In March 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf war, the Kurds of northern Iraq and Arabs of the south rose up against the Baath regime. For two brief weeks, the uprisings were phenomenally successful. Government administration in the towns was overthrown and local army garrisons were left in disarray. Yet by the end of the month the rebellions had been crushed and the rebels scattered, fleeing across the nearest borders or into Iraq’s southern marshes. Those who could not flee did not survive summary executions.

Despite the calls made during the war by Western leaders for Iraqis to rise up and dispose of Saddam Hussein, these dramatic and tragic events were the last thing any outside powers anticipated. Did the uprising also take the Iraqi people by surprise? There is good cause to think so. Iraqi opposition leaders had long been calling for a “popular uprising” that would end the war with Iran and the deprivation and tyranny foisted upon them by Saddam’s regime. Yet when the moment did arrive, the opposition was totally unprepared.

The Gulf crisis of 1990-1991 was paradoxically a favorable period for the regime, but the roots of the failure of the March uprising can also be found in the period of the war between Iraq and Iran, when the opposition developed a belief that war and revolution were indivisibly linked. But if war is to lead to revolution, the internal social struggle must take precedence over the external, national struggle. This, generally speaking, is the European model from the early part of the century — the two Russian revolutions, the 1918 revolt in Germany, the first Hungarian rebellion in 1919, and the Italian workers’ revolt in the 1920s. In each case, the nationalism of the ruling classes was seen to have failed, and people responded by placing their loyalty elsewhere.

The Iraqi opposition, fervently hoping that the course of the Iran-Iraq war would bring such a breakdown, deeply underestimated the extent to which Saddam Hussein had succeeded in forging a new Iraqi patriotism of national self-defense. Even many Kurds and Shi‘a saw the war as their own: Some 250,000 Kurds joined the Salah al-Din Forces, a militia that helped the army in keeping the Iranians out of Iraqi Kurdistan; battalions with a majority of Shi‘i soldiers mounted a similar defense in the southeast.

Chastened by its disappointment, the opposition learned the wrong lessons. Some factions turned to conciliation with the Baath in 1988 and 1989, after the stalemate and ceasefire, precisely when the regime was at its weakest and most vulnerable. Then, during the Gulf crisis and Gulf war, it overcompensated for its previous misjudgment by overestimating Saddam’s appeal to Iraqi patriotism. The opposition was therefore completely unprepared for the spontaneous and truly “popular” uprisings of March 1991. In that lack of preparation lay some seeds of the rebellions’ failure.

The First Gulf War and the Opposition

One of the startling features of the Iran-Iraq war was Saddam Hussein’s ability to refashion his regime’s ideology to incorporate widely varied appeals to the different forces who might support him. The Baath’s pan-Arab ideology naturally helped bolster his posture as the defender of the Arab nation against the Persian threat, which was important in securing backing from other Arab countries. For the powers beyond the Gulf, all of whom supported Iraq in one way or another, Baathism’s secular, modernizing aspects made it an attractive potential neutralizer of Khomeini’s political Islamism.

Yet, simultaneously, Saddam was able to enlist the loyalty of large numbers of Iraqi Arabs who were Shi‘a, and of the non-Arab Kurdish population. During the war, Baath ideology became a new synthesis of Arabism, Islamism and, above all, Iraqi patriotism. This patriotism, a new invention, reached deep into the past for heroes like Nebuchadnezzar, who had invaded ancient Palestine, and Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi, the Kurd who had challenged the Crusaders in Jerusalem. It developed particularly after 1983, when the war changed from an offensive to a defensive effort. In character with the history of Baathist rule, it was wedded to a ruthless internal campaign against dissenters, including the expulsion of up to 250,000 Shi‘a from the south. [1]

Among the organized opposition, three positions crystallized in response to the new war-dominated society: pro-Iranian (some Kurd and Shi‘i groups); pro-Iraqi (chiefly the pro-Syrian Baath splinter party and a faction within the Iraqi Communist Party); and against both Iran and Iraq (the main body of the ICP). Only the Baath splinter party clearly supported the Iraqi army and regime, but did not seek an alliance with Saddam Hussein. Their hearts were set on a coup which would install in power the “true” Baath, which they claimed to represent.

The Islamist Shi‘i parties had traditionally prioritized religious identity, or an ideal projection of it, over national identity. They were waiting for the “zero hour” of the “Islamic upheaval” — their version of the popular uprising. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, led by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim), an umbrella group founded in 1982 and incorporating the Islamic Action Organization and the Islamic Masses Movement, had little political experience to rely on. [2] Another SCIRI component, al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Call), was an exception: It led anti-regime mass demonstrations in 1977 and took to the streets again in 1979. All the Islamists took a pro-Iran position during the 1980-1988 war, mistakenly assuming that they possessed a religious legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Shi‘a that would justify such an alliance. Nationalism was missing as a factor in their calculations. They failed to assess the extent to which the Islamic Revolution in Iran arose from a sense of national indignity and bitterness at the Shah’s fealty to Washington, and forgot that the Ayatollah Khomeini began his own political career as an advocate of Iranian nationalism. They also suffered disastrously from the Iraqi version of pan-Arab nationalism, which saw Iraqi Shi‘ism as an extension of Iranian influence. [3] Yet for those people of southern Iraq whose sympathies had not been enlisted by radical Islam, Saddam Hussein was able simultaneously to extend an appeal based on his newfound Iraqi nationalism and its defense of the country’s borders.

