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Mitterrand saw diplomacy limiting US action as successful

France believed that it and the Soviet Union had succeeded in the first Gulf War in stopping America from removing Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s leader.

Newly uncovered documents shed light on how diplomatic efforts by the then presidents of France and the Soviet Union, Francois Mitterrand and Mikhail Gorbachev, helped to limit America’s war aims.

The French and Soviet leaders worked behind the scenes to stop America toppling Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s president in the Gulf War of 1990-91. However, it had “an explicit objective”, according to the national security directive signed by America’s then president, George Bush senior, authorising US military action, “to replace the current leadership of Iraq” if Saddam’s forces destroyed Kuwait’s oil fields.

I greatly appreciate your efforts

Francois Mitterrand speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991

As the America-led coalition unleashed air strikes on Iraq and prepared for a ground offensive in early 1991, documents detailing diplomatic discussions between France and the Soviet Union show that Gorbachev was despondent at failing to prevent America’s military action.

However, in one telephone conversation, Mitterrand assured Gorbachev that their diplomatic efforts had gained some success. The Americans had been made to issue a new ultimatum, where the goals of war were reformulated.

Even though it was issued just as Iraqi forces began setting oil wells and refineries in Kuwait alight, the operation would still be limited to liberating the country.

Mitterrand told Gorbachev: “I greatly appreciate your efforts. The eight proposals that were made as a result of your meeting with Tariq Aziz [Iraq’s then foreign minister] made us change our position as well. As you noticed, our statement does not say a word about Iraq. It is all about Kuwait.”

Indeed, the ground offensive only continued for four days. As soon as Iraq officially pledged to comply with the United Nations (UN) resolutions, America immediately ended the military action.

That decision caused much surprise and criticism at the time, especially after Bush failed to intervene to support an uprising within Iraq that he had encouraged in his war-time rhetoric. As a result, the uprising was brutally suppressed.

However, Bush’s decision to limit the scope of the military action in 1991 won praise among the leading ‘doves’ in the international community.

Italy’s then prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, is recorded as saying to Gorbachev three months later: “During the Iraq-Kuwait crisis you said that the main issue was to achieve the independence of Kuwait without going any further. Some people immediately began debating this issue. They were saying that approach was very restrictive.

“In fact, it was all about respecting the UN resolutions. In the end, President Bush also supported such an approach although he was criticised for not going further.”

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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