25 years ago the people of Iraq rose up against the government of Saddam Hussein. Following the cessation of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers in Basra began firing on Baath party offices starting a revolt that spread across southern Iraq. Four days later Kurds started their own uprising in the north. The rebellion was short lived, put down in bloody fashion, led to thousands being executed in retaliation afterward, and hundreds of thousands being displaced. In 1992, Human Rights Watch documented those days in a report that contained dozens of first hand accounts. Here is a selection of those interviews that portrays some of the events that occurred back in 1991 and its aftermath.
The rebellion in southern Iraq started on March 1, 1991 in Basra, and quickly spread to other cities like Najaf. On March 3 demonstrations started in that latter city against the government of Saddam Hussein. A resident recalled:
At about 3pm a popular demonstration began. Men, women and children marched on the main streets shouting slogans against Saddam. … There were no more than 500 demonstrators at the beginning, but their numbers grew as the march proceeded, and they began pouring into adjacent streets as well.
By the next day Najaf fell to the rebels. A woman told Human Rights Watch that there were attacks upon Baathists and members of the security forces afterward.
Saddamists who resisted were killed. Those who did not resist were taken prisoner, and then killed when the army attacked. About 500 security people [were] killed in al-Najaf. … Many [were] killed by knives by people who were avenging killed relatives.
A similar situation played out in Karbala according to a lawyer from there.
The intifada began at 2:30pm. Earlier that day the soldiers had arrived in Karbala, and it felt as if the city suddenly had been occupied. Some of the opposition groups distributed pamphlets. We were expecting it to erupt from hour to hour. It all broke out when youths fanned out throughout the city, firing the fifteen or so Kalashnikovs they had. Then people began coming out into the streets of the city to do battle with “white weapons” [knives] against the Saddamites.
By March 7 the government was retaliating and began artillery and rocket fire on Najaf to retake the city. Four days later the actual assault upon the city began, and the defenses quickly collapsed. A Najaf refugee recalled how the government told people to flee the city, but they were fired upon when the tried to do so.
People were told on the loudspeakers to evacuate the city within 24 hours for their own safety and head north, in the direction of Karbala. When thousands of people had gathered in the northern outskirts of the city it was afternoon already, around 3 o’clock, and they were mostly women and children. Helicopters opened fire from machine guns at them. Between 250 and 300 were killed.
Afterward the security forces carried out a wave of arrests in Najaf including Grand Ayatollah Abu Qassim Khoei.
I watched from a nearby house as some soldiers captured the Imam [Ayatollah Khoei], four members of the leadership, and some of the rebels. They forced the Imam, who is over 90 years old, to walk without assistance, and since he cannot he fell to the ground. Then his son helped him up and all were taken away. The army started sealing up area after area, and looking for men. Everyone they found, youths, men, foreigners, they took to the sports stadiums, and from there, in large convoys, to Baghdad. The operations went on until I left [on April 10]. … We don’t know what has happened to them since.
A similar series of events played out in Karbala after that city was retaken.
Once in control of the city, the army encircled each district looking for young men. At first they shot whomever they saw. After a day or so, they arrested every male over 15. They took them, there were thousands by the time I left to Baghdad and nobody knows what has happened to them. The soldiers were looting the shops all over the city. When they caught a youth under suspicion, they had informers who pointed them out, they would take all that was in his house in army trucks, then they’d blow up the house. I know of tens of houses demolished in this way.
Many of those taken away were later executed and dumped in mass graves across the country. Their fate would not be discovered until after the 2003 invasion.
The uprising in Kurdistan took a similar path. After cities and towns were taken there were revenge attacks upon regime elements. A Kurdish English teacher told Human Rights Watch:
Took three hundred Baathist prisoners. … We punished those who had martyred our brothers and looted our homes. We killed them without trial. … During the first days after the peshmerga took over, some escaped. We caught many and killed them by shooting them and with axes. The mothers of martyrs killed twenty-one escaping soldiers with axes and stones.
An Arab dentist in Sulaymaniya added:
The bodies of security agents and Baathists were torn apart, and revenge was wrought for the Saddamist butchery that happened in Halabja and elsewhere. … The main battle was fought against the Security Directorate, which put up stiff resistance for 48 hours. It was well-fortified, like a citadel. Many senior officials were in there. In the end, the fortification was pierced, and the masses entered in order to smash and kill everything before them. The torture chambers were like nothing I had ever seen or heard of in my life. We walked on top of the bodies of those who had been burned and killed: 700 from the Security Service, both officials and agents. … Their sentences were carried out by the people with iron saws and knives, while [their victims] were screaming and crying.
In Kirkuk the Iraqi forces arrested civilians when the Peshmerga began attacking the city. A barber recalled how he was picked up, taken to Ramadi, and told that he could never go back to his home.
On March 11, after the peshmerga began attacking Kirkuk from the north, the army seized as hostages Kurdish boys and men aged 14 and older, from the neighborhoods of Shurjeh, Imam Qasim, Tepee, Iskan Jedid, Rahimawa, Almas, and Huriyya.
At Tubzawa, there were about 1,000 to 1,500 detainees. We were placed in rooms about 25 meters square. Everyone had to sit with his knees together. There were guards outside the rooms. We spent the first night without food or water. The next day, they took us to an infantry training camp on the Tikrit-Baiji road. We spent the next 15 days there, in one large hall. There were 1,220 of us, all from Kirkuk. I know the number because they counted us. The hall had been used during the Iran-Iraq war for Iranian prisoners. No interrogations were carried out. For one week, we did not receive any blankets. We slept two to a mattress. There were no toilets. For two weeks we had to relieve ourselves in the corner. The guards told us to go smell the shit. They were from Baghdad and Tikrit. We got hard rolls and a little rice to eat, to drink, a little water. From this place we were transported by a covered truck to a place in al-Ramadi that had also been used previously for Iranian prisoners. During the long trip we received no water or food.