Some Kurdish parties also supported Iran, but from a different historical background. As a large but marginalized national group within Iraq, their political calculations were always influenced by the need for external support in their battles for autonomy against Baghdad. In the early 1970s, they accepted the Shah’s money and arms to fight a proxy war which troubled the Baath regime deeply in its early, unconsolidated years. In 1975, however, Iran dropped them at a stroke, leaving Baghdad free to wage a bloody campaign of suppression. By once again tying themselves to Iran after 1980, these Kurds were forgetting how this earlier costly experience isolated them from the Iraqi democratic movement, such as it was. As with the Shi‘i parties, this tie to a foreign nationalism brought further repression while detaching them from many of their own people who supported national self-defense.

The Communists, once the most influential of the opposition parties, opposed both Iraq and Iran while planning for a popular uprising (which in 1985 it recognized that the war had “delayed”). [4] The strain of this position showed itself in the emergence within the ICP and in leftist circles in exile of a minor wing which saw that it would be meaningless to call on the people to tum their guns on the regime which was leading the “defense of the homeland.” [5]

Thus none of the organized parties with potential to threaten the regime and to form a democratic movement was able to formulate a position that synthesized the urgent need to throw off the yoke of tyranny and war, and the powerful appeal to nationalism which the regime had usurped on the basis of the necessity to defend Iraq.

Exhaustion of Iraqi Patriotism

Saddam’s patriotic posture had thrown the opposition into disarray. During the war years, the opposition was cut off from the major urban centers — Baghdad, Basra and Mosul — that contain almost half of the Iraqi population. Their organizational structures in the cities were largely destroyed, in some cases wiped out completely. The Kurds and the Communists retained bases in the northern mountains, with some ties to small towns and to the Kurdish cities of Suleimaniya and Erbil. The Islamists’ only organized bases were in Iran.

Before the Iran-Iraq war, many parties did exist in the cities, especially in Baghdad, but political and social discontent was then at a minimum. With the war over and internal discontent intensifying, the opposition parties quite simply had no reliable organizational structures. The regime was in crisis, but so was the opposition. During the worst period for the Baath regime since it came to power, most parties opted for a policy of conciliation. [6]

The Islamists who had put their faith in the Iranian tanks, or had even gone so far as to join the Iranian Basij units, were dismayed. Their activities were subject to restriction by Tehran. Their followers in other Arab countries, such as Syria, who used to pack their bags for a return to Iraq at each new Iranian offensive, now packed for asylum in Sweden or other European lands. The Kurdish parties opted for conciliation in the hope of conserving whatever they could. The ICP, for its part, attempted to set conditions: Any dialogue with the government should be collective and public, and a good will gesture should precede it, such as the release of political prisoners. [7] Up until just a few days before the invasion of Kuwait, most Iraqi opposition leaders were busy considering the best way to strike a face-saving bargain with the regime. [8]

During the 1980-1988 war, a naive and obvious patriotism was the overwhelming mood: defending one’s country against invasion. But after the ceasefire, when social and economic problems multiplied, and then after the invasion of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein again gave up the Shatt al-‘Arab as an objective in order to neutralize Iran, a second form of patriotism arose, one that joined national defense with opposition to the ruling regime and its foolish, dangerous policies.

The opposition looked at the invasion of Kuwait and shuddered at the prospect of renewed Iraqi patriotism, not realizing that this time it would be inward-oriented. People did not want this new war. When it did break out, they accepted it submissively but hoped that the destruction would carry one compensation: the fall of Saddam Hussein. [9]

It was clear from the way Saddam conducted his ideological campaign during this period that he had an inkling of this mood. He tried desperately to renew his ideological appeal with a new but well-contrived Islamic vocabulary. He had “defeated” Khomeini, and attributed his victory to his being the “deputy of God.”

Iraqis were in no mood to swallow this act, but the opposition was ill-placed to measure the extent to which mass discontent had grown. The means to measure the popular mood was lacking. There was no significant economic or social research about the country. Only fragments of political news now and then leaked out, which opposition figures scrutinized in vain. Some got into the habit of judging popular feeling by their own personal reaction to events, like the gassing of Halabja. Yet three years later it became clear that most Kurds had first heard of it only after the uprising, when rebels publicly showed videos of the gassing. There were scenes of disbelief and mass weeping whenever it was shown.

The real discontent was fueled by the crisis in the economy. A quarter of Iraq’s 4 million laborers were under arms, the vast majority ordinary conscripts who were growing restive. During the war against Iran, Iraq’s hard currency reserves had fallen from $37 billion to less than $2 billion. Yet the import bill remained at $11 billion per year, much of it stemming from the need to import 80 percent of the country’s food requirements. For the first time under Saddam’s rule, feeding the people became a serious problem. The price of basics soared, lowering living standards not just for the poorer strata but also for the middle classes.

Sa‘doun Hammadi, then minister of economics, appeared on state television after the invasion of Kuwait to tell hungry Iraqis that the occupation of Kuwait would enable them to repay their colossal foreign debts in a mere two to four years. A range of official media took up this theme, yet the public discounted almost entirely any such idea. Above all, they did not want another war, and freely gave that opinion to Western reporters on the streets of Baghdad. Other reports reaching the Iraqi opposition abroad began to speak of social unrest — in Basra, Mosul and the Thawra district of Baghdad. Mosul had had the highest casualty rate among young officers in the war with Iran, and Basra had suffered the greatest civilian casualties and the most physical damage. Al-Thawra contained many students who had led attempts to resist conscription. Now students in elementary, secondary and intermediate schools in Baghdad distributed hand-written leaflets against the coming war. In November 1990, a massive student demonstration against the government took place in Baghdad. [10] Samir al-Shaykhli, then interior minister, devised a simple solution: Evacuate 2 million of the capital’s inhabitants. (He succeeded in evacuating less than 1 million.)

