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Questions About the Supposed Iraqi Threat to Saudi Arabia in 1990

One of the main reasons for America’s going to war against Iraq in 1990 was because the White House declared that there were satellite photos showing Iraqi tanks and troops massing on the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, threatening invasion of Saudi Arabia. . The reports fueled the war hysteria and frightened the Saudis, who then agreed to full cooperation with US military forces. They were a major reason used to convince the American people of the justification for war to protect and defend the oil supplies so vital to the West.

Yet the supposed aerial photos proving the accusation were never released. First the Pentagon said they had to remain secret because of the war effort. Then the White House kept hedging and finally the issue died down with the supposed photos still not released. Iraq all along denied that it had any intention of threatening Saudi Arabia and was only reunited itself with its (claimed) province of Kuwait.

On February 27, 1991, an article appeared in "IN THESE TIMES" telling how typical consumer of mainstream news were dazzled and deluded by the manipulators of images. The article, "Public Doesn't Get Picture with Gulf Satellite Photos," reported when president George Bush began his massive deployment of American troops to the Gulf in August 1990, he claimed that Iraq, which had just entered Kuwait, had set its sights on Saudi Arabia. On September 11, 1990, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, saying, "We gather tonight witness to events in the Gulf as significant as they are tragic. 120.000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia".

On January 6, 1991, however, Jean Heller had reported in the ST. PETERSBURG (Fla.) TIMES that satellite photos taken the same day the president Bush addressed Congress failed to back up his claim of an imminent Iraqi threat. In fact, there was no sign of a massive Iraqi troops buildup in Kuwait.

Heller told  IN THESE TIMES, "The troops that were said to be massing on the Saudi border and that constituted the possible threat to Saudi Arabia that justified the US sending of troops do not show up in these photographs. And when the Department of Defense was asked to provide evidence that would contradict our satellite evidence, it refused to do so".

But the national media has chosen to ignore Heller's story. ST. PETERSBURG TIMES’ editors approached the Associated Press twice about running her story on the wire, but to no avail. Likewise, the Scripps-Howard news service, of which the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES is a member, chose not to distribute the story. "I think part of the reason the story was ignored was that it was published too close to the start of the war," says Heller. "Second, and more importantly, I do not think people wanted to hear that we might have been deceived. A lot of the reporters who have seen the story think it is dynamite, but the editors who have seen it seem to have the attitude. "At this point, who cares? If the war ends badly with a lot of casualties, more than the administration had led us to expect, you might hear of this story again".

Heller said in her story that Soviet satellite photos taken five weeks after August 2, 1990 suggest that the Bush administration might have exaggerated the scope of Iraq's military threat to Saudi Arabia at the time.

The photos are not conclusive proof that the administration overestimated Iraq's buildup along the Saudi border, a buildup that was cited as a justification for the deployment of US troops. But two American satellite imaging experts who examined the photos could find no evidence of a massive Iraqi presence in Kuwait in September 1990. "The Pentagon kept saying, the Iraqi troops were there, but we do not see anything to indicate an Iraqi force in Kuwait of even 20 per cent the size the administration claimed," said Peter Zimmerman, who served with the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration.

A Soviet commercial satellite took a photo of Saudi Arabia on September 11, 1990 and a photo of Kuwait on September 13. At the time, the Defense Department was estimating there were as many as 250.000 Iraqi troops and 1.500 tanks in Kuwait. The photos were obtained by the St. Petersburg Times in late December 1990.

The Times informed the Defense Department of the results of the photo analysis in early January, 1991, and asked to see evidence that would support the official US estimate of the Iraqi buildup. Spokesman Bob Hall turned down the request. "We have given conservative estimates of Iraqi numbers based on various intelligence resources, and those are the numbers we stand by," Hall said. The mystery surrounding the numbers of Iraqi troops first surfaced in November, 1990, after ABC News purchased several Soviet satellite photos of Kuwait taken on September 13, 1990 and could find no evidence of large numbers of Iraqi troops. ABC officials decided not to air the photos because they did not include the strategically important area of southern Kuwait. Without seeing that territory, ABC officials said, they could draw on conclusions about what they were seeing - or not seeing. The Times bought the missing photos of Kuwait, as well as a photo of part of Saudi Arabia, from Soyuz-Karta, a Soviet commercial satellite agency that sells pictures worldwide for such purposes as geological studies and energy exploration. The cost was $ 1.500 a photo.

The Times retained two satellite image specialists to interpret the photos: Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist who now is a professor of engineering at George Washington University in Washington D.C, and a former image specialist for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) who asked not to be named because of the classified nature of his work.

