Twenty-five years ago the people of Iraq rose up against Saddam Hussein following the cessation of the Gulf War. The United States played a crucial role in those events calling on Iraqis to overthrow their leader. The Bush administration was hoping to inspire a coup that would have the military replace Saddam, but keep the Baathist government in tact. When a popular rebellion started instead, the White House and its allies panicked fearing that Iraq would break apart and they would be stuck trying to hold the pieces.
In February 1991 President Bush called on the people of Iraq to rise up. He gave a speech telling Iraqis, “To take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” During the Gulf War the Americans dropped leaflets over the Iraqi army telling them to rebel. The CIA, Britain and the Saudis also financed the Voice of Free Iraq radio station that encouraged the military to overthrow Saddam. (1) America’s Arab allies such as the Saudis, Egypt and Kuwait all thought that Saddam would quickly fall after the war as well. (2) The president and some of his top advisers were hoping that a coup would get rid of Iraq’s dictator therefore removing the threat of another Middle Eastern war emerging from Iraq. (3) Not all within the administration shared this view. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft warned against getting involved in Iraq’s internal affairs and argued for containment instead. The president’s statement and calls for the military to act against the regime played a crucial role in inspiring Iraqis to rebel. When they did however the U.S. did not welcome them as they expected.
The rebellion in Iraq started spontaneously in the north and south. On March 1 in Basra, it was said that a tank column coming from Kuwait went to the center of the city and fired at a mural of Saddam. The commander then gave a speech, which drew a crowd, and the revolt was on. Demonstrations spread to other southern cities until the whole region was up in arms. In the north, the first fighting broke out in Rania and Chaware Qurna on March 5. That quickly spread as well ending with Kirkuk falling to the Peshmerga on March 20. At its peak, thirteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces had joined the uprising. The U.S. propaganda made the rebels believe that they had Washington’s backing, but they were wrong.
One major factor in America’s reluctance to support the rebellion was the involvement of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI’s leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim made radio broadcasts from Iran calling for people to join the revolt. (4) It also sent in its Badr Brigade into Najaf and Karbala. Some of its men were carrying Iranian flags and had the armband of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Supreme Council quickly alienated people by talking like it was leading the revolt, and Badr giving military commands. Badr quickly withdrew its forces, but the damage was done. Arab governments and the U.S. were scared by SCIRI’s actions, because it was a proxy of Tehran. The group had been formed in Iran to try to unite Iraq’s Shiite religious opposition under its tutelage, and Badr was officially part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The last thing the Bush administration and its allies wanted was Tehran to take advantage of the disorder in Iraq.
The fear of Iran’s role, along with concerns that the Shiites and Kurds might tear Iraq apart quickly spread throughout America’s allies in the region. Diplomats told the New York Times that Iran was supporting Iraq’s Shiites. (5) There were stories that Iran might have sent in its forces into southern Iraq. (6) Turkey warned that it would deploy troops to stop Kurdistan from breaking away from the country, and was also concerned about Tehran. The Gulf States were not interested in the break up of the country either. These countries’ all influenced the U.S. as the Bush administration was acutely aware that it had formed a delicate international alliance to expel Iraq from Kuwait. It wanted to keep its allies together, and the rebellion was complicating that.
In less than a week of the Iraqi uprising starting the White House was already turning against it. White House officials began telling the press that if rebels removed Saddam it would destabilize the region, could lead to an Islamic fundamentalist government supported by Iran taking power in Iraq, and the Kurds creating their own country. (7) The U.S. was afraid that it would have to intervene to hold Iraq together, something no one in the administration wanted. That led the president to send a warning to Iran in the second week of March. (8) By the third week of the month, the U.S. was accusing Tehran of sending weapons to the rebels. That changed the whole calculus of the administration. At first, it wanted the military to rise up against Saddam. Then it thought the rebellion might spur the army into action. Later, it came to see the uprising as rallying the Baath Party and security forces around Saddam. (9) That meant by April the U.S. was talking about sanctions rather than any downfall of Saddam. (10) Those sanctions would last all the way until 2003 when the U.S. finally invaded Iraq, something it staunchly avoided in 1991.
The Bush administration always seemed split on its post-Gulf War Iraq policy. As the war was coming to an end, the president took up the coup idea, but had its dissenters. When the revolt started, Vice President Dan Quayle and Defense Secretary Cheney were in favor of it, while Scowcroft, Joint Chiefs head General Colin Powell, and Gulf War commander General Norman Schwarzkopf were all against it. SCIRI and Iran’s role caused concerns, and the U.S.’s allies in the region were all afraid that Iraq was disintegrating. That turned the tide for the White House. Its calls for a rebellion had helped inspire Iraqis to take up arms against their government, but they got nothing in return. Former Secretary of State James Baker later said that the U.S.’s encouraging Iraqis to get rid of Saddam was a huge mistake. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report argued that the U.S. not helping the uprisings might have actually saved Saddam as the military decided to stand by him and put down the Shiites and Kurds when they saw no American aid coming. In the aftermath, the huge flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey and Ankara’s please for help led President Bush to establish a no fly zone over the north that allowed the Kurds to create their own autonomous region. The south was not as lucky as a no fly zone was created there, but the government was free to hunt down the rebels, and carried out a number of counterinsurgency campaigns and forced relocations to pacify and punish the south. That left many Shiites to feel betrayed by Washington that lasts with some up to the present day.
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