After nearly five weeks at al-Ramadi, most of us were released. However, those Kurds who had been serving in the army were not released. One day before letting us go, a major came to us and said we had to choose between Suleimaniya and Irbil. When we asked why, he answered simply, “no one is going to Kirkuk.”
Security forces also destroyed houses as a university student from Kirkuk said.
Troops came to Arassa, a neighborhood that is strongly pro-peshmerga. They took the women to Kara Angir [a town north of Kirkuk], and told them, “Go to the peshmerga.” The next morning, the forces demolished the houses. Arassa is totally destroyed, all the houses have been destroyed.
Attack helicopters played a crucial role in retaking towns in both the north and south. A store owner form Tuz Kharmato explained:
The rebels fired back at the tank fire using mortars. They also had five tanks they had captured from the government. The principle problem was the helicopters that began flying over the city on the fourth or fifth day…dropping napalm bombs and destroying homes. … The resistance tried to hit the helicopters, and the peshmerga surrounding the city kept the army at bay [but] still the principal problem was the helicopters.
As Kurdish towns were retaken it set off a wave of displacement. The store owner from Tuz continued:
85 or 90 percent of the population took the road into the mountains. They had to cross a river near Tuz, which cars cannot cross. The river is 20 to 25 meters wide. They took this route because the Iraqis were in control of the bridge and the road to Kifri, and the main road was under the control of the Mujahidin-e-Khalq [the Iranian opposition group that was assisting the Iraqi loyalist forces]. A couple of children drowned crossing the river. Wounded persons remained in their homes. People couldn’t take them along when they fled. Later, the Saddamites gathered up 500 of the old people who had remained and kicked them out, telling them, “Go to Jalal Talabani.” Some people hid in the city and then escaped one by one. Some were caught and arrested.
Those attempting to flee were often attacked as a man from Irbil remembered.
As we were leaving, helicopters attacked the road we were on, the Irbil-Kuysanjaq road. I saw 25 bodies on the road. People [were] trying to leave Irbil, but no one could help the wounded. They used napalm. I know this because of the brown burns on the bodies. Some of the 25 had burns. I also saw hands and legs separated from bodies.
Humanitarian agencies believed that after the 1991 uprising was put down 1.4 million Iraqis fled to Iran, 450,000 to Turkey, 35,000 to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and smaller numbers to Syria and Jordan. By June 1992 only 100,000 were still refugees, but an estimated 600,000 were displaced within Iraq. Many Kurds coming back from foreign countries were protected by a no fly zone created by the United States and its allies, and found homes in areas under the control of the Kurdish parties and peshmerga. In the south, things were much harder with some 50,000-250,000 hiding out in the southern marshes. Saddam would respond by draining the water from those areas and forcing out most of the population. When some returned they found that they were arrested, and faced forced relocations. A rebel in Basra told of what happened to him after the Republican Guard arrested him:
They took us to a security headquarters in the city. I spent one day there, with about 90 other men and women. Both the men and the women were beaten with cables and the butts of guns. They did not interrogate us. The next day, they took us to an Army security office (Amn al-Failaq al-Thaalith) which the army command was using as its headquarters in Basra. They interrogated us about who had participated in the intifada. The interrogators beat us with cables. They also used electric shock on me, powered by a 60-watt hand-operated electric generator, with wires attached to my genitals. I was interrogated like this over the next seven days. During this time, they executed 12 from our group.
There were also massacres by Saddam’s forces. According to a Basra businessman:
[They] shot a lot of women and children who went down to the river to get water. They had soldiers on the roofs of high buildings who would shoot. I saw many bodies by the river, and they shot people who tried to take the bodies back too. But still women would go to the river – there was no other choice.
We went into a house, near al-Watani Street. I was looking for my own family. In the living room, there were the bodies of two young girls, completely naked, hung from the fan that was suspended from the ceiling. … In another room was the rest of the family, at least eight bodies, including a child under the age of two. The bodies were bloated, it had been at least two days. The streets of the neighborhood were full of bodies, lying in heaps. I saw whole families cut to pieces, arms, hands, legs.
A refugee from Basra had a similar story.
On March 29, I saw Republican Guard capture 50 unarmed people in Tanuma and take them to the Shatt al-Arab. I was near Khaled Bridge. The Guard had come with tanks. There were 200-300 soldiers. They tied their victims’ hands behind their backs and tied their feet with cloths, to which they attached heavy rocks. They then took them out to the middle of the Shatt al-Arab and threw them in the water, where they drowned.
Although it was short lived for a few days in March 1991 the majority of Iraq’s provinces rose up in open rebellion. Initially it seemed that Saddam might be forced from power, but he had kept his elite forces out of the Gulf War, and with the aid of local allies and attack helicopters they were eventually able to put down all of the rebels. The costs were staggering as thousands were killed in the aftermath, and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes. When those people tried to go home, many were not allowed to return in a forced relocation program to punish the areas that opposed the government. Victims of this period are still discovered each year in mass graves across Iraq. The memories shape present politics in Iraq as well, as the Kurds are always weary of a central government, and Shiites are still afraid of Baathists. The one positive to come from these events was the creation of the northern no fly zone, which allowed Kurdish parties to carve out their own autonomous region, and allowed many refugees to return without fear of retribution from the Baath.
Human Rights Watch, “Endless Torment, The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath,” June 1992