While Iraqi troops cannot be seen, it is easy to spot the extensive American military presence at the Dhahran Airport in Saudi Arabia. "We could see five C-141s one C5A and four smaller transport aircraft, probably C-130s," said Zimmerman. "There is also a long line of fighters, F-111s or F-15s on the ground. In the middle of the airfield are what could be camouflaged staging areas. "We did not find anything of that sort anywhere in Kuwait. We do not see any tent cities, we do not see congregations of tanks, we do not see troops concentrations, and the main Kuwaiti air base appears deserted. It's five weeks after August 2, 1990, and what we can see, the Iraqi air force has not flown a single fighter to the most strategic air base in Kuwait. There is no infrastructure to support large numbers of (military) people. They have to use toilets, or the functional equivalent. They have to have food. They have to have water at the rate of several gallons per man per day. They have to have shelter. But where is it?".

The former DIN specialist agreed: "I simply did not see what I expected to see. There should be revetments - three sided berms with vehicles inside facing the anticipated direction of attack. There should be trenches. But they are not there". Both analysts say there are several possible explanations for the inability to spot Iraqi forces. The troops could have been so well camouflaged that they were hidden from the Soviet cameras. However, Zimmerman said that would be a departure from Iraq's strategy during its war with Iran in the 1980s when virtually no effort was made to hide military positions. Both analysts recall seeing Iraqi troops deployments during that war on poorer images from the French SPOT satellite. It's also possible that the troops were so widely dispersed that the satellite could not "See" them because its cameras could not resolve images smaller than five meters, or about 16 feet, across. Or it might be that glare from the sun on the Kuwaiti sand smudged out troops images, although images taken over Saudi Arabia appear unaffected by glare.

Another possibility is that the Soviets deliberately or accidentally produced a photo taken before August 2, that is before Iraqi troops entering Kuwait. "We have to take on faith that the image is what the Soviet say it is," Zimmerman said. "I think that is reasonable assumption, because they would not have a motive to misrepresent it, and if they did misrepresent it and the word got out, they would never sell another picture to anybody.

"We are willing to concede, at least for purposes of argument, that it is not impossible that all Iraqi activity is blow the level of resolution. But if there were tent cities, if there were bunkers, if these were staging, supply and maintenance areas, we find it really hard to believe that we missed them".

On September 18, 1990 only days after the Soviet photos were taken, the Pentagon said Iraqi forces in and around Kuwait had grown to 360.000 men and 2.800 tanks, a move of troops and equipment sizable enough to leave telltale marks on the landscape that should be visible by satellite.

In fact, the photo of southern Kuwait bought by THE TIMES clearly shows the tracks left by vehicles that serviced a large oil field, but there are no indications of tank tracks. Moreover, both analysts said all Kuwaiti roads leading to the Saudi border were covered at intervals by deep deposits of windblown sand. The sand cover is very extensive," the former DIA analyst said. "In many places, it goes on for 30 meters (about 100 feet) and more." They would be passable by tank but not by personnel or supply vehicles," Zimmerman said. "Yet there's no sign that tanks have used those roads. And there is no evidence of new road being cut. By contrast, none of the roads we see in Saudi Arabia has any sand cover at all. They have been swept clear". A satellite photo of the same area of Kuwait on August 8, just a few days after Iraqi troops entered Kuwait, shows some sand cover on the roads, Zimmerman said, and the cover appeared to be less extensive, suggesting that it continued to build up over the next month.

"It certainly indicates that nobody's been driving over them and that the (Iraqi) military has not bothered to clear them for traffic, he said". Asked if the Defense Department officials could dispel the mystery created by the Soviet photos, Pentagon spokesman Hall replied: "There is no mystery as far as we are concerned. They (the Iraqi troops) are there. We would like it to remain a mystery what our intelligence capabilities are. We are not going to make our intelligence public".

Rep. Charles Bennett of Jacksonville, the No.2 Democrat on the House of Armed Services Committee, told the St. Petersburg Times: "We have had evidence in the sense that we have had testimony about what the situation was back in September, but I have seen no photographic evidence to back up the administration's claim".

The above news reports’ questions have never been answered. Yet the claimed threat to Saudi Arabia, together with the "babies in incubators" story were a main reason for the U.S. going to war. It was about babies being thrown out of incubators in occupied Kuwait. The story was promoted in Congressional testimony by the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, disguised and misrepresenting herself as an escapee from Kuwait. The Kuwaitis paid millions of dollars including contracting the giant public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to publicize their point of view. Lies, appealing to Americans' good nature, have often been used to get us to go to war, for example, see any history about getting us into World War I.

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