Exhaustion of the Army

Discontent had begun to grow in the army, which since 1977 had grown from 140,000 to around 1 million. A further 700,000 civilians were recruited into the temporary forces of the so-called Popular Army. The swollen armed forces now included substantial anti-government elements. Kurdish tribesmen formed the Salah al-Din Forces of the Popular Army, mobilized by their chieftains in return for a payment per head. Arabs in the Popular Army were no longer only Baath Party members, though Baath cadres controlled them. As for the regular army, Shi‘i Arabs accounted for 80 percent of the fighting ranks, but only 20 percent of its officers. [11]

From 1973 to 1980, as Saddam’s personal power grew, key army posts had been filled with clan relatives from his home province. During the Iran-Iraq war, though, the Tikritis had found it imperative to enlarge the officer class in order to utilize all available military expertise, including bringing people out of retirement. This had the effect of diluting Tikriti power and influence.

For these reasons the army, or large sections of it, was the greatest problem for the regime in the brief interlude between the wars. It had acquired a truly popular base, but at great cost economically and politically for the regime. One symptom of the malaise in the army was the removal, in November 1990, of Nizar al-Khazraji as chief-of-staff, followed by ‘Abd al-Jabbar Shanshal as defense minister in December. His offense was telling the president that his senior military commanders feared the Iraqi army was no match for the allied forces. [12]

A strong anti-Saddam bloc emerged in the higher levels of the military, though it advanced its criticisms in the most cautious and coded terms. Some supported the invasion of Kuwait but not the timing: Iraq had allowed the West time to group its forces through the winter and launch an offensive before the heat returned, whereas a March invasion would have delayed an allied counter-offensive until the next winter. Others opposed the invasion of Kuwait as precluding any attack on Israel. They anticipated that other states would exploit the battle to their own ends — a Turkish bid for the Kirkuk oil fields, an Israeli jump into Jordan, or perhaps Iran grabbing Mandali or Basra. Only a small minority foresaw success, counting on Arab enthusiasm for Iraq to overthrow the regimes of Syria and Egypt and detach Europe from the US. [13] Initially Saddam encouraged discussion at the meetings of the senior military commanders, as a way of checking for himself the accuracy of sycophantic reports that the majority backed their leader. But executions soon followed: Approximately 600 officers were killed, according to Kurdish reports in November 1990.

At lower levels, men who had in some cases been fighting for the best part of a decade were simply exhausted. The case of Ahmad, a corporal, was typical. “I forged an ID identifying me as a peasant to evade being recruited again. But after two months the order to exempt peasants from military service was rescinded. I tried hard, using my mother’s gold ornaments, even her wedding ring, to buy a vacation, but in vain: It was too costly. The officers got rich. Lucky soldiers could buy transfer orders for assignments far from the Kuwaiti theater. Hope came when a conscript from the Albu Hijam tribe whispered that he was going to desert and seek shelter in the Hawr al-Hammar marsh, as he had done before. He invited me to go with him on the condition that I tell no one. I did.”

In a letter to relatives abroad, a deserter wrote: “The smugglers who traded in tea, sheep and cigarettes were idle before the invasion of Kuwait; now their area, the Iraqi-Turkish border, became prosperous. Not only food items, but a new commodity: deserters. You had to pay 500 Iraqi dinars if you were a soldier, 1,000 if you were an officer. Around 100 were smuggled into Turkey, including two officers.”

Hoshyar Zibari, an officer and a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party politburo, quoted Kurdish deserters as saying that their units on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border were hemmed in by mines planted by another regiment who were then moved to another position. The mines were not there for protection, but to “prevent soldiers from defecting to the other side of the front line.”

Kurdish opposition parties in Iraq estimated the number of deserters even before the war to be in the thousands. [14] The Revolutionary Command Council, Iraq’s ruling body, issued Decree 11078 on deserters ordering that defectors’ wives, children and other relatives be detained. Confidential memos from the general staff ordered continued surveillance of suspect elements in the army and their removal from any sensitive command headquarters. They warned unit commanders against “negative attitudes by the soldiers, namely that they complain to Kuwaiti civilians about the shortages of food, or even exchange weapons and ammunition for food.”

Regime Fantasies, Opposition Blindness

On these unpromising foundations Saddam set about mobilizing his reluctant people. Redeploying Iraqi patriotism, he enriched it with a strong dose of Islamic fervor. In this he was helped by the Arab world’s Islamist movements, including the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Hasan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front in Sudan, Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s Ennahda in Tunisia, Jordan’s Muslim Brothers and others. He sought to inflame Arab enthusiasm by advertising himself as the only leader strong and determined enough to threaten Israel. [15] Saddam also had to convince Iraqis that the West would suffer. The president was ready to pay a heavy price in Iraqi casualties in the hope of inflicting 30-40,000 casualties among the allies.

Saddam’s state of mind during the countdown to war, and the outlines of his strategic thinking, have been the subject of intense speculation. It appears he was truly convinced that he had scored a great victory over Khomeini during his previous adventure. A transcript of a secret meeting of senior officers inside Kuwait in October 1990 reveals that many of them were surprised to find the president there — a clear indication of Saddam’s lack of trust in his generals. In the course of the meeting, Saddam claimed he was given orders from heaven to invade Kuwait: “May God be my witness, that it is the Lord who wanted what happened to happen,” Saddam declared. “This decision we received almost ready made from God…. Our role in the decision was almost zero.”

