Victim of Saddam's infamous March 1988 gassing of Halabja. / Sayeed Janbozorgi

It has been 24-years to the month since the March 1991 revolt against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is important to remember and reevaluate this important moment in Iraq’s modern history.

U.S. Navy F-14’s patrolling Northern Iraqi air space as part of 1991 Operation Provide Comfort in wake of Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Shia Arabs and the Kurds.

One sometimes wonders what would have happened had that intifada succeeded. After Iraq’s military had suffered a decimating defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led multinational military coalition large swaths of the country’s Shia Arab and Kurdish communities rose up against the tyrant in Baghdad, President Saddam Hussein after U.S. President George H.W. Bush suggested they do so.

Put another way, here was an army which was pounded by a much more technological advanced coalition of nations and saw its country’s infrastructure pulverized by multiple air and missile attacks. And what did they do? Blamed their dictator and, recognizing that he had led them straight into that utter mess and ruin, accordingly sought to remove him and in doing so determine the course their country took themselves. A spontaneous action on the part of those two communities who had long been subjugated, oppressed and even, in the case of the Kurds just three years beforehand, subjected to a genocidal campaign by Saddam Hussein’s brutal and ruthless regime. All done mere days after the U.S. and the Iraqis agreed to a ceasefire which left the dictator entrenched in power. Hussein consequently turned his attention inward and focused on consolidating his complete control over the country. Estimates of how many people were killed in that month vary from between 80,000 to 230,000. Which is possibly, we may never know, more people than have perished to date in the horrible war in Syria!

After overseeing the terms of the ceasefire between Iraq and the coalition on the 28th February 1991 U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, gave the Iraqis permission to use armed helicopters under the pretext that they were being used to ship necessities across the country in the wake of the U.S. bombing of Iraq’s roads and general infrastructure. It is hard, even with 24-years of retrospect, to comprehend how he possibly thought they would have been used for anything else when one considers the regime he was dealing with.

Hundreds-of-thousands of Kurds once again fled in terror fearful that the helicopters bombing their homes would unleash poison gas on their communities yet again. Their hopes of being once again able to defend themselves and their homeland and stand up to the murderous regime in Baghdad were dashed. Had the safe zones not stopped the regimes onslaughts a few weeks after they began tens-of-thousands more Kurds would doubtlessly have been butchered.

In the Shia south Saddam’s forces were completely ruthless. After attacking Karbala they even used their helicopters to set fire to refugees, whom they had first drenched with kerosene, who were fleeing the fighting in that city. And, in ways the notorious Islamic State can thankfully only dream of doing today, they purposely destroyed or defaced many sites of great importance and value to Shia Muslims in that Shi’a Islamic shrine city. They also showed no compunction when it came to tying civilians to their tanks and using them as human shields. Some tanks also displayed banners with sectarian slogans which pronounced “No Shi’ites after today”. Retrospectively such cruel subjugation of the Shia on the part of the Baath make the flirtations and collusion’s between the remnants of that regime and Islamist terrorists like Islamic State not so surprising and also hard to attribute simply and solely to resentful “grievances” over their removal from power in 2003.

But for the month of March 1991 the Iraqi regime was able to crush an enormous revolt that would more likely than not have been a success if the Americans had given it decisive support. Alas they did not. American pilots witnessed the carnage when flying over Saddam’s killing fields they were not permitted to defend the masses of populations Saddam was once again sending his forces out to slaughter, or at the very least use their advanced warplanes to shoot down the helicopters which were spearheading those attacks. One American F-15 fighter pilot interviewed in a superb 1996 PBS documentary aptly summed up the direness of the situation when he recalled how;

“We saw helicopters chasing a lot of people down a road, and we saw the [Republican Guard helicopter] gunships shooting at them [the Kurds], you could see the smoke coming out of the gunship, and occasionally see flashes of the tracers even though the sun had just started coming up. We felt frustrated by the fact we couldn’t help the uprising that was going on the ground for whatever political reasons that were above our rank. The best we could do was report what we saw and eventually hope it was taken care of.”

Most witnesses of this carnage did report the despair and horrors they witnessed, and even, for a brief few minutes due to security concerns, the U.S. Secretary of State himself went to see the displaced Kurds firsthand and subsequently informed the administration of the pressing political, not to mention moral, necessity of shielding those people against the murderous rampages of the very tyrant they had spent the previous months vehemently condemning, quite rightfully, for his heinous crimes against humanity.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were displaced in mountains in March-April 1991.
Hundreds-of-thousands of Kurds were displaced in mountains in March-April 1991.

Subsequently the U.S. was forced to act, so it enforced the no-fly zones above the south and north of Iraq, which remained in place until they dismantled the Iraqi regime in 2003. Something which was certainly a whole lot better than nothing. But something which, alas, came after the massacres Saddam’s forces carried out in March 1991 in order to retain their (remember Saddam’s Republican Guard had a highly vested interest in the preservation of a status quo that saw them occupy an extremely privileged position in society, especially economically) hold on the reigns of absolute state power.

Had the administration supported those uprising Iraqis across the country the last 24-years would doubtlessly have been radically different. It’s hard to determine what would have happened, even if a post-Saddam Iraq had been brought about shortly after the Gulf War there is no way to say it would have been in anyway pleasant and could very well have seen sectarian fissures badly ravage the society as did happen after 2003. However since that time tens-of-thousands of Iraqis were killed, the population was very badly impoverished for years as a result of the international sanctions (which, it’s important to remember, eroded away institutions in Iraq which are of pivotal importance when it comes to sustaining the fundamental foundations of any civil society) and suffered as a result of the war and strife which ensued after the 2003 regime change. It is worth taking into account that the adverse affects on society of that strife and conflict was most likely worsened as a result of those 12 ruinous years between 1991 and 2003.

In light of these salient facts it’s a bit difficult to imagine that Iraq and Iraqis would be much worse off if Saddam’s regime was toppled by those war weary revolting masses back in those fateful days of 1991.