Why aren’t more Iraqis rising up against President Saddam Hussein? Most likely, many remember what happened the last time they followed U.S. instructions to rise up against him. As the Gulf War was concluding, then-President George H. W. Bush urged Iraqis “to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Two weeks later, so many Iraqis, in fact, heeded those words to fight their own government that the CIA predicted it would fall.
“Saddam Hussein faces his most serious political challenge in more than 20 years in power,” writes the CIA on March 16, 1991, in a secret report in the middle of the monthlong uprisings. “Time is not on his side.”
The revolt began on February 28, 1991, in Iraq’s southernmost city of Basra when a tank commander in a column of Iraqi troops retreating from previously U.S.-occupied Kuwait pulled away to stop in Sa’ad Square, near Basra’s ruling Ba’ath Party headquarters. In a scene that Pentagon planners now dream would repeat itself, the commander got out of his tank and denounced Saddam before he got back in and blew apart a building-size mural of his image.
The fighting spread to Basra’s old city before it reached the neighborhood of Jamoriya, where an Iraqi army private, Mohammad Honan, lived. He said Ba’ath Party paramilitaries were out in the streets.
“We all heard shooting coming from downtown,” Honan told me at the time. “‘It’s a revolution!’ someone shouted. They were demonstrating — shouting, shooting,” added Honan, who joined the anti-Saddam revolt.
Thousands of regular army soldiers, mostly Shiah Arabs, joined the civilians who overran the Ba’ath Party headquarters and emptied the city’s prisons. Within days the intifada, as countless Iraqis called the uprisings at the time, spread north along the Euphrates River engulfing first Nasiriyah and then Samawah before reaching the two holy Shiah cities of Najaf and Karbala, only 50 miles south of Baghdad. (These are the very same battlegrounds of the current conflict).
So far only the Kurdish part of the 1991 uprisings has ever gotten much press, but “the Shiah uprising in the south was far more dangerous to the regime than the Kurdish insurgency in the north,” reads one contemporaneous, formerly classified State Department cable. Across Iraq, 14 of 17 cities were at least partly under anti-Saddam rebel control during the four-week-long uprisings, including every Shiah-dominated city in the south and every Kurdish-dominated city in the north.
The ’91 uprising even flared in Baghdad itself. A secret State Department report issued on March 24, 1991, said: “Discontent was not limited to the insurgencies in the north and south . . . three neighborhoods in Baghdad (one of them named ‘Saddam’) had been sealed off by the military for several days due to anti-regime activities.”
But just as the anti-Saddam intifada was getting under way, U.S. and Iraqi military officers were negotiating the cease-fire accord that formally ended the 1991 Gulf War.
After the first draft of the cease-fire accord, which restricted the flight of Iraqi “fixed-wing” aircraft, had already been printed, Saddam’s generals said they wanted to add a new point: that Iraq be allowed to fly helicopter gunships. Saddam’s generals told the American negotiators that Iraq still needed the helicopters for two reasons: to ferry themselves to the ongoing peace talks, and in order to transport Iraq’s own wounded soldiers.
By the time the uprisings were drowned in blood, the world knew the real intentions of Saddam’s regime were to use the helicopters to massacre the rebels in the north after hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians fled Iraq into neighboring Turkey or Iran in early April 1991. But until then, U.S. officials repeatedly told reporters that they did not know much about the fighting inside Iraq.
Turns out the Americans were also lying. Senior U.S. officials knew just 12 days into the monthlong uprisings that Saddam’s regime was already using his helicopters in violation of at least the spirit of the cease-fire accord. “Throughout Iraq, the military is relying on helicopters to battle the insurgents, often firing indiscriminately on civilian targets in areas of resistance activity,” reads a secret morning briefing paper prepared by the State Department for then–Secretary of State James W. Baker II on March 12, 1991. But the U.S. stood idly by and let the suffocation of the anti-Saddam revolt continue.
I experienced that betrayal at ground level. I can recall one of those days exactly 12 years ago in Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern Iraqi city that remains as coveted today as it was back then. Although Kurdish pesh merga, or “those who face death,” guerrillas managed to hold off Saddam’s elite forces for more than five hours on March 28, 1991, by midday Kirkuk was falling.
At a crossroads on the northern side of the city, thousands of people were walking fast on two roads out of town, as an occasional car, truck or bus packed with more people rushed by in the same direction. No one knew for how long they might be walking, and nearly everyone carried water. Many women wrapped in traditional Kurdish cloth were also carrying or leading children, many of whom were crying, in tow.
Fahdil was a thin, balding pesh merga who was an intelligence officer with the Kurdish wing of the Iraqi Communist Party. “Now it is time to leave Kirkuk,” he told a small group of journalists at the crossroads.
For hours that morning Saddam’s regime only deployed a handful of small helicopters, as pesh merga fired captured government anti-aircraft guns into the sky. But by noon the Soviet-made helicopter gunships suddenly appeared and spread out over the city. With multiple pods on each fixed wing, they fired exploding rockets. Soon everyone in sight began to run.
At the time, many Iraqis across the country were filled with hope. Several different pesh merga in northern Iraq in March 1991 told Western journalists about different Kurdish couples that had just given their newborns the first name “Bush.” But many Iraqi babies died of exposure just weeks later after their families went on the run. No wonder so few Iraqis are rising up alongside U.S.-led forces today.
Frank Smyth, who covered the 1991 Gulf War for CBS News, The Economist and The Village Voice, is writing a book on the 1991 uprisings.