Predicting that the war would start with allied air raids, Saddam counseled his commanders to “stay motionless under the ground just a little time. If you do this, their shooting will be in vain…. On the ground the battle will be another story. On the ground the Americans will not be able to put forces as strong as you are.” In the final analysis, he said, the power of oil would prevail: “We have 20 percent of world reserves. Sanctions will be lifted not for the sake of our eyes, but for the sake of our oil.” [16]

If the generals could not do other than murmur their assent, the opposition was also finding it difficult to set out a strong dissenting position. Still licking their wounds from their failure to gauge the strength of patriotic feeling in the first war, too isolated now to know how far the needle had swung the other way, they did not want to make the same mistake again. All of them had denounced the invasion and annexation of Kuwait, and demanded Iraqi withdrawal. None had lost their hope that Saddam might be displaced. But most feared they would lose their moral right to oppose the regime if they did not side with “Iraq” against the West.

In a communique from Beirut after the air war began (January 19, 1991) Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim ordered his followers in SCIRI to join the “Recruitment Forces,” his organization’s military wing, and instructed those based near Iran’s border with Iraq to stand firm against “United States aggression.” The ICP also denounced US aggression. Masoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, opposed both the war option and the Western military build-up; and the Kurdistan Front, a coalition of Kurdish parties and the Kurdish section of the ICP, halted all military actions against the Iraqi army in Kurdistan so as not to “stab the army in the back.” As the situation ripened towards a mass uprising, the opposition parties had ceased to expect any such thing.

The People Rise Up

Assuming Saddam’s true “strategy” was the one he outlined at the meeting in Kuwait — there is no evidence of any other — it was a colossal blunder. The air campaign, which he thought would last two or three days, lasted more than a month. The Israelis did not react. The Europeans stood fast alongside the Bush administration. No oil famine occurred. The ground battle Saddam so confidently awaited never materialized. Instead there was a rout. The Iraqi army would not have fought even if the order had been given. The devastation wreaked upon the country surpassed imagination.

From the ruins Baghdad radio spoke of the war as “a great achievement,” and called the withdrawal “heroic.” Baghdad’s official version of the events reminded Iraqis of the story of an Italian general defeated at al-‘Alamayn by Gen. Montgomery. When reproached for having allowed whole sections of his forces to flee the battle, he solemnly remarked: “Yes, we ran away — but like lions.” To the peasant conscripts who made up the vast bulk of the Iraqi armed forces, no such implausible irony was possible. For them the experience of flight ended in carnage such as that on the “highway of death” at al-Mutla. [17]

Amidst this chaos the Iraqi people rose up to defy the dictator. In the throes of a devastating battlefield defeat they reached out for victory inside their own wrecked and wretched nation. It was the “popular uprising” for which every opposition leader, from modern leftist to traditional cleric, had been calling throughout the 1980-1988 war. Yet most had given up hope of it ever happening and none were remotely prepared for putting it into practice.

The most common opposition scenarios involved a running series of political demonstrations at a time of crisis, when the ruling party and the security services were politically isolated and structurally ruptured. These mass protests would unify the people, further isolate the regime, and win over the army rank and file. Only then would the stage of armed revolt occur, culminating in a battle for the capital. Such an enterprise would require a field leadership with extensive networks of cadres and supporters to gather intelligence, react swiftly to developments, carefully assess the mood of the civilians and the military, and plan the positioning and actions of various units. It would need a sober and highly disciplined leadership to overcome the ethnic, religious and communal fragmentation of the Iraqi nation.

The crisis did not arrive as expected. The army, which had lost a third of its troops, disintegrated. More importantly, so did the security services, which had suddenly lost all control of the situation. The popular explosion, building since 1988, was detonated by the retreating soldiers and officers who had survived the horrors of al-Mutla.

The first sparks of the rebellion were in the Sunni towns of Abu al-Khasib and Zubayr, about 60-70 kilometers south of Basra. It was the last day of February 1991, three days before the formal Iraqi surrender to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf at Safwan. The revolt gained momentum immediately, and other cities followed suit: Basra, March 1; Suq al-Shuyukh, March 2; Nasiriyya, Najaf and Kufa, March 4; Karbala’, March 7; and then Amara, Hilla, Kut and on throughout the south. In the north the sequence was: Raniyya and Chawar Qurna, March 5; Kol Sanjaq, March 6; Suleimaniya, March 7 and 8;· Halabja and Arabat, March 9; Erbil, March 11; Dohuk, Zakho and other small townships, March 10 and 13; and finally Kirkuk, March 20.

A detailed account of what happened in each city and township is impossible, but reports in various outlawed Iraqi publications speak of a series of events remarkably similar in every case. Masses would gather in the streets to denounce Saddam Hussein and Baathist rule, then march to seize the mayor’s office, the Baath Party headquarters, the secret police (mukhabarat) building, the prison and the city’s garrison (if there was one). People shot as they went at every poster or wall relief of the dictator. As the cities came under rebel control, the insurgents cleaned out Baathists and mukhabarat.

This is the general picture, but details, where known, often differed. These inconsistencies were a result of the extreme novelty of the situation and the lack of communication and the limited transportation. Not only nearby towns but frequently adjacent neighborhoods within the same town could not know what was going on in each other’s quarter.

Even with hindsight, any assessment of the uprisings must be cautious. Many of the dramatis personae were either killed or are now in hiding in Saudi Arabia or Iraq, fearful that their families will be brutalized if they do not remain anonymous. Those who carried the burden of the uprisings, especially in the first days, were ordinary people whose accounts were often neglected by the opposition press. The situation is even further complicated: The opposition parties first claimed credit for this or that mutiny during the early days, but when failure set in they distanced themselves by saying it had been the spontaneous work of the masses. [18]

An Approximate Record

Despite these problems, we have enough evidence to set down an approximate record of the uprisings, dividing Iraq into three zones: the south, the mostly Shi‘i sector; the north, comprising the Kurdish sector; and the middle swath made up of Baghdad and its environs, together with the towns of the “Sunni triangle” running from Baghdad north along the Tigris River to Mosul west to the Syrian border. Each zone is distinguished not only by its own ethnic, religious and communal identity but also, and this is important to our scheme, by the degree of political awareness, the amount of free-flowing information, the extent of organizational capacity and the balance of military forces.

