- 1991 uprisings in Iraq
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=1991 uprisings in Iraq
March 1- April 5 1991
result=Iraqi government victory
* Mass reprisals against the population
* Exodus of 2 million refugees
* Accelerated destruction of the Tigris-Euphrates marshes
* Continued war in the North
* A low-level conflict in the South
territory= Establishment of the
Iraqi no-fly zones
combatant2= militia defectors
casualties2= The 1991 uprisings in Iraq were a series of anti-governmental "
intifada" ( rebellions) in Southern and Northern Iraqduring the aftermath of the Gulf Warin March–April 1991.
The revolts in the
Shia-dominated Southern Iraq involved armed citizens as well as demoralized Iraqi troops returning from Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War, but were in part organized by the agents of the Islamic Dawa Partyand Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)—Iraqi Shia militant groups then largely based in Iran. Another uprising in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq broke out shortly after. Unlike the spontaneous rebellion in the South, the uprising in the North was organized by two rival Kurdish party-based militias, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK).
Although they presented a serious threat to his
Baath Party regime, Iraqi President Saddam Husseinwas able to suppress the rebellions with massive force and maintained power on his own, as the expected interventionby the United Statesnever materialized. The uprisings were eventually brutally crushed by the Iraqi Republican Guard, followed by mass reprisals and intensified forced relocating of Marsh Arabs, including the draining of the Iraqi marshlands. During the few weeks of unrest, tens of thousands of people were killed with many more dying during the following months. In addition, nearly two million people fled for their lives.
U.S. radio broadcasts
February 15, 1991, President of the United States George H. W. Bushwas heard by Iraqis on the Voice of Americaradio saying:
On the evening of
February 24, 1991, several days before the Gulf War ceasefirewas signed in Safwanbetween Iraqi and Coalitionmilitary commanders, a radio station called the Voice of Free Iraq, based in the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji, funded and run by the American Central Intelligence Agency(CIA), broadcasted a message to the people of Iraq telling them to rise up and overthrow Saddam. [Fisk, Robert. "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East". London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006 p. 646 ISBN 1-84115-007-X] The speaker on the radio was Salah Omar al-Ali, a former member of the Iraqi Baath Partyand the Revolutionary Command Council. Al-Ali's message urged the Iraqis to overthrow the "criminal tyrantof Iraq":
Al-Ali's radio broadcast encouraged Iraqis to "stage a
revolution" and claimed that " [Saddam] will flee the battlefield when he becomes certain that the catastrophe has engulfed every street, every house and every family in Iraq." [Fisk. "Great War for Civilisation", p. 647]
The outpouring of popular support among religious Shia for the uprising was largely spontaneous, although some long-term planning had taken place, particularly in the North. The revolt was fueled by the perception that the
Iraqi security forceswere uniquely vulnerable at the time, and by heavily fueled anger at government repression and the devastation wrought by two wars in a decade, the Gulf War and the Iran–Iraq War.
Unlike the Kurdish
Peshmergaguerrillas, the Shia groups lacked a well-trained fighting force, but it still maintained cells and had carried out armed operations on occasion. The Shia opposition has long enjoyed sanctuary and support from the Iranian regime, including the arming of the Badr Organizationas a pro-Khomeini fighting force made up of Iraqi POWs, the Islamic Dawa Partyand Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Tehrandoes not appear to have furnished significant material or logistical assistance during the March 1991 uprising.
The revolts of March 1991 in Southern Iraq followed a general pattern. On the day that a city rebelled, masses of unarmed civilians and small contingents of rebels converged in the streets. Shouting antiregime and pro-Iranian slogans, they descended on government buildings, especially offices of the security forces. These were then attacked, usually with considerable bloodshed on both sides. Government forces fought back, but then were either killed or captured or allowed to flee. Once in control, the rebels flung open the regime's prisons and interrogation centers, and seized small caches of weapons.
The turmoil began in Basra on
March 1, 1991, one day after the Gulf War ceasefire, when a T-72 tankgunner fired a shell into a portrait of Saddam, and soldiers around him applauded jubilantly. [ [http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/iraq501/events_uprising.html The Crimes of Saddam Hussein: Supression of the 1991 Uprising] , PBS FRONTLINE, January 24, 2006] In Najaf, a demonstrationnear the city's great Imam Ali Mosquebecame a gun battle between Shia deserters and Saddam's security forces. The rebels seized the shrine and Baath Party members fled the city or were killed. The uprising spread within days to all of the largest Shia cities of Southern Iraq: Karbala, Hilla, Nasiriyah, Amarah, Samawa, Kut, and Diwaniya; smaller cities were also swept up in the revolt. Considerable unrest took place also in the Shiite slum of Sadr City(then called Saddam City), in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
The rebellion in the North (
Iraqi Kurdistan) erupted on or about March 4, in the town of Rania, northwest of Sulaymaniyah. Within ten days, the Kurds controlled every city in the North except Kirkukand Mosul. The Kurdish rebels' greatest triumph—the capture of Kirkuk—came on about March 20.
