War on Iraq

How George H.W. Bush Helped Saddam Hussein Prevent an Iraqi Uprising

This devastating passage from Barry Lando's book on the history of American and British imperial lies about Iraq exposes the efforts that the first Bush president made to keep Hussein in power after the first Gulf War.
The following is an adapted excerpt from "Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush" (Other Press) by Barry Lando.

Though Saddam Hussein has been dispatched, the trial of his confederates continues in Baghdad. In the next few months, the Special Iraqi Tribunal will be hearing evidence against almost a hundred of Saddam's former officials, charged with the slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites following the abortive uprising or Intifada of 1991.

Because of the way the Tribunal has been run, it's highly unlikely there'll be any mention of U.S. complicity with that slaughter. In fact, President George H. W. Bush was very much involved.

It was he who in February 1991, as American forces were driving Saddam's troops out of Kuwait, called for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow the dictator. That message was repeatedly broadcast across Iraq. It was also contained in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force. Eager to end decades of repression, the Shiites arose. Their revolt spread like wildfire; in the north, the Kurds also rose up. Key Iraqi army units joined in. It looked as if Saddam's days were over.

But then George H. W. Bush blew the whistle. Things had got out of hand. What Bush had wanted was not a messy popular uprising but a neat military coup -- another strongman more amenable to Western interests. The White House feared that turmoil would give the Iranians increased influence, upset the Turks, wreak havoc throughout the region.

But the Bush administration didn't just turn its back; it actually aided Saddam to suppress the Intifada.

The Uprising Smashed

When Saddam's brutal counter-attack against the rebellions began, the order was given to American troops already deep inside Iraq and armed to the teeth not to assist the rebellion in any way -- though everyone knew that they were condemning the Intifada to an awful defeat. Thanks to their high-flying reconnaissance planes, U.S. commanders would observe the brutal process as it occurred.

At the time, Rocky Gonzalez was a Special Forces warrant officer serving with U.S. troops in southern Iraq. Because he spoke Arabic, he was detached to serve with the Third Brigade of the 101st Infantry when the ground war began. There were about 140 men in his unit, which was stationed at Al Khadir on the Euphrates, just a few kilometers from Kerbala and Najaf.

Rocky was one of the few Americans who could actually communicate with the Iraqis. When the Intifada erupted, the Americans prompted the rebels to raid the local prison in Kerbala and free the Kuwaitis who were being held there. "We didn't think there was going to be a lot of bloodshed," said Gonzalez, "but they executed the guards in the prison." Prior to the uprising, the rebels had also been feeding intelligence to the Americans on what Saddam's local supporters were up to.

From their base, Rocky and his units watched as Saddam's forces launched their counterattack against the rebel-held city. Thousands of people fled toward the American lines, said Gonzalez. "All of a sudden, as far as the eye could see on Highway Five, there was just a long line of vehicles, dump trucks, tractors -- any vehicle they could get -- coming to us in streams."

"The rebels wanted aid, they wanted medical treatment, and some of the individuals wanted us to give them weapons and ammunition so they could go and fight. One of the refugees was waving a leaflet that had been dropped by U.S. planes over Iraq. Those leaflets told them to rise up against the regime and free themselves."

"They weren't asking us to fight. They felt they could do that themselves. Basically they were just saying 'we rose up like you asked us, now give us some weapons and arms to fight.'"

The American forces had huge stocks of weapons they had captured from the Iraqis. But they were ordered to blow them up rather than turn them over to the rebels. "It was gut-wrenching to me," said Gonzalez. "Here we were sitting on the Euphrates River and we were ordered to stop. As a human being, I wanted to help, but as a solider I had my orders."

Ironically, according to a former U.S. diplomat, some of the arms that were not destroyed by American forces were collected by the CIA and shipped to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, who at the time were being clandestinely backed by the U.S.

A Shiite survivor of the uprising later said he had seen other American forces at the river town of Nassiriya destroy a huge cache of weapons that the rebels desperately needed. "They blew up an enormous stock of arms," he said. "If we had been able to get hold of them, the course of history would have been changed in favor of the uprising, because Saddam had nothing left at that moment."

Indeed, Saddam's former intelligence chief, General Wafiq al-Samarrai, later recounted that the government forces had almost no ammunition left when they finally squelched the revolt. "By the last week of the intifada," he said, "the army was down to two hundred and seventy thousand Kalashnikov bullets." That would have lasted for just two more days of fighting.

In his autobiography, General Schwarzkopf, without giving details, alludes to the fact that the American-led coalition aided Saddam to crush the uprising. According to his curious reasoning, expressed in another interview, the Iraqi people were not innocent in the whole affair because "they supported the invasion of Kuwait and accepted Saddam Hussein."

Iraqi survivors of the Intifada also claimed that U.S. forces actually prevented them from marching on Baghdad. "American helicopters landed on the road to block our way and stopped us from continuing," they said. "One of the American soldiers threatened to kill us if we didn't turn back." Another Shiite leader, Dr. Hamid al-Bayatti, claimed that the U.S. even provided Saddam's Republican Guards with fuel. The Americans, he charged, disarmed some resistance units and allowed Republican Guard tanks to go through their checkpoints to crush the uprising. "We let one Iraqi division go through our lines to get to Basra because the United States did not want the regime to collapse," said Middle East expert Wiliam Quandt.