In the south, the hypothetical scenario of the uprising which the opposition parties had once sketched out was stood on its head. Armed mutiny was the first, not the last, link in the chain. Following the revolt in Zubayr and Abu al-Khasib, Basra too took up arms, led by the angry retreating soldiers and followed by a mass of equally angry civilians.

“The Iraqi army cannot bear the responsibility of the defeat because it did not fight. Saddam is responsible,” charged Khalil Juwaybar, an armored vehicle driver who was among the soldiers who left Zubayr for Basra to stoke the fires of revolt. An officer described the mood in Zubayr and Abu al-Khasib: “We were anxious to withdraw, to end the mad adventure, when Saddam announced withdrawal within 24 hours — but without any formal agreement with the allies to ensure the safety of the retreating forces. We understood that he wanted the allies to wipe us out: He had already withdrawn the Republican Guard to safety. We had to desert our tanks and vehicles to avoid aerial attacks. We walked 100 kilometers towards the Iraqi territories, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. In Zubayr we decided to put an end to Saddam and his regime. We shot at Saddam’s posters. Hundreds of retreating soldiers came to the city and joined the revolt: by the afternoon, we were thousands. Civilians supported us and demonstrations started. We attacked the party building and the security headquarters. In a matter of hours, the uprising spread to Basra, at exactly three o’clock on the morning of March 1.”

The Basra revolt was led at first by Muhammad Ibrahim Wali, an Iraqi officer who gathered a force of tanks, armored vehicles and trucks to attack the mayor’s office, Baath Party offices and security headquarters. The vast majority of the Basra population backed the revolt. Most of the active participants in the clashes were between 14 and 35 years old. Almost all the soldiers took part, including Mechanized Regiment 24 stationed near Tannouma. Below the Bata shoe company premises, opposite the mayor’s office, they found a secret prison. Hundreds of prisoners were released, some shouting “Down with al-Bakr,” referring to Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, who had been forced to resign as president of Iraq in 1979!

This spontaneous rebellion in Basra did not have a well-forged leadership, an integrated organization, or a political or military program. Many brave soldiers lamented the fact that cannons, tanks and other weapons were scattered here and there with no plan to move to Baghdad and no contact with other officers and soldiers in other units who as yet had no idea what had happened in Kuwait, apart from the ceasefire. Indeed, when the first officer sent to crush the uprising hoisted a white flag and entered the city to join its ranks, he was humiliated and expelled. The Basra rebellion detonated the Iraqi uprising in general.

The people of Suq al-Shuyukh were the next to rise. Three groups of armed men attacked the city, backed by the marsh tribes of Hawr al-Hammar and led by the chieftains of Albu Hijam and Albu Qasid. Virtually all citizens took to the streets and joined the battle for the centers of power. ‘Abd al-Shabacha, a member of the National Assembly and an ex-Baathist, led the movement in its first days.

Disastrous Slogans

As the revolt spread, it became clear that the south was up against some critical disadvantages. First, it was close to the front lines where some Republican Guard units were still stationed. Second, while the conscripted military was ripe for rebellion, it was politically immature. And thirdly, the Islamists, in the euphoria of early apparent success, joined in and raised a disastrous slogan: Ja‘fari (Shi‘i) rule.

The rebellion had been taking place under the watchful eyes of Iraqi Shi‘i dissidents living in Iran. At SCIRI headquarters in a school in Khorramshahr, where his followers hoisted aloft both his photo and that of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim told Western reporters that he looked forward to a general election in which the Iraqi people would choose their own government, adding that he had no intention of imposing Islamic rule. Inside Iraq, events told another story. “In Suq al-Shuykh Islamic slogans and posters…had been erected where giant portraits of Saddam Hussein once stood.” [19] With Basra and Amara open cities after the rebellion, it was easy for Iraqi dissidents to cross the borders and return home, and many did arrive in Nasiriyya, Amara, Najaf and Karbala’ to see their families again. Many were bent on revenge, and as a result many unnecessary killings took place in the south.

Although the SCIRI veterans were only one element of the forces who seized the cities in the south, they spoke and acted as if they were the decision makers. Al-Hakim’s military command issued directions stating that “all Iraqi armed forces should submit to and obey [SCIRI] orders…. No action outside this context is allowed; all parties working from the Iranian territories should also obey al-Hakim’s orders; no party is allowed to recruit volunteers; no ideas except the rightful Islamic ones should be disseminated.” [20]

According to Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i, a Da‘wa Party leader based in London, those who returned to the south bearing posters of al-Hakim and Khomeini achieved only the abortion of the intifada. They concentrated their efforts in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala’, “but by this they gave the uprising a very narrow character, as if were a family affair.” The successful rebels, al-Ruba‘i admitted, were a disparate crew, including elements of the Sunni military, Baathists, leftists and people from all walks of life.

Al-Hakim should have known that the prospect of Islamist rule is a nightmare for all their opposition allies (whether Kurds, Communists or Arab nationalists), not to mention for Saudi Arabia and the US. In addition, the notion of Islamist rule in Iraq carries connotations of communal strife. It provided an opportunity for Saddam to garner domestic support and regain implicit if undeclared international sympathy.

