The Use of Terror During Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait


"Oh great Iraqi people...the great jewel, the mother of all battles between victorious right and the evil that will certainly be defeated has begun."
Saddam Hussein 1991

Historical Background

Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2,1990. In his July 17,1990 speech, Saddam Hussein justified the invasion by accusing the Kuwait's Royal family of damaging Iraq's economy by exceeding its OPEC production quota, and purposefully forcing down the price of oil.

Following the invasion, Iraq announced the creation of a nine man 'Provisional Free Kuwait Government'. Six days following the invasion, the Provisional Government was disbanded and Iraq announced the annexation of Kuwait. On August 28, 1990, Kuwait was declared Iraq's 19th Province and the border area was incorporated as an extension of the province Basra. Al-Hassan al Majid, Iraq's Minister of Local Government and cousin of Saddam Hussein was appointed Governor of Kuwait.

The Political Use of Terror by Iraq in Kuwait

Following the invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi forces used widespread political terror to suppress all forms of internal dissent. Between August and December 1990, hundreds of Kuwaitis "disappeared" after detention; thousands were arrested without trial. As in Iraq itself, the death penalty was imposed and hundreds of civilians, including children, were reported executed [9].

In the first days of the invasion, Amnesty International in London received reports that hundreds of Kuwait's military personnel had been rounded up and held in make-shift detention centers in Kuwait City. It soon became apparent that, as Iraq entrenched its hold in Kuwait, the Iraqi Secret Police were increasing their search for military personnel in house-to-house round-ups. Relatives were tortured during interrogation to reveal those hiding from arrest. In all, 6-7,000 Kuwaiti personnel were arrested and transferred to prisons in Iraq.

"Iraqi terror was selective, to some extent. The elite Republican Guard that spear headed the invasion behaved with professional soldier's discipline. Torture centers sprang up under the control of 7000 agents of Iraq's Mukhabarat ... The worst brutality came early in the occupation ... Poorly trained Iraqi conscripts and volunteers of the People's Army acted without restraint" [10]

During the first four months of Iraq's operation, over 300,000 Kuwaitis managed to flee. Much of the evidence concerning the use of terror by the Ba'athist regime as a means of subjugating the entire populace, derives from their testimonies.

Scores of Iraqi exiles who had been living in Kuwait, after fleeing Iraq's Secret Police, were also rounded up by the Security Services. The majority arrested were Shia Muslims, with links to the opposition group al-Da'wa al-Islamiya (Islamic Call), membership of which has been a capital offence in Iraq from 1980. As resistance to Iraqi occupation within Kuwait grew, an even more stringent use of political terror was necessitated. By October 23rd 1990, a delegate of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent recalled:

"...Young men were shot near their homes and in front of their families, this method was used by the occupiers to terrorize the people and to eliminate the young men on the pretext that they worked in the resistance ... Arrests, interrogation, torture, punishments and killings were carried out in an arbitrary and whimsical manner [11]..."

Police stations, public buildings and the private homes of deported military men were used to hold those detainees not sent to Baghdad. The Law and Literature faculties of Kuwait University were transformed into makeshift prisons, as was the Iraqi Embassy building. Random arrest, interrogation and torture became the everyday norm. Terror was used to create a climate of fear and – as in Iraq - provided the political means to subjugate a nation.

Most Kuwaiti detainees, interviewed after their release, stated that they were not brought before a judicial authority during the period of their investigation. All were held incommunicado. Released detainees were expected to:

  • sign a declaration of allegiance to Saddam Hussein;
  • provide payment to their interrogating officials (televisions, videos, etc.);
  • provide detailed information on themselves and their families.

The Iraqis killed so many young men that bodies were transferred to a skating rink for short-term preservation. The fate of those detainees who had been too badly mutilated by torture was continued detention, a bar on leaving Kuwait, or execution.

Families were not provided with any official notification of arrest, place of detention or informed of the movement of detainee relatives. Those arrested effectively "disappeared". The bodies of those executed were often found in the streets of Kuwait, or dumped on the door-steps of their homes.

"On average, five or six new bodies were brought to the hospital each day. All were males... many bore marks of torture… [including]... the extinguishing of cigarettes on the body; burning of the skin with heated metal rods; application of electricity; cutting off of the tongue and ear; gouging out of the eyes and the breaking of limbs. In most of these cases, the immediate cause of death appeared to be a single shot..." [12]

In the early days of the invasion, many Kuwaitis turned to the Red Crescent to help trace their relatives. The Kuwaiti Red Crescent, prior to the invasion, had professional links with its Iraqi counterpart. On September 16,1990, six Red Crescent workers were arrested and the Kuwaiti and Iraqi Red Crescent were merged. Individual investigations over the fate of detainee were suppressed.