In Sulaymaniyah, Kurdish rebels captured regional
headquartersof the dreaded Iraqi Intelligence Service("Mukhabarat"); inside, they found torturedevices smeared with blood and other horrors. In retaliation, the rebels brutally killed the captured secret policemen. Ordinary government soldiers were mostly spared in an amnestyand were even issued safe-conduct passes to traverse Kurdish-held territory on their way home. In Arbil, they captured and subsequently handed over to the western human rightsthe government documents related to the genocidal Operation Anfal in which about 100,000 Kurds were killed three years earlier in 1988.
Once under way, the March 1991 uprising gathered momentum as many of the government's
regularsoldiers and militiamen switched sides. The army, which is said to have grown from 140,000 in 1977 to around one million at the time of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, contained substantial antigovernment elements; Shia Arabs accounted for 80% of the fighting ranks but only about 20% of the officers. In the North, the defection of much of the government-recruited Kurdish " Jash" militia gave considerable force to the revolt; journalists reported that their defectionwas the fruit of months of planning and psychological warfareby Kurdish rebel leaders.
Suppression of the uprisings
Once troops loyal to the central government regrouped and mounted their
counteroffensive, only massive foreign assistance or intervention could have saved the ill-equipped and largely inexperienced rebels. With little more than small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and some captured tanks and artillerypieces, the Shia and Kurdish rebels had very few surface-to-air missiles; as such, they were almost defenseless against Iraqi helicopter gunships and indiscriminate artillery barrages.
The central government responded to the uprisings with crushing force. According to
Human Rights Watch:
The Kurdish uprising collapsed even more quickly than it began. After ousting the
peshmergafrom Kirkuk on March 29, the Iraqi army rolled into Dahukand Irbilon March 30, Zakhoon April 1, and Sulaymaniyah, the last important town held by the rebels, over the next two days.
In the South, the government (aided by the
People's Mujahedin of Iran, an Iraq-based militant organization of Iranian exiles) had quelled all but scattered resistance by the end of March. On April 5, 1991, Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council announced "the complete crushing of acts of sedition, sabotage, and rioting in all towns of Iraq."
death tollwas high throughout the country. The rebels had killed Baathist officials in many Southern cities. In response, thousands of unarmed civilians were killed by indiscriminate fire from loyalist tanks, artillery guns, and helicopters. Later, when security forces rolled into the cities, they detained and summarily executed people at random using the policy of collective responsibility.
The violence was heaviest in Southern Iraq, where a smaller portion of the local population had fled than in Kurdish areas (owing partly to the danger of escaping through the South's flat, exposed terrain). In 2005, the new Iraqi government estimated at least 100,000 Shia, and possibly 180,000, died in the 1991 repression. Those who remained in the South were at the mercy of advancing government troops, who went through neighborhoods, summarily executing hundreds of young men and rounding up thousands of others, many of whom were never seen again alive. In Karbala, some of
Shia Islam’s holiest shrines were attacked. In Najaf, residential areas were bombed, and hospital staff and patients were murdered. The homes of suspected rebels were destroyed while the suspects were executed in the streets. Many Shia institutions were destroyed or badly damaged during the suppression of the uprising, or subsequently demolished. Hundreds of Shia clerics and their aides and students were also arrested and "disappeared" after the uprisings.
Exodus from cities
Just as the experience of years of repression fed the fury of the uprising, it fueled the terrified
exodusas soon as the rebellion began to falter. In March and early April, nearly two million Iraqis escaped from strife-torn cities to the mountains along the northern borders, into the southern marshes, and into Turkeyand Iran. Their exodus was sudden and chaotic, with thousands of desperate refugees fleeing on foot, on donkeys, or crammed onto open-backed trucks and tractors. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugeescalled the exodus the largest in the organization's history.
Thousands, many of them children, are thought to have died or suffered injury along the way, primarily from adverse weather, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient food and medical care. Some were killed by army helicopters, which deliberately strafed columns of fleeing civilians in a number of incidents in both the North and South. Others were injured when they stepped on
land minesplanted by Iraqi troops near the eastern border during the war with Iran. The environmental organization Greenpeacehas estimated that the death rate among Kurdish and Shia refugees and displaced persons averaged 1000 daily during April, May, and June 1991. At one point in 1991, an estimated 2000 Kurds were dying every day.
Destruction of the Iraqi marshlands
In southeastern Iraq, thousands of Shia civilians, army deserters, and rebels began seeking precarious shelter in remote areas of the marshes that straddle the Iranian border. After the uprising, the
Marsh Arabswere singled out for a mass reprisals, accompanied by ecologically catastrophic drainage of the Iraqi marshlands and the large-scale and systematic forcible transfer of the local population.
Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq
Many observers believe that attacks by Baghdad on the Kurdish-held zone were restrained to some extent by Saddam's fear that they would provoke the intervention of Allied forces after
Operation Provide Comfortallowed Iraqi Kurds to gain a " de-facto" independence from Baghdad by the end of 1991. A long positional war followed, and an estimated 100,000–150,000 soldiers remained along the front, backed by tanks and heavy artillery. The Iraqi government established a blockade of food, fuel, and other goods going to the rebel-controlled zone in the North, which targeted one segment of the Iraqi populace—predominantly Kurds—for punishment.
stalematewas broken during the 1994–1997 Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, when one of the main Kurdish factions sided with the government, and the regular conflict ended when the U.S.-led forces intervened on the Kurdish side during the 2003 Iraq War.