Different Landscape

In the north the political landscape was different. Suleimaniya was more than 1,000 kilometers from the front line, but its links with the nationalist and leftist parties made it better placed than most northern cities to know what had occurred on the battlefield. The Kurds en masse quickly grasped the meaning of the army’s defeat, the subsequent disintegration of the mukhabarat, and the rapidly spreading rebellion. This was the moment of reckoning. The battle for Suleimaniya erupted within a few days of the Basra insurrection. Negative international and regional responses — US fears of Iranian intervention, the alarm signals sent out by Ankara — were still tentative. The Kurds opened a second front and did so with greater boldness, cunning and discipline than the southern people.

Tension had been growing for some days. Security agents were hunting down deserters in Raniyya, a township near Suleimaniya, and provoking armed clashes. Demonstrations followed, police and security units opened fire and civilians defended themselves. Armed masses took control of Raniyya within an hour, but the intelligence service held out for another eight hours before collapsing, losing 34 men in the process. Crucially, the Salah al-Din Forces (the Kurds called them jahsh, or donkeys), went over to the side of the people. Division 24, stationed at Chawar Qurna, did not fire a single bullet at the rebels and surrendered peacefully. The peshmerga helped the rebels by occupying the hills overlooking the town.

The news spread to Kol Sanjaq, where a fierce battle was fought against the special commando units backed by Qasim Agha, chief of the jahsh. It took two days to capture the town on March 6. Bazian and Basloja followed suit. By now, Suleimaniya itself was on the verge of an explosion. Thousands of young deserters were discussing the situation, criticizing Saddam Hussein publicly and vandalizing his posters. On March 6 authorities announced a curfew; security and army units patrolled the town, backed by light armored vehicles. But on March 7 the city was filled with demonstrators, with women and children in the forefront. One by one the official centers of power surrendered. The battle for the headquarters of the Baath and the Popular Army in the Bakhtiari neighborhood lasted from 3 to 7:30 pm, when the building was razed to the ground. Fighting then shifted to the Aqari neighborhood, site of the new security service directorate. More than 900 mukhabarat were killed, including the director, Col. Khalaf al-Hadithi, along with some 150 rebels.

Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, was simultaneously preparing for rebellion. This time the demonstrations were timed in coordination with the peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Communists. On March 11, armed crowds swarmed the streets and controlled the town within three hours. A chain reaction followed in Kol, Chamchamal, Kifri, Aqra, Tuz Khurmatu, Dohuk and other towns of the north.

Unlike in the south, these armed takeovers were preceded by public demonstrations lasting sometimes for several days, and bearing clear political slogans: democracy for Iraq and autonomy for Kurdistan. The Kurds were in a position to forge a wider unity: Masoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, approached the Salah al-Din Forces and tens of thousands thronged to the rebels’ side. Barzani also forged cordial personal relations with many high-ranking commanders from the six regular army divisions deployed in Kurdistan.

The peshmerga played a more tactical role than the retreating remnants of the conscript army had been able to play in the south. Having helped to seize control of a town, the peshmerga would withdraw, leaving the townships under the control of locally selected administrations. Such a gesture delivered three messages: first, that the cities were liberated not from the outside but from within; second, that the military’s pride should not be wounded; and third, that the Turkish government should not fear Kurdish secession. These tactics paid off as the rebellion snowballed and reached the oil city of Kirkuk, just three hours drive from Baghdad.

More than 50,000 soldiers left their units without fighting back, and were soon seen in the streets of the Kurdish cities, welcomed, fed and sheltered by Kurdish families. The rebels” own armed actions were carefully limited to punishing security servicemen and leading Baath cadres. Revenge attacks could not be prevented everywhere as the long-awaited moment to vent the people’s anger materialized, but the scale of retaliation was much smaller than in the south.

The Uprising that Wasn’t

What became of the middle sector of the country? It was essential for any lasting success that the masses in Baghdad bridge the wide gulf separating the north and south, between which there was clearly no political, military or organizational synchronization whatsoever. But the rebels were to be disappointed. Baghdad remained idle and quiet.

One key factor was the flow of information, or rather the lack of it. Witnesses testify that it was extremely difficult even to travel across the capital itself, never mind through the countryside. Rumors were slow to arrive. The real situation at the front was not known as it was in Basra and even in Suleimaniya. It took five days, according to one leftist, before they could even be sure that Basra was in rebellion.

Even then the uprising only created a queer sort of passivity: Baghdadis were waiting for the revolt to come to them. This false hope was encouraged by some opposition leaders, notably Jalal Talabani, who proposed an attack on Mosul and then on Baghdad. Al-Hakim also broadcast that the revolt was on its way. From interviews with at least a dozen Baghdadis who later left Iraq, it seems that the news spread either by the opposition leaders through Tehran radio, or on the BBC and other channels, was exaggerated and sometimes unfounded. One dissident made tremendous efforts to move around Baghdad to check out each piece of news about mass unrest in, say, the Kadhimiyya or Thawra districts (poorer neighbors of mainly Shi‘i residents): “Each time I got to the place indicated only to find nothing there,” he complained.

The main cause of the passivity, however, goes back to the lack of organizational structures inside the capital. It was easy to penetrate Amara, Basra and Nasiriyya across the porous borders with Iran; the Kurds could, even when times were hardest, manage to move in and out of their cities. Baghdad was a fatal exception.

Only three parties could, in theory, have filled the gap: the Communists, Da‘wa or the pro-Syrian Baath splinter party. But the Communists had locked themselves in the mountains of Kurdistan and identified themselves closely with the Kurdish cause. From 1980 to 1989, they confined themselves to one form of armed struggle, the least effective in Iraqi conditions: Guevaran country-to-city elite warfare. Any idea of forming armed units in the cities was dismissed as heretical or anti-revolutionary. No real attempt was made to build up cells in Baghdad. When guerrilla bases were destroyed in 1988, bringing the struggle in the countryside to an end, its critics jumped to the conclusion that any form of armed struggle was irrelevant and the best way forward was to strike a deal with the regime.

