It is a major reason why the power supply remains so poor in Iraq today.
Starting on January 17, 1991, the U.S. led coalition began a 43 day air campaign against Iraq before the land war started. (1) At the time American official insisted that they were only going after military and transportation targets. (2) When some key infrastructure was hit, officials claimed that was collateral and unintended damage, but it was actually part of the plan. The strategic bombing campaign aimed not only to cripple Iraq’s military, but destroy the country’s infrastructure as well. That was because while the immediate goal of the war was to expel Iraq from Kuwait, Washington was hoping that the destruction would help lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Following this strategy Iraq’s power infrastructure was wiped out. First, metallic sheets were dropped on power stations on the first day of the war that short circuited the system, and caused blackouts. (3) Then 28 power plants were bombed in 215 sorties, along with transformers and switching yards. That shut down the national grid by the first week of the war. That destruction would have a lasting affect upon Iraq up to the present day.
The effects of the bombing were quickly apparent after the war had ended. In March 1991 the United Nations sent a survey team to Iraq to access the war damage. It said that the conditions in the country were “near apocalyptic” and that Iraq had been bombed back into “a pre-industrial age”. It noted that the lack of electricity was paralyzing society since there was no power to run things. For example, there was no power for water purification or sewage treatment plants leading to an increase in the spread of diseases. A Harvard report estimated that 17 of 20 of the nation’s generating plants were damaged by the war, and 11 of 17 were total losses. It found that four months after hostilities had ceased electricity generation was only 20-25% of prewar capacity. The Pentagon thought power capacity was down to 1920 levels when Iraq first got its independence from England. U.S. analysts believed that it would take 1-5 years to repair these facilities with western aid. That was not coming since international sanctions would remain on Iraq until the 2003 invasion because of Saddam’s non-cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors. Iraq was forced into ad hoc measures to deal with this crisis such as starving small towns of power and hording electricity for Baghdad.
By 2003 Iraq’s power grid had been cobbled back together, but the infrastructure was still under great duress due to international sanctions. Fighting, war damage, and looting would knock the national grid out again. Iraqis had high hopes that the United States would finally fix the system, but the Coalition Provisional Authority focused upon large projects with foreign companies that would take years to complete. Insurgent attacks, corruption, and poor planning would undermine many of those plans. Power capacity and production would eventually go up, but not enough to keep up with demand leading to constant blackouts, especially during the hot summer months, sparking an annual protest movement.
Iraq is still years away from solving this problem, which all began with the Gulf War in 1991. Washington wanted to undermine Saddam by taking out the power grid, but its hoped for coup never materialized, and the sanctions it kept in place afterward to contain Iraq meant that the electricity system was never fully repaired. That would blowback on the Americans later on when they occupied Iraq after 2003 and had to try to solve its own legacy from the Gulf War.
1. Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91
2. Lewis, Paul, “U.N. Survey Calls Iraq’s War Damage Near-Apocalyptic,” New York times, 3/22/91
3. Tyler, Patrick, “Iraq Devastation Worse Than Allies Intended,” San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/91
Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91
Lewis, Paul, “U.N. Survey Calls Iraq’s War Damage Near-Apocalyptic,” New York times, 3/22/91
Tyler, Patrick, “Iraq Devastation Worse Than Allies Intended,” San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/91