Updated September 2, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Iraq Crisis: U.S. and Allied Forces
Alfred B. Prados
Specialist in Middle East Affairs
Foreign Affairs and National Defense
A build-up of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf began in October 1997, in response
to Iraq’s refusal to cooperate fully with the work of U.N. weapons inspectors. As the
crisis worsened in early 1998, force levels climbed to over 35,000 U.S. military
personnel, approximately 275 combat aircraft, and 40 ships, including two aircraft
carriers, supplemented by small allied contingents. Though much smaller than the
massive coalition assembled after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, U.S. officials believed
this force capable of conducting significant military strikes against Iraq if necessary. An
agreement in late February 1998 averted a confrontation, but expanded force levels were
continued until June. Following redeployments in June, U.S. forces returned to their
pre-crisis level of approximately 20,000 military personnel in the Gulf. This report will
be revised when a significant change occurs in force levels in the Gulf region. Related
reading includes CRS Issue Brief 92117, Iraqi Compliance with Cease-Fire Agreements
and CRS Report 98-114, Iraq: International Support for U.S. Policy.
U.S. Forces Build-up
The defeat of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition in early 1991 led to a drastic reduction
in U.S. force levels, which had reached 540,000 in the Persian Gulf region at the height
of the war. Until late 1997, U.S. troop strength in the Gulf fluctuated between 14,000 and
20,000, of whom a majority were embarked on ships, with smaller numbers based in
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. These contingents helped enforce a no-fly zone
over southern Iraq (Operation Southern Watch), participated in training and joint
exercises with Gulf armed forces, guarded U.S. military equipment prepositioned in Gulf
countries, and provided a limited deterrent to potential moves by Iraq or possibly Iran.
Approximately 200 U.S. combat aircraft and 20 ships (frequently including an aircraft
carrier) were in the region at any given time.
In October and November 1997, the United States responded to Iraqi efforts to
obstruct the work of U.N. weapons inspectors by sending additional ships and aircraft to
the Gulf, including two aircraft carrier groups, six F-117A stealth fighters to Kuwait, eight
B-52 bombers to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia (British territory), and 32 other
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combat aircraft to Bahrain. As the crisis intensified, Secretary of Defense William Cohen
announced additional deployments on February 4. These reinforcements, which began
moving to the Gulf region in mid-February, included 19 more fighters and bombers, the
24 th Marine Expeditionary Unit (over 2,000 combat personnel) aboard ships, and Army
aviation and mechanized units (approximately 5,000-6,000) which joined 1,500 Army
troops that were already in Kuwait.
Table 1 shows U.S. forces in the Gulf at the height of the build-up, as well as a U.S.
air contingent based in Turkey (technically outside the Gulf region but committed to
enforcing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq).1 Some U.S. military assets in the region
might not have been available for use in the event of a military operation against Iraq,
notably the 24 fighter aircraft in Turkey and the 50-60 fighter aircraft in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi authorities are reluctant to permit air strikes against Iraq from Saudi bases, although
they reportedly were willing to allow operations by non-combat support aircraft. Even
without the use of Saudi-based fighters, the U.S. area commander General Anthony Zinni
expressed the view that U.S. forces in the region could carry out a “very substantial”
operation against Iraq.2
Table 1. U.S. Forces in Persian Gulf Region
(February to May 1998)
20 103 F-14, FA-18, EA-6B
--- 12 F-117A; 6 F-16; 18 A-10
--- 50-60 F-15, F-16
Turkey (Operation Northern
Totals (not additive)
--- 36 F-15, F-16; 3 B-1
--- (support aircraft)
--- 24 F-15, F-16
--- 14 B-52
40+ approx. 275d
Including two aircraft carriers.
Military Sealift Command. Number of ships (mainly supply ships) changes with some frequency.
Plus 870 civilian mariners, 64 scientists. Numbers of personnel fluctuate.
Press cited 300-350; may have included support aircraft as well as combat aircraft.
Sources: Department of Defense; Press. The number of personnel in smaller Gulf states and Diego Garcia
According to a Defense Department spokesman on May 26, 1998, at one point during the crisis
U.S. forces in the Gulf region peaked at 44,000. This strength figure probably was reached
during a brief period in February when there were three aircraft carriers in the Gulf.
Steven Lee Myers, “U.S. Will Not Ask to Use Saudi Bases for a Raid on Iraq,” The New York
Times, Feb. 9, 1998, p. A1.
Allied Forces (Non-U.S.)
Widespread reluctance in the international community to resort to force against Iraq
prevented the United States from assembling a large multinational force like the 35member coalition that defeated Iraq in 1991. The United Kingdom deployed an aircraft
carrier and associated units to the Gulf; Canada sent a frigate and transport aircraft; and
Australia and New Zealand sent tanker and surveillance aircraft, respectively, together
with small contingents of commandos. Other donor countries offered administrative and
logistical rather than combat units: Argentina, Denmark, and Hungary promised medical
and humanitarian teams. Poland offered an anti-chemical unit, and the Czech Republic
and Romania offered unspecified military support, if needed. Total allied forces deployed
or committed came to less than 4,000 personnel, only a fraction of the roughly 210,000strong allied force committed during the 1991 Gulf war.