Da‘wa had enough strength and expertise to build underground networks, but had been intoxicated with the reverent Islamic belief that trust in God also meant trust in the Iranian tanks, and failed to make significant preparations of its own. The pro-Syrian Baathists held similar hope in the tanks of Damascus which would one day carry them into Baghdad. As a result, there was not a single leader to give the signal to Baghdad’s 4 million people. Additionally, the slogans of radical Islam emanating from the south caused a good deal of concern. One Shi‘i dissident told how his Sunni relatives took shelter at his house as a precaution against the indiscriminate retaliations they feared would follow when the revolt arrived. Such fears were not rare and must have helped Saddam to enhance his position, especially in the more backward areas of the “Sunni triangle.”

This may well explain, in part, the fatal idleness in Baghdad. Two other factors help explain why any uprising had little chance of success. One is that the regime had concentrated its security efforts in the capital. The second is the evacuation of nearly 1 million Baghdadis before the outbreak of the war.

All Silenced

Deprived of the capital’s support, and lacking organizational, tactical and political coordination, the rebellious towns fell one by one. True, some cities in the south changed hands several times, but in the end all were silenced.

The relative ease with which the remnants of the Iraqi army could save the regime shocked opposition leaders, but also awakened them to the fact that the US was interested in reducing the Iraqi military threat in regional terms only, hence the concentration of bombing on the retreating units which were to playa vital role in the uprising. These were the very units suspected by Saddam Hussein of potential trouble. Half of the Iraqi units were stationed in and around the Kuwaiti theater. The other, loyal, half was divided into four groups: one in Kurdistan (which gave up without much of a fight); another in Mosul (six divisions); another in Tikrit with the task of foiling any attempt in Baghdad; and the last in Baghdad itself to thwart any attempt from the south.

In the 1930s, King Faysal said the Iraqi army should be strong enough to quell two mutinies at the same time. By 1991, Saddam Hussein arranged his forces to face a three-edged threat, from the north, from the south and from inside the capital, presuming that at least one would arise in military insurrection. In “From the House of War,” BBC correspondent John Simpson expresses amazement at the sight of Tikrit on the eve of the war: It was a fortress in the strict sense of the word, although it was more than 1,000 kilometers from the front lines. In short, Iraq’s pre-war security arrangements were more concerned with internal enemies.

The quantitative approach pursued by the US helped rather than weakened the regime’s calculations. If the Iraqi military defeat helped detonate the popular revolt, the manner in which this defeat was inflicted undermined the uprising itself. The rout relieved Saddam of the most troublesome part of his army and preserved the most loyal divisions.

The Shi‘i character given (in the strict sense of the term) by Western and Arab media from the beginning was further enhanced by the unwise overstatements by some Shi‘i leaders themselves. In addition, unnecessary mass revenge killings of Baathists — to some extent in the north and to a great extent in the south — rallied the majority of party cadre behind Saddam Hussein. These random killings were a clear message to Baathists that they were wanted dead, not alive, and they predictably resisted to the end.

The task of the opposition forces was to divide not only the Baathists but the Tikritis as well. The Tikriti clan provides not only state, party and security service leaders and key cadre, but 2,000 or so high- and medium-ranking officers as well. In an army reduced to one third of its former size, this Tikriti elite is a decisive core. In addition to political ties, economic interests and ideological strings, kinship lends this group an almost monolithic character. Yet political differences had caused some cracks, as in 1979 when President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was unseated by Saddam Hussein, or the assassination in 1989 of Saddam’s brother-in-law and defense minister, ‘Adnan Tilfah. To widen such divisions and invest them with an active political significance remains one of the most vital tasks awaiting the opposition as a whole.

For Iraq’s regional neighbors (apart from Iran, of course) and the US, the situation seemed as if it had returned to its starting point in 1980 when Iran was bent on exporting its revolution. A war had been fought for eight years to reduce that threat. A second war was just waged to remove the resulting malgrowth and new disequilibrium. The Islamist nightmare changed regional and international attitudes. Perhaps this is why the rebels were denied, according to Col. Qattan, access to Iraqi weaponry and ammunition dumps under US control across the river in Nasiriyya.

By dint of their inner contradictions and peculiarities, the Iraqi uprisings were deprived of any significant international and regional support, apart from the unhelpful one-sided Iranian backing. To most ruling elites in the Middle East, the notion of “democracy” is more dangerous than Saddam’s tanks, but the Iraqi uprising was the first popular upheaval unwelcomed by both Arab opposition and Arab rulers alike. The rulers feared a spread of the so-called revolutionary arson. The opposition feared divergence from their own outward-oriented, anti-Western nationalist sentiments. The reason why this divergence was so wide, so antagonistic, is a subject that needs separate elaboration.

The uprisings were drowned in blood. The scenes of brief, mass executions exhibited before the eyes of the world an Iraq that still is a wonderland of terror. Yet Arab leftists and philanthropic liberals turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of a nation victimized. Their anti-imperialist rhetoric was loudest exactly when it was necessary to listen not to oneself but to those who were asked to line up behind the patriarch, even if he was in “his autumn.” The fear of a democratic demonstration effect alientated Arab rulers from the uprisings, but the passivity of the Arab and, by extension, the international left was incomprehensible. Their fatal error was to neglect the longing of the Iraqi people for democracy. This left the cause of peace and democracy to the hypocritical manipulation of the US and other Western powers. The rightful condemnation of US schemes and hidden agendas should have been complemented by a defense of the Iraqi people’s legitimate right to democratic freedoms and their right to decide matters of peace and war.


