The Crimes of Saddam Hussein

By Dave Johns

1999 Supression of the 1991 Uprising

Cadre of soldiers in black, on the march

OOne month into the first Gulf War, in February 1991, President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to stage a coup. He asked them “to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Millions heard the call. If the United States, which was then bombing Iraq, was on their side, they felt sure they could depose Saddam.

The South

Uprisings by Shi’iah rebels began to take shape in the south. The Iraqi army had been routed by the Coalition, and many Shi’iah soldiers changed sides and joined the insurrection. The revolt spread through southern towns and cities, where rebels attacked Ba’ath Party buildings. Soon the intifada reached Basra, near the Kuwaiti border. A tank gunner fired a round into a portrait of Saddam, and soldiers around him applauded jubilantly. Within days, the uprising spread to Karbala, Najaf and Kufa, deep inside the Shi’iah heartland. Najaf was in chaos. A demonstration near the city’s great shrine became a gun battle between army deserters and Saddam’s security forces. The security men were outnumbered; some were hacked to death with knives. The rebels seized the shrine, and Ba’ath Party leaders fled the city or were killed.

The North

The Kurds in the north also rose up, in a bid for autonomy. Masoud Barzani, head of the KDP, and Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, had made an alliance before the end of the war. Their peshmerga guerrilla forces were tough fighters, and they had infiltrated the Jash, a Kurdish militia recruited by Saddam. On March 5, Jash fighters seized control of the mountain town of Rania. Soon the revolt spread to Sulaimaniya, near the Iranian border, where rebels captured the Central Security headquarters. Inside, they found torture devices smeared with blood and rooms holding the corpses of strangled women and children, victims of Saddam’s executioners. In retaliation, the rebels massacred any Ba’ath officials and police officers they could find. Two weeks later, the rebellion captured the oil center of Kirkuk.

Saddam’s response

The emboldened rebels wanted to move on Baghdad. They asked for support from the allied forces, still on the ground in southern Iraq, but were rebuffed. The Americans feared the Shi’iah insurgents were aligned with Iranian Islamists. With that, the uprising was doomed. Soon came the counterattack from Baghdad. Saddam’s Republican Guard fought the resistance in Karbala. Civilians and rebels fled the city. On the roads leading out, Iraqi army helicopter crews poured kerosene on the refugees, then set them on fire. American aircraft circled high overhead, watching. Saddam’s forces began systematically crushing the uprising. Basra was the first city to fall, after just a week out of Saddam’s control. Iraqi tanks captured a road above the city and pelted it with heavy machine guns. Basra General Hospital issued 600 death certificates, though many more were killed. There were mass executions of civilians, some of whom were tied to tanks and used as human shields. In Karbala, some of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines were destroyed. Others were used as centers for murder, torture and rape. In Najaf, residential areas were bombed, and hospital staff and patients were murdered. The homes of suspected rebels were destroyed while the suspects were executed in the streets.

Next Saddam redirected his forces to the North. Kirkuk was bombarded with artillery, and hospitals were targeted. The Kurdish insurgents were in a topographical bind –– most of the cities they held sat on a plain below mountains and were impossible to defend. The rebel fighters retreated into the mountains with their families. As they backed away, Iraqi helicopters threw flour on them –– a cruel reminder of the powdery chemical weapons that killed Kurds by the thousands during Saddam’s Anfal campaign.

Charges and evidence

As cities were returned to Ba’ath rule, soldiers immediately posted pictures of Saddam. Thousands of people were “disappeared” by government forces, never to be seen again. Many were shot in the back of the head. A film from the era shows “ Chemical” Ali Hassan al–Majid kicking and slapping prisoners as they lie on the ground. “Don’t execute this one. He will be useful to us,” he says. Mass graves related to these executions have been discovered in both the south and the north.

More than 2 million Kurds fled into the snowy peaks between Iran and Turkey. Children died from typhoid, dehydration and dysentery. Some refugees were blown up by land mines. At one point in 1991, an estimated 2,000 Kurds were dying every day. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called the exodus the largest in its 40–year history.

Later, under a Western security umbrella, the Kurds returned to set up self–rule in the three northern provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya. Once autonomy was declared, many Kurds living beneath a line denoting the northern no–fly zone were killed by Saddam’s regime, according to the U.S. State Department.

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