Other states indicated their willingness to support military action. On March 4,
Under Secretary of State Thomas R. Pickering told foreign journalists that “there is now
a coalition of some 20 states” who will engage in a military operation against Iraq if it
should take place. Presumably, the total of 20 states included the allied countries
mentioned above, but Secretary Pickering did not name the countries or indicate the
degree of support they might provide.3
Table 2 shows allied forces in the Gulf region at the height of the build-up. None
of the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, consisting of Saudi
Arabia and five smaller Gulf neighbors) committed themselves to participate in a military
campaign against Iraq. Consequently, the table does not include any of the approximately
300,000 military personnel serving in the armed forces of GCC countries, which were key
members of the allied coalition in 1990-1991. It is possible that one or more of these
countries might have decided to play an active role in a campaign if the situation had
developed into a more serious confrontation. A likely candidate might have been Kuwait,
where memories of the 1990 Iraqi invasion are still fresh. Kuwait put its 16,000-member
armed forces on a higher state of alert during the crisis. For further information on allied
support and positions of other countries regarding the present crisis, see CRS Report 98114, Iraq: International Support for U.S. Policy.
According to a news report, State Department officials met with ambassadors of over 30
countries (10 more than the number cited in the Pickering briefing) that had promised to provide
troops or other support to a military coalition. Patrick Worsnip, “Clinton warns Iraq to comply-or else,” Reuters news wire, March 3, 1998, 00:50 AET. It seems likely that most of these
countries offered modest logistical support rather than troop deployments.
Table 2. Allied Forces Committed to the Persian Gulf Region
2 tankers (Boeing 707)
2 tankers (KC-130)
1 transport (C-130)
2 surveillance aircraft (P-3K)
1 transport (C-130)
20 Tornado; 25 Harrier
Including one aircraft carrier
(1) Above forces were promised, but not all were actually deployed.
(2) In addition, the Czech Republic and Romania reportedly offered contingents if needed.
Although the crisis eased following the agreement reached between the U.N.
Secretary General and the Iraqi leadership on February 23, the United States maintained
its enhanced force levels in the Gulf for another three months. On March 4, Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright, quoting President Clinton, told a subcommittee of the House
Appropriations Committee that “Our soldiers, our ships, our planes will stay there in force
until we are satisfied Iraq is complying with its commitments.”
During May, as the crisis continued to recede, Administration officials became
increasingly concerned that the large-scale U.S. military presence in the Gulf was
affecting U.S. force readiness and creating domestic problems for U.S. allies. On May
26, President Clinton ordered a reduction of U.S. forces, beginning with the return of one
of the two aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Independence, to the Pacific. The Independence
departed the Gulf region on May 27. Other withdrawals took place in early June: the Air
Expeditionary Force in Bahrain (approximately 40 combat aircraft); all 12 F-117A
“Stealth” fighters in Kuwait; a brigade and other ground force units in Kuwait; and some
of the 14 B-52 bombers and support aircraft in Diego Garcia. Allies began withdrawing
their contingents as well.
Defense officials announced that at least one aircraft carrier would remain in the Gulf
for the foreseeable future and another would be nearby in the Mediterranean. A Defense
spokesman said the United States will maintain a task force of approximately 1,200
ground force personnel in Kuwait almost constantly to conduct training with Kuwaiti
forces on equipment prepositioned in Kuwait, along with a multiple launch rocket system
battery and additional helicopters. In addition, according to Defense officials, the United
States is keeping “a very powerful force of cruise missiles” in the Gulf region. Besides
these forces, other contingents are remaining in the Gulf to continue enforcing overflights
of southern Iraq (Operation Southern Watch), maintaining maritime interception
operations, and conducting training activities with Gulf allies. According to Defense
officials, after the withdrawals, U.S. forces in the Gulf will average approximately 20,000,
varying perhaps as much as 2,000 above or below that level, and 150-200 aircraft.
Tensions with Iraq increased late in the summer of 1998. In spite of its February 23
agreement to permit unfettered access by U.N. weapons inspectors, the Iraqi Government
announced on August 5 that it would end cooperation with the U.N. Special Commission
(UNSCOM) charged with conducting weapons inspections until certain demands were
met. (One of these demands, reportedly, is the reconfiguration of UNSCOM in such a
way as to reduce U.S. and British influence in the commission.) On August 12, 1998, the
Defense Department public affairs officer told reporters that “We have a very strong force
ready to, and able to, defend our interests and to put pressure on Saddam Hussein if
necessary.” Total U.S. strength in the Gulf as of August 12, he said, was 19,650
personnel, including 11,000 sailors and Marines (mostly embarked on ships), 5,900 Air
Force personnel, 2,300 Army personnel, and 450 in joint headquarters. He maintained
that U.S. forces in the Gulf are more powerful than they were before the build-up that
began in late 1997 (for example, the number of cruise missiles is about twice the number
in the region last year), and pointed out that they can be reinforced substantially within
48 hours if need arises.