[1] Only two parties have exact figures: the Iraqi security services which deported the Shi‘a, and the Iranian agencies which received them (minus those who died en route), This figure is an average based on ever increasing numbers coming out of Iran. Iraqi opposition groups give even higher figures. An investigation I carried out in Iran in the spring of 1982 leads me to believe this is a conservative figure. Some 40,000 of those originally deported to Iran have since resettled in Syria.
[2] Interviews with Mudarrisi, Muhammad Baqir aI-Hakim and others in Teheran in the spring of 1982. See my Materialism and Modern Islamic Thought (Beirut, 1985).
[3] Contemporary Iraqi writers, among them Hasan ‘Alawi, Wamidh Nadhmi and Karim al-‘Izri, indicate that pan-Arab thought had much in common with Ottoman anti-Iranian and, by extension, anti-Shi‘a positions. If Shi‘ism was seen by the Ottomans as an extension of the Safavid and Qajar dynasties, it is viewed now as an extension of the contemporary Iranian state.
[4] See the speech of ICP general secretary ‘Aziz Muhammad in Documents of the Fourth Party Congress (n.d.), p. 93.
[5] Among the prominent figures of this trend is the Communist veteran Zaki Khayri, author of Problems of Revolution and Defense of the Nation (Damascus, n.d.). Khayri remained within the party, but others left and published the monthly Communist Tribune. Later the group almost disintegrated and some of its key figures returned to Baghded. On the whole they took the same stand in the Gulf war.
[6] For more details, see my essay in Victoria Brittain, ed., The Gulf Between Us (London: Virago Press, 1991).
[7] ICP Annual Meeting Report, March 1989, p. 27-32.
[8] Zaki Khayri and his wife, Su‘ad Khayri, campaigned for a return to Baghdad on the model of the Turkish Communist Party, whose leaders returned to Ankara accompanied by a host of MPs and reporters. Channels of dialogue were initiated by Mukarram Talbani, former minister of irrigation and former member of the ICP’s Central Committee, who has been living under undeclared house arrest in Baghdad since the collapse of the Baathist-Communist alliance in early 1979. The Kurds favored conciliation; the Communists were more cautious. There was also an anti-regime dialogue among the opposition forces. The Islamist movements delayed the process, rejecting on ideological grounds terms like democracy, nationalism, secularism and even patriotism. At that time Saddam Hussein offered but did not deliver a reform package: economic liberalism and a multi-party system. Instead he had himself elected president-for-life. For more details about the state of mind of the opposition in this period see Rahim Ajina and Fakhri Karim in al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (1991).
[9] Among the ironies is that while the leadership of the ICP was criticised by sections of their membership abroad for having no firm stand against the US invasion, it was more severely criticized by their membership inside the country (either in the mountains or in underground networks) for opposing the allies and forgetting the urgent need to topple the regime. The divergence is typical. It was asserted in interviews with two ICP leaders whom I can not name without their permission. Other letters and interviews with Iraqis fleeing the country since the ceasefire support this view.
[10] This information is contained in a letter from Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim to London-based Arab dailies, and also in an ICP press release. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior corroborated the information in a backhanded sort of way when it broadcasted on Baghdad TV interviews with a dozen or so teenage students from a so-called “Black Hand Gang” who confessed to writing leaflets and threatening other students.
[11] Col. Ahmad Zubaydi, “The Structure of the Iraqi Armed Forces,” cited in al-Thaqafa al-Jadida 237 (September 1991).
[12] On the eve of war, Saddam Hussein established a bipolar equilibrium in the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense and the Republican Guard command were entrusted to non-Tikritis, Marshal Sa‘di Tu‘ma Abbas al-Jaburi and Gen. Mukhlif al-Rawi, while the positions of chief of staff, air force commander and minister of military industries remained in the hands of Tikritis — Gens. Husayn al-Rashid, Muzahim Sa‘ib and Husayn Kamil. Military and political intelligence and security services are controlled by Saddam’s half brothers, Sab‘awi, Wathban and Barzan. This division of power makes any attempt to sieze power dependent on cooperation between the two poles or the unlikely neutralization of one. After the defeat, reliance on the inner family was the choice.
[13] This is primarily based an reports by the late Salim al-Fakhri, a prominent ex-military expatriate living in London who passed away shortly before the air campaign began.
[14] Risking the death penalty, uncounted numbers of Iraqi soldiers and junior officers sent letters to opposition forces, relatives and friends in exile to seek a way out. The stream of stories is colossal indeed and needs a separate study.
[15] For more on the role of political Islam in the conftict, see my essay, “The Gulf War and Ideology: The Double-Edged Sword of Islam,” in Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds., The Gulf War and the New World Order (London: Zed Press, 1991).
[16] I published an almost complete version of the text in the London-based Arab daily al-Hayat (June 9, 1991) and a briefer version in The Guardian (June 10, 1991).
[17] See the account in Victoria Brittain’s introduction to The Gulf Between Us, p. x.
[18] That, for example, was what ICP politburo member Fakhri Karim asserted in a lecture in London shortly after the end of the uprisings. Kurdish leaders who went to Baghded to start talks with the enemy of yesterday said the uprisings in the north were the making of the people themselves who should bear responsibilities.
[19] Newsweek, April 1, 1991.
[20] A copy of the directive was furnished by the Information Bulletin of the ICP 175 (May 13, 1991). The weekly al-Badil al-Islami (Islamic Alternative) printed the full text on May 9, 1991.

How to cite this article:

Faleh A. Jabar "Why the Uprisings Failed," Middle East Report 176 (May/June 1992).

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