Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The 1991 Shiite Uprising In Southern Iraq

In 1991, immediately after the Gulf War ended, an uprising started in southern Iraq. It began in Basra, and quickly spread to the major cities of the south. It only lasted for a few days before Saddam Hussein was able to regain control. In its wake, thousands were killed and more were left as refugees. The revolt was the biggest threat to Saddam’s power since he took office, and would leave deep scars in the south.

On March 1, 1991, Iraqi soldiers returning from the just ended Gulf War rose up in Basra. The city had been bombed during the war, sanctions had led to inflation and shortages in the country, and the government looked very vulnerable after its defeat. In February, a message from President George Bush calling for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam was broadcast on Voice of America radio. Even before that, the CIA had set up a radio station in Saudi Arabia, calling on the people to get rid of Saddam. That was the setting for the 1991 revolt. 

Iraqi troops began straggling back to the city in early February, disheveled and demoralized. Some commandeered tanks and armored vehicles, and attacked government offices. Locals joined in, and a wave of looting broke out. They then set about killing Baath Party members and secret police officers. The uprising soon spread to Najaf and Kufa on March 3, Karbala on March 5, and then Diwaniya, Hillah, Amarah, Nasiriyah, and Kut, along with smaller cities such as Samawa, Zubayr, Kumait, and Qalat Saleh. 
(Global Security)
 This was the first major revolt by Iraq’s Shiites since Saddam Hussein had taken power in 1979. Before, the government had carried out a divide and conquer strategy with them, supporting different clerics for example, to keep the community split. During the Iran-Iraq War, Baghdad had stressed Arab nationalism, and Iraq’s differences with Iran to keep the public loyal. It also suppressed the Dawa Party, the main Shiite opposition group, which had been driven underground, and was mostly living in exile. Over 60% of the population was Shiite, and the thought of them rising up threatened the entire regime. It brought up fears of Iranian interference as well.

The Shiites rose up in different manners in each city. Unlike the rest of the south, the revolt in Najaf seemed organized. It started with a march by civilians and deserting soldiers down some of the main streets. The demonstration grew in size, and fighting with government forces eventually broke out. Soon afterward the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s (SIIC) Badr Brigade militia infiltrated into Iraq from Iran, and crossed the country to Najaf. They came with banners and pictures of its leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which the SIIC had pledged allegiance to. The party called for an Iranian style, Shiite religious government. U.S. intelligence believed that 3,000-5,000 Badr militiamen eventually entered Iraq during the revolt. The Supreme Council chose to do so because Najaf was one of the centers of Shiite Islam, containing some of its holiest shrines. If the party was able to seize Najaf, it could use the city’s spiritual symbolism to help with its standing with the rest of the people to claim leadership of the uprising.

The SIIC was led by the Hakim family, and had its roots in the Dawa Party that was formed in the 1950s. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim later broke with Dawa, and he and Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim ended up fleeing to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. There, Tehran was organizing Shiites, and in return for its support the Hakims formed the Supreme Council. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards created the Badr Brigade in 1983 as the Supreme Council’s armed wing. It fought on the Iranian side in the war, and took part in interrogations of captured Iraqi soldiers during the war. There were stories that it used torture during this process. It also tried to recruit prisoners of war into the organization, some of them being forced. All of these tactics made the SIIC very unpopular back in Iraq.

In Karbala, Nasiriyah, Diwaniya, and Hillah, the revolt played out much differently. In Karbala, young rebels and deserting soldiers stormed government offices. In the process, they captured Baathists, government officials, soldiers, and police, many of which were executed. The security forces immediately launched a counteroffensive, while Badr militiamen also joined the uprising, as Karbala was also a holy Shiite city. In Nasiriyah, the rebellion started in the marshes with soldiers returning from the Gulf War and local tribes. They took over the Baath party and security forces headquarters, and then moved on an army unit, taking over the area. In Diwaniya, young men took up weapons and were able to commandeer some tanks from a military base just outside of the city. They took the provincial capital building, along with Baath and security forces offices. There too, some tribes joined in what became heavy fighting. Finally, in Hillah, young men took over the local offices and an infantry training center. They could not overwhelm a military intelligence building, or a military base just outside of the city, which continued to fight against the uprising. Diwaniya, even sent a force to try to capture the entire city on March 15, but failed. In all the cities, it was the youth that took up arms, whether they were civilians or military men. Also, while some tribes joined in, the majority did not, and the rebellion did not spread to the rural areas.

The uprising got a huge boost when Grand Ayatollah Sayid Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, Iraq’s Shiite religious leader, gave it his support. At first, Ayatollah Khoei did not seem to support the rebellion. Rebels however urged him to take the lead, which resulted in him issuing two fatwas. The first called on the people to protect Islam and guard its holy sites. The second said that a Supreme Committee should be created to rule. The backing of the Ayatollah gave the young rebels a huge boost in legitimacy, and made it seem like the religious establishment was behind them. Despite these two statements however, the revolt stayed limited in appeal.

During this time, Saddam did not sit idly by. The government was organizing its forces, specifically the Republican Guard whose main task was to protect the regime. In Basra, the fight was already on as 6,000 Guards were holed up in the city. They went on the offensive on March 4. The tactics used there were repeated throughout the south. The Guard, for example, used human shields, making women and children walk in front of them, and tying people to their armored vehicles. They fired indiscriminately into residential areas with first artillery, and then tanks. Units then went district-by-district arresting any young men they found. Some were killed in mass executions held at public squares, while others were carted off to Baghdad. Local clergy were rounded up and arrested or killed as well. By March 17, Basra had been retaken, and by March 19, Karbala too. In Najaf, rebels had used the Tomb of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites to Shiites, as their headquarters. The tomb was shelled by Iraqi forces, and heavily damaged, while almost all of those captured inside were killed. The government then arrested the cities leading clergy, including Ayatollah Khoei, who was taken to Baghdad. There, on March 21, he was forced to appear on state television next to Saddam, calling for an end to the fighting, while pledging allegiance to the dictator. Afterward, Khoei was returned to Najaf, and placed under house arrest. In the process, the Badr Brigade fled back into Iran. By March 29, it was all over. The rebels had been able to seize most of the major cities in the south, and put a huge scare into the regime, which was also facing Kurdish peshmerga in the north. In the end however, Saddam was able to hold onto power with his superior military force.

