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France helped Soviets limit US war aims in Kuwait crisis

Secret papers reveal why America stopped short of toppling Saddam in 1991

It would make sense for you and me to intervene in the events in some way in order to limit their scale

Francois Mitterrand speaking privately to Mikhail Gorbachev about America's military action against Iraq in 1991

Secret documents reveal how France helped the Soviet Union apply diplomatic pressure to stop America toppling Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War.

France and the Soviet Union were seen as important members of the coalition against the Iraqi president because they did not use their veto in the security council at the United Nations (UN) to block military action against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait.

Ever since the Gulf War of 1990-1991, mystery has remained about why America stopped short of trying to remove Saddam as president of Iraq after forcing its withdrawal from Kuwait.

Top secret diplomatic documents unearthed by Exaro from a huge Soviet archive that has been smuggled to the West show that America changed course under pressure from Francois Mitterrand and Mikhail Gorbachev, then presidents of France and the Soviet Union respectively. Exaro has had some of the material translated from Russian to English.

Mitterrand is recorded as telling Gorbachev in a telephone conversation: “As soon as Kuwait is liberated, it would make sense for you and me to intervene in the events in some way in order to limit their scale.”

And Gorbachev told France’s then foreign minister, Roland Dumas, at a subsequent meeting: “We strictly follow the UN security council resolutions, and, by doing this, we are doing a service to those who have undertaken the burden of military operations, especially the Americans. The US should show responsibility and not go beyond the mandate of the security council, which authorises the liberation of Kuwait but not the destruction of Iraq. The Americans should be reminded about that.”

Dumas replied: “Yes, it is necessary to remind them about it frequently. As for France, our position is somewhat different because we are directly involved in the coalition. However, we stress that our involvement is strictly limited by the UN mandate, ie the task of liberating Kuwait.”

Mitterrand even told Gorbachev in one telephone conversation that he disagreed with the insistence of America and its allies for Kuwait’s exiled leadership to be returned to power.

French and Soviet leaders worked behind the scenes, initially, to avoid military action, then to limit it to Kuwait and stop regime change in Iraq.

Under the national security directive authorising US military action signed in 1991 by George Bush senior, then America’s president, he ordered the military action to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and to restore the latter’s government.

It added: “Should Iraq… destroy Kuwait’s oil fields, it shall become an explicit objective of the United States to replace the current leadership of Iraq.”

Before withdrawing from Kuwait in February 1991, Iraqi forces set fire to about 700 Kuwait oil wells. The blazes took seven months to extinguish.

Despite America’s intention to “replace the current leadership of Iraq” in such circumstances, it surprised the world by ending the military action against Iraq after it withdrew from Kuwait.

But transcripts of conversations between French and Soviet leaders, which are revealed in a book, ‘Behind the Desert Storm’, due to be published next month, shed new light on a major event in modern history.

In the days before the US-led allies began the ground offensive against Iraq in February 1991, Gorbachev made another, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to negotiate a deal during a late-night meeting in Moscow with Tariq Aziz, then Iraq’s foreign minister.

Nonetheless, Mitterrand assured Gorbachev that the diplomatic efforts were not wasted because America had been forced to reformulate the goals of war. Even though it was issued on the day when the Iraqi forces began setting Kuwait’s oil wells and refineries alight, the US-led military operation would be limited to liberating Kuwait.

Pavel Stroilov is a Russian journalist and political exile living in London, and author of ‘Behind the Desert Storm’. Additional reporting by Alanah Eriksen.

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