Many of the people killed were buried in
mass graves. Several mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been uncovered since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, notably in the Shia Arab South and Kurdish North. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4561872.stm Mass grave unearthed in Iraq city] , BBC News, 27 December 2005] Of the 200 mass graves the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry had registered in the three years since the American-led invasion, the majority were in the South, including one located south of Baghdad and believed to hold as many as 10,000 to 15,000 victims. [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/05/world/middleeast/05grave.html Uncovering Iraq's Horrors in Desert Graves] , " The New York Times", June 5, 2006]
War crimes trial
The trial of 15 former aides to Saddam Hussein, including
Ali Hassan al-Majid, over their alleged role in the suppression of a Shia uprising and the deaths of 60,000 to 100,000 people, has opened in Baghdad in August 2007. [ [http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2007/08/200852512244438973.html Iraqi Shia uprising trial begins] , Al-Jazeera, August 22, 2007] Al-Majid has been already sentenced to death in June 2007 for genocide of Kurds.
U.S. non-intervention controversy
The Iraqi survivors and American critics of President George H. W. Bush say that the president encouraged the rebellion after halting UN coalition forces at Iraq's southern border with
Kuwaitat the end of the Gulf war. Soon after the uprising began, fears of a disintegrating Iraq led the Bush Administration to distance itself from the insurgents.
Officials downplayed the significance of the revolts and spelled out a policy of nonintervention in Iraq's internal affairs. On
March 5, Rear Admiral John Michael McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that "chaotic and spontaneous" uprisings were under way in 13 Iraqi cities, but stated the Pentagon's view that Saddam would prevail because of the rebels' "lack of organization and leadership." On the same day, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheneysaid that "it would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, our writ extends to trying to move inside Iraq." [ [http://www.slate.com/id/2080606/ Shia Folly] , " Slate", March 27, 2003]
Major General Martin Brandtner, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added the same day, "There is no move on the [part of] U.S. forces...to let any weapons slip through [to the rebels] , or to play any role whatsoever in fomenting or assisting any side." [ [http://www.hrw.org/reports/1992/WR92/MEW1-02.htm U.S. Policy] , Human Rights Watch] United States State Departmentspokesman Richard Boucherexplained the next day on March 6: "We don't think that outside powers should be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." [ [http://www.fas.org/news/iraq/1991/910306-175102.htm "Situation 'Fluid' in Southeast Iraq, Kurdish North." The Iraqi government appears to be establishing some degree of control in southeastern Iraq, but the situation is still unsettled.] ]
Consequently, U.S. occupation forces who were stationed only a few miles from Nasiriyah, Samawa, and Basra did nothing to help the rebels who rose up in these cities. Soldiers watched helplessly as Iraqi troops devastated the cities, while wounded civilians fled on foot to U.S. bases nearby telling of the atrocities that were taking place.
The Administration sternly warned Iraqi authorities on
March 7, against the use of chemical weaponsduring the unrest, but equivocated about Iraq's use of helicopter gunships against civilians. President Bush and the U.S. Secretary of State James Bakerstated in mid-March that helicopter gunships should not be used, but other Administration officials gave conflicting signals. The question of helicopters was ignored in the March 3, ceasefire agreement, which clearly prohibited Iraq's use of fixed-wing aircraft.
In the end, the aircraft were employed with impunity to attack rebels and civilians alike, and proved instrumental in quelling the insurrection. The decision to permit Iraq to use helicopters in suppressing the revolt has been the subject of lively debate. Some believe that the rebels would have triumphed had helicopters been included in the Allies' cease-fire ban on flights by Iraqi aircraft. Others believe that a ban on helicopters would have merely prolonged the bloodshed without altering the outcome.
In a carefully crafted statement, U.S. State Department spokeswoman
Margaret Tutwilersaid on April 2, that the Bush Administration had "never, ever stated as either a military or a political goal...the removal of Saddam Hussein." [ [http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/briefing/daily_briefings/1991/9104/053.html US Department of State Daily Briefing #53: Tuesday, 4/2/91] ] President Bush insisted three days later, just as the Iraqi loyalist forces were putting down the last resistance in the cities:
The southern rebellions were subjects of the 1999 film "Three Kings" by
David O. Russelland the 2008 film " Dawn of the World" by Abbas Fahdel, as well as the 1993 Frontline documentary " [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1095140 Saddam's Killing Fields] " by Michael Wood.
1991 Uprising in Karbala
Hezbollah Movement in Iraq
Human rights in Saddam's Iraq
Trial of Saddam Hussein
* [http://www.hrw.org/reports/1992/Iraq926.htm Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath]
* [http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/iraq501/events_uprising.html Suppression of the 1991 Uprising]
* [http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/marsharabs1.htm The Iraqi Government Assault on the Marsh Arabs]
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