The Great Lie of the First Gulf War

US President George H. W. Bush visits the US troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, circa 1990.

Source Colin Davey/Getty

Why you should care

Because fake news has consequences.

  • A key inflection point to move the American public and Congress toward supporting war in Iraq was the gruesome 1990 testimony of a Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah, who described how Iraqi troops killed 312 babies.
  • Problem was, Nayirah’s story was made up.

Two months after Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl appeared before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Capitol Hill, a body established by Reps. Tom Lantos and John Porter in 1983 to raise awareness of human rights abuses worldwide.

The caucus — which wasn’t an official congressional committee, despite its name — introduced the girl as 15-year-old Nayirah, her last name withheld to protect her family in Kuwait. Nayirah recalled the trauma of watching Iraqi troops storm into Al Adan Hospital in Kuwait City, where she volunteered as a nurse. Live on air, she said the Iraqis had removed 312 babies from incubators and left them to die on the cold floor.

“If my nephew was born prematurely, he would have died that day as well,” Nayirah told a room of reporters, her voice quavering.

Nayirah’s testimony struck deep. Major publications such as The New York Times and rights groups like Amnesty International echoed her disturbing eye-witness account. But the American public remained divided about whether to deploy troops to liberate Kuwait. Gallup polls in 1990 found that in August, only 17 percent of the American public had supported immediate military intervention. In December, that jumped to 41 percent.

The Democrat-dominated Congress was also divided, yet Nayirah’s story may have tipped the balance prior to a vote on Jan. 12, 1991. That day, the Senate voted 52 to 47 to authorize U.S military force in Iraq, with seven senators citing Nayirah’s testimony to justify their stance. The vote gave President George H. W. Bush the political backing he needed to save Kuwait … and valuable oil fields.

Just a decade earlier, the U.S., Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had financed Iraq as it battled the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran for eight years. After the war, Kuwait demanded that Saddam Hussein — known as a ruthless tyrant who had gassed his own people — pay back his war debt. Hussein refused and invaded the country instead.

The Iraqi leader was now a villain to his former allies — and to many Americans, despite their ambivalence over sending in U.S. troops. Americans might have been less conflicted had they known that the baby incubator story was a hoax.

The lie started out as a rumor, which was first picked up and propagated by the American PR firm Hill & Knowlton. Just nine days after the Iraqi invasion, a front group for the Kuwaiti government — known as the Citizens for Free Kuwait — paid the firm $10.8 million to galvanize U.S. public opinion in favor of intervention. (9)

Craig Fuller, a political adviser for President Bush, was manning the Kuwait account from Hill & Knowlton’s office in Washington, D.C. The PR campaign consisted of interviews with visiting Kuwaitis, public rallies and making letters written by Middle East hostages available to the media. Hill & Knowlton also lobbied politicians in the House and Senate.

Despite the multimillion-dollar efforts, many Americans were still apprehensive about sending their boys to a faraway land. After all, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and Americans were told that the free world was finally secure.

Enter Nayirah — who was actually the daughter of Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. Although there is no record of her working as a nurse, her testimony was convincing, thanks to the coaching she had received from Hill & Knowlton before she testified.

Lantos, a Democrat who co-chaired the Human Rights Caucus and was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, knew about Nayirah al-Sabah’s identity but he never disclosed it. After the truth came out, Lantos, who had a close relationship with Hill & Knowlton, would plead ignorance — and insist that there were certainly human right violations taking place in Kuwait.

But once the war started, the story started to unravel. William Thatcher Dowell, then the Middle East correspondent for Time magazine, was one of the only reporters to enter Kuwait City without the company of the U.S. Army. In 1991, he drove into the capital with two female colleagues and discovered that Iraqi troops had committed myriad horrific crimes. But they couldn’t find any evidence to support Nayriah’s story. “There were a lot of rumors going around,” Dowell recalls.

Ramzi Haidar, a retired Lebanese photographer for AFP, also remembers covering the war from Baghdad. “Neither I nor Iraqis heard about the incubator story,” he says today. “And AFP wouldn’t write about it unless we could get pictures with the story.”

Days after the U.S. announced a cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991, rights groups entered Kuwait and discovered that no incubator units had been removed from Al Adan Hospital. The Kuwaiti government claimed that they had bought new units just days after the Iraqis surrendered, yet Kuwait had hardly received any basic aid during that time span, let alone new incubators.

Amnesty International soon retracted the story from its records when their primary source — a doctor who allegedly had witnessed the incident — lowered his estimate of the number of babies killed from 312 to 72, then to 19. Amnesty later discovered that even those 19 infants had died before the Iraqi invasion.

Nayirah, for her part, never spoke publicly again. She also wasn’t punished for lying, since the Congressional Human Rights Caucus — now called the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission — amounts to little more than a political PR arena. Little is known of Nayirah today, except that her father passed away in 2012.

Many Americans were nonetheless outraged when they discovered she’d lied. But long before and after Nayirah’s testimony, propaganda shaped U.S. public opinion and foreign policy. From the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 to the Iraq invasion in 2003, public trust in the U.S. government has been eroding and is now at a near all-time low.

That’s the consequence of fake news.

OZYTrue Stories

The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.