The Shiite uprising failed for several reasons. Phebe Marr in The Modern History of Iraq, believed the revolt scared many people such as the upper and middle classes, and most tribes because of its looting and executions. It seemed like the uprising was only leading to anarchy, which led many to not join in. The military did not rise up either, although individual soldiers did. Together, that meant the rebellion did not have the support and resources to fight off the government. Outside help never came, despite hopes that it would. Rebels believed that the Coalition would assist them, especially after President Bush called for the people to overthrow Saddam, but they never did. The U.S. wanted the army or Baath Party to stage a coup, not for the country to have a popular revolt. (1) The uprising, actually scared Washington and its Arab Allies (2) who were afraid of the country breaking up, and an Iranian backed government coming into power. (3) At the same time, the Americans’ desire for a military takeover and the decision to end the war after 100 hours backfired, leaving the Iraqi forces with far more firepower than at first thought. Saddam for example, still had one-quarter of his tanks, half of his armored personnel carriers, and the U.S. also allowed the Iraqis to use helicopters, all of which were deployed against the rebels. Not only that, but the U.S. allowed Iraqi units to pass through their lines to retreat back to Iraq, and protected arms depots from Shiites. Iran, despite sending in the Badr Brigade, actually never fully committed to the rebellion. All together that meant the spontaneous rebellion never had a chance. It didn’t mobilize the popular support necessary, didn’t have the weapons to fend off the government, and never got any real foreign help that it thought it would receive. It was able to take advantage of the confluence of events following the Gulf War, but as soon as Saddam was able to concentrate his forces it was over for the Shiites.
A mass grave found in southern Iraq after the fall of Saddam (libcom.org)
 For almost a month, the rebels were able to hold most of the major urban centers of the South. By the end of March, the government had regained control. Tens of thousands of people fled to the southern marshes for refuge. Another 100,000 went to Iran, and more left for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. By 1992, there were still an estimated 250,000 displaced hiding out in the marshes. There was also sporadic fighting into April, as fighters would move back and forth from Iran to Iraq, (4) and executions were being held in Basra up to May. In the aftermath, the government set about destroying Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf, cemeteries, and homes of suspected rebels. Eventually, Saddam would drain the marshes as well, turning most of it into a desert to assert central authority. For a few days, with rebellions in both the South and in Kurdistan, it seemed like the government could fall, but that dream quickly died. The revolts made Saddam restructure his government and security forces in an attempt to suppress any uprising that might happen in the future. In the south, cities, families, and the religious establishment were devastated. It would take years for them to recover, hampered not only by Saddam, but the international sanctions that were imposed for his invasion of Kuwait.


1. Broder, Jonathan, “U.S. policy on Iraqi chaos: Cold, hard – and wistful,” San Francisco Examiner, 3/31/91

2. Ibrahim, Youssef, “Iran Organizing Hussein’s Foes, Arab and Foreign Diplomats Say,” New York Times, 3/20/91

3. Gerstenzang, James and Ross, Michael, “Saddam’s Ouster Could Destabilize Mideast Politics,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/6/91

4. Newsday, “Saddam’s Shiite foes still fighting,” Sacramento Bee, 4/28/91


Abedin, Mahan, “The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, October 2003

Anderson, Jack, “Iranians aiding Iraqi resistance,” Oakland Tribune, 4/22/91

Apple, R.W., “Iraqi Clashes Said To Grow As Troops Join Protests; First Allied Captives Freed,” New York Times, 3/5/91

BBC, “Flashback: the 1991 Iraqi revolt,” 8/21/07

Broder, Jonathan, “U.S. policy on Iraqi chaos: Cold, hard – and wistful,” San Francisco Examiner, 3/31/91

Clarke, Richard, Against All Enemies, Inside America’s War on Terror, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2004

Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

Gerstenzang, James and Ross, Michael, “Saddam’s Ouster Could Destabilize Mideast Politics,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/6/91

Human Rights Watch, “Endless Torment, The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath,” June 1992

Ibrahim, Youssef, “Iran Organizing Hussein’s Foes, Arab and Foreign Diplomats Say,” New York Times, 3/20/91

International Crisis Group, “Shiite Politics In Iraq: The Role Of The Supreme Council,” 11/15/07

Johns, Dave, “The Crimes of Saddam Hussein, Supression of the 1991 Uprising,” Frontline World, 1/24/06

Lakes, Gary, “Behind the Battle for Power in Iraq – Who’s Who,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/7/91

Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Colorado, Oxford: Westview Press, 2004

Nasr, Vali, “When the Shiites Rise,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006

Newsday, “Saddam’s Shiite foes still fighting,” Sacramento Bee, 4/28/91

Polk, William, Understanding Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006

Reuters, “Signs of Revolt Against Saddam In Southern Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3/2/91

Tripp, Charles, A History Of Iraq, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Watson, Russell with McDaniel, Ann, Barry, John and Warner, Margaret Garrard and Moreau, Ron, “Unfinished Business?” Newsweek, 4/8/91

Wawro, Geoffrey, “Desert Storm Turns Twenty: What Really Happened in 1991, and Why it Matters, Part II of II,” Huffington Post, 1/22/11

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