"A young man went to enquire about his cousin who was held in al-Rigga police station. When he kept insisting he was taken inside the police station. He was stripped... and told to pray. When he kneeled down they started to kick and beat him. He was suspended from a fan for several hours and was told to sit on a bottle. He was released several days later with a message to everyone, that this is the punishment for those who ask about any detainee... This happened in the first week of September." [13]

Seventeen days after the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq ordered all western foreign nationals in Kuwait to assemble in three hotels in Kuwait City: the Regency Palace, the Meridian and the International Hotel. Subsequently, it was announced that these nationals would be transferred for detention at key military and industrial sites in order to deter military attacks against Iraq.

On August 20, British and French government sources confirmed that 82 Britons and six French nationals had been moved from hotels in Kuwait to unknown destinations. A further 200 British and American nationals were transferred from Iraq to Kuwait and were detained in Baghdad.

Hundreds of foreign nationals were rounded up in Kuwait City and taken to Iraq; all were denied Consular access. Foreign diplomats were stripped of their diplomatic immunity. In the third week of August Iraq announced that some thirteen thousand Western, Soviet and Japanese nationals who had been working in Iraq and Kuwait would not be allowed to leave, until the U.S. withdrew its troops from South Arabia. On August 25, the death penalty for Kuwaitis harboring western nationals was introduced.

Torture and Maltreatment of Detainees in Kuwait

The Amnesty International report of December of 1990 is the most comprehensive documentation of the torture and ill treatment of detainees in Kuwait. This document, entitled "Iraq/Occupied Kuwait - Human Rights Violations Since August 2, 1990", provides a detailed account of Iraq's political use of terror against civilians, Kuwaiti and otherwise, under a state of siege.

The terror inflicted upon detainees was designed to terrorize the population at large and to discourage any form of political opposition to Hussein. Examples of the many forms of torture documented include: beating, burning of the skin, sexual torture, beating the soles of the feet (falaqa), kicking, electric shock, mock execution, exposure to hot and cold temperatures and suspension from rotating ceiling fans.

In all, Amnesty lists over 35 methods of torture and ill-treatment by Iraq in Kuwait. The politics of terror utilized in Kuwait were consistent with methods developed in Iraq over many years. This consistency can be most clearly seen by comparing Amnesty's report on Iraq's political terror in Kuwait with earlier Amnesty documents regarding the use of terror in Iraq itself.

As in Iraq itself, the death penalty was used as the ultimate punishment, the final tool of political terror. Within a month of the invasion of Kuwait the death penalty was introduced for three offenses:

  • the hoarding of food;
  • looting
  • the harboring of western nationals.

By December 1990, Iraq had only officially confirmed the execution of 18 people for looting.

  • The first case was reported two days after the offense became capital. A body of an Iraqi soldier was found hanging from a crane in Kuwait City. A placard had been placed around his neck warning that, "this is the punishment for those who steal the riches of the people."
  • Photographs of other men further executed for looting were shown on Iraqi television from August 17-21, 1990. On November 30, 1990, seven men were publicly hanged in Kuwait. Extra-judicial killing was used as a deterrent to political activity, as well as a means of wiping out Kuwaiti military personnel. "Looting" became a pretext for the use of political terror.
  • Scores of hangings are alleged to have been carried out on the grounds of Kuwait University in late August and early September of 1990. It is difficult to ascertain with any accuracy the numbers of people killed in Kuwait by Iraq. The estimated total has been set at over 1,000 Kuwaiti dead.

Iraq demanded that families of Kuwaiti "offenders" pay the cost of the bullets used for executions. This practice of asking families to cover "state expenses" for executions is common in Iraq and was first documented during the Iraq-Iran war.

In addition to killings by execution and torture, as described above, a number of deaths also resulted from deprivation of medical treatment. These were carried out in the context of widespread removal of medicines and medical equipment by Iraqi forces in Kuwait.


A clear picture emerges of the political use of terror in Kuwait. Essentially, the model of terror carried out by Iraq is an extension of that used by the Ba'athist regime against its own people, using the same methods and institutions. However, in Iraq itself the institutions and instruments of terror developed over a number of years, whereas in Kuwait they were put in place in a short period of time, as the invasion of a foreign country necessitated an immediate and more draconian implementation to achieve the same objectives.

In Kuwait, the well-oiled Iraqi terror mechanism thus operated at a breakneck pace to produce similar control to that achieved in Iraq, in a matter of weeks, not years. From August 2 1990, until Iraq's withdrawal, Kuwait was subjected to the full force of Iraq's institutions of terror. The Ba'athist regime in Kuwait successfully removed Kuwaiti military personnel and killed its political opponents. Many Kuwaitis disappeared; some were detained and tortured; others were summarily executed. Compliance with the invading regime was the only means of survival, and control was successfully achieved.



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22 Aug 2007 / 8 Elul 5767 0