Crushing The 1991 Iraq Uprisings

“But there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and to comply with the United Nations resolutions, and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations. We have no argument with the people of Iraq. Our differences are with Iraq’s brutal dictator. “

President George H.W. Bush spoke these words at Raytheon on February 15 1991. In the the months before the end of the Gulf War and weeks afterwards that message and messages like it were broadcast by the American operated Voice of Free Iraq along with leaflets aimed to delegitimize Saddam Hussein. At the end of the war Saddam Hussein’s power was deteriorating as seen by the desertion of soldiers.  The people of Iraq listened, and in March 1991 just after the war ended there was a mass uprising against Saddam Hussein in both the Kurdish north and Shia south. The time seemed to be right. The two groups had been brutally tormented by Saddam Hussein for decades and made up most of the population. With the Allied forces still occupying part of southern Iraq and possessing arms that belonged to the Iraqi military that could also be given to the Shia and Kurdish forces it seemed like Saddam Hussein’s downfall was imminent.

But things worked out another way. This apex moment was destined to fail since it would turn out that the allied forces would not quite ‘help out’ the way that the Iraqis thought. Instead America and Allied forces allowed the use of helicopters by Saddam, withheld weapons and allegedly even aided Saddam Hussein in crushing of the rebellion. The motives are not quite clear, but the brutality of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the uprising showed his true nature.

From The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

It appears a popular uprising was not quite what the United States was wanting. They much more preferred a coup from within the Baathist party that would help assure they could still do business in Iraq much they way they had with Saddam Hussein until his invasion of Kuwait.

The uprisings of 1991 are said to have started after somebody fired an artillery shell at a poster of Saddam. This caused an infitada in the south of Iraq where Shia rebels were able to capture entire towns with their limited weaponry. Likewise in the North of the country the rebels were able to virtually secure an area separate from the regime. This simultaneous rebellion was one of the biggest and perhaps only chance for the Iraqi people to topple Saddam Hussein.

Things seemed to be going quite smoothly until it was decided that Saddam Hussein could use helicopters that he could use to indiscriminately attack rebel areas.

One day after their ouster, security forces began shelling the city and attacking suspected rebel concentrations from helicopter gunships.  The shrine of Hussein, which served as a rebel base, and the nearby shrine of Abbas, were heavily damaged by artillery fire and by rockets fired from helicopters between March 7 and 11, as were adjacent buildings.  Further damage was sustained when Iraqi troops burst into the shrines and fired at the rebels and civilian sympathizers who were inside.”

From Human Rights Watch

The rebels did not stand a chance against the helicopters due to not having many large arms. The proximity of this aerial attack in relation to the Allied controlled area meant that American troops literally witnessed the destruction of the rebellion.

The US certainly did have plenty of arms taken during the war, yet it did not even want to give these to the anti-Saddam forces. There even rumors that some of these weapons were taken and delivered to the Mujahideen Afghanistan.

It is unclear why the United States did not help the Iraqis topple Saddam. Sure Iran may have been able to assert some influence on the southern rebels, but even Saudi Arabia did not have a problem with this because they believed the Arab Shias of Iraq would still distance themselves from the Persians, according to Chas Freeman ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

Saddam was a friend to the United States and the West dating back to the coup that put the Baathist Party in power. The United States found him a useful wedge against Iran and everybody found him a great customer for Weapons. Support for Saddam was so great in America that he was made an honorary citizen of Detroit and given a key to the city. This support continued during the 1980s, America even helped Saddam acquire chemical and biological weapons and observed him use him during some of his greatest crimes against humanity.

When examining the United State’s past with Saddam Hussein it makes it seem as if the threats of

  1. Iranian influence
  2. Potential instability

were worse than Saddam Hussein being in power at the time. It personally makes me wonder if Saddam wasn’t SO brutal in his reprisal on the uprisings would he have become the United State’s friend again?

But just how far did the United States go in tilting this quasi-civil war in Saddam’s favor?

There are some allegations that the United States actively aided Saddam Hussein in his crushing of the uprisings. In Barry Lando’s book Web of Deceit he documents accounts that the United States destroyed weapon caches that the rebels were trying to get a hold of and that American helicopters stopped the rebels from marching to Baghdad. Additionally there are testimonies that the United States helped supply the Republican Guard and allowed Saddam to pass through the Allied checkpoints.

The quashing of the uprisings led to mass reprisals afterwards. The scope of which were only realized after Saddam’s removal by the US invasion. Saddam even resorted to using chemical weapons to set an example.

The aiding of Saddam in this incident did not stop the United States from wanting him removed from power. I guess they didn’t want that coup to be successful so the CIA could get in on the action. But perhaps the saddest thing of all is the brutal sanctioning of the Iraqi people throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. The isolation put upon Iraq led to the death of hundreds of thousands of children that could not get adequate nutrition and medicine. Funny since the explanation for imposing the sanctions basically amounted to “well Saddam’s a bad guy.” Questioned about if the lives 500,000 children under the age of five being dead due to the sanctions, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied that they the price was worth it.

These sanctions were mostly in vain since the golden opportunity for the Iraqi people ouster Saddam had already occurred. The decision to not just back this uprising after the war has likely cost both Iraq and the United States dearly.