The U.S. officials declined even to meet with the Shiites to hear their case. As Peter Galbraith said, "These were desperate people, desperate for U.S. help. But the U.S. refused to talk to any of the Shiite leaders: the U.S. Embassy, Schwarzkopf, nobody would see them, nor even give them an explanation."

The stonewalling continued even when evidence that Saddam was using chemical weapons against the rebels emerged. "You could see there were helicopters crisscrossing the skies, going back and forth," Rocky Gonzalez said. "Within a few hours people started showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns. They were saying, 'We are fighting the Iraqi military and the Baath Party and they sprayed us with chemicals.' We were guessing mustard gas. They had blisters and burns on their face and on their hands, on places where the skin was exposed," he said. "As the hours passed, more and more people were coming. And I asked them, 'Why don't you go to the hospital in Kerbala,' and the response was that all the doctors and nurses had been executed by the Iraqi soldiers, 'so we come to you for aid.'"

One of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm had been that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned Iraq that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered -- or so the Bush administration led the world to believe.

Rocky's suspicion that Saddam did resort to them in 1991 was later confirmed by the report of the U.S. Government's Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and concluded that Saddam no longer had any WMD. Almost universally ignored by the media, however, was the finding that Saddam had resorted to his WMD during the 1991 uprising. The "regime was shaking and wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt." They considered then rejected using mustard gas, as it would be too perceptible with U.S. troops close by. Instead, on March 7th, 1991 the Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shiite rebels in Kerbala and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in large aerial bombs.

Because of previous U.S. warnings against resorting to chemical weapons, Saddam and his generals knew they were taking a serious risk, but the Coalition never reacted. The lingering question is why. It's impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time. There were repeated charges from Shiite survivors that the Iraqi dictator had used chemical weapons. Rocky Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that nerve gas was being used. He had also observed French-made Iraqi helicopters -- one of which was outfitted as a crop sprayer -- making repeated bomb runs over Najaf.Gonzalez maintained that, contrary to what the ISG report said, many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of mustard gas. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe burns on the mucous tissue on the inside of their mouths and nasal passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas." Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi officials, desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without permission from on high. "A lot of that was kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally concerned."

Gonzalez's unit also passed their information on to their superiors. "There was no way that officers higher didn't know what was happening," Gonzalez said. "Whether those reports went above our division, I have no idea." Gonzalez's former commander turned down my request for an interview. At the time, few subjects were more sensitive than Saddam's potential use of WMD. It's difficult to believe that reports from Gonzalez's unit weren't flashed immediately up the chain of command in the Gulf and Washington.

There were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S. helicopters and planes flew overhead, patrolling as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft provided real-time video of the occurrences below. A reliable U.S. intelligence source confirmed that such evidence does indeed exist.

On March 7th, Secretary of State James Baker warned Saddam not to resort to chemical weapons to repress the uprising. But why, when the U.S. was notified that the Iraqi dictator actually had resorted to chemical weapons, was there no forceful reaction from the administration of the elder Bush?One plausible explanation--denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly increased pressure on the U.S. President to come to the aid of the Shiites.

Instead, the American decision to turn their backs on the Intifada gave a green light to Saddam Hussein's ruthless counterattack. General Wafiq al-Samarrai learned of the decision after Iraqi units intercepted frantic conversations between two Islamic rebels near Nassariya. One told the other that he had gone to the Americans to ask for support, and twice was rebuffed. "They say, 'We are not going to support you because you are Shiites and are collaborating with Iran.'" After hearing that message, al-Samarrai recalled, "The position of the regime immediately became more confident. Now [Saddam] began to attack the Intifada."

The repression when it came was as horrendous as everyone knew it would be.

"Women were being raped. People were being shot in the streets and just left to rot there." Zainab al-Suwaij recounted. "The citizens were forbidden to bury the bodies. Many of them were eaten by the dogs. The government ordered people out of Kerbala to take the road to Najaf. They were slaughtered and executed along the roadway. Many of those killed were teenagers."

As an object lesson to his people, Saddam Hussein himself ordered Iraqi television to record and broadcast scenes of the repression: appalling scenes of captured Shiites, some with ropes around their necks, being kicked and beaten and insulted, threatened with pistols and machine guns, a few pleading for mercy. Most of them, eyes downcast, are eventually dragged away to execution.

The Bush administration attempted to disengage itself from any responsibility. They were helped by the fact that there were no graphic news reports in the West of the slaughter that was taking place. U.S. intelligence agencies had their own accounts and explicit images, but they weren't sharing them with the press or the public. Anonymous government figures, wise in the ways of Realpolitik, were making statements such as, "It is far easier to deal with a tame Saddam Hussein than with an unknown quantity."

Because of Saddam's savage repression of the uprising, the ensuing U.N. sanctions, and the carnage unleashed by the 2003 invasion, at least one million Iraqis have probably lost their lives since 1991.

Imagine if, instead of blocking the Intifada, George H.W. Bush had given a green light -- without even sending American troops to Baghdad -- just sent the needed signals: met with rebel leaders, ordered Saddam to stop flying his helicopter gunships.

Granted there would have been a period of tumult. The Kurds might have achieved an autonomous or semi autonomous state, which is probably what they will wind up with. The Iranians would have certainly increased their influence through their Shiite allies, but probably no more than they have today.

Indeed, some in the Bush I administration were recommending that he do just that: support the revolt he had called for. They were overruled.