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‘On This Day’ 1991: US Encourages—then Betrays—Iraqi Uprising

Kurdish refugees in 1991 (Photo: Mohammad P. Mohammad/Wikipedia)

Kurdish refugees in 1991 (Photo: Mohammad P. Mohammad/Wikipedia)

“If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.” -Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan.

The stated purpose of ‘Operation Desert Storm’ was the liberation of Kuwait, which had been invaded and occupied by Iraqi forces commanded by Saddam Hussein. There was some ambiguity at the start; April Glaspie, President George H. W. Bush’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Saddam Hussein that her government had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreements with Kuwait.” It turns out Bush did have an opinion, and Hussein went from valuable regional ally to the ‘new Hitler’ practically overnight. It was all good for the brutal tyrant to invade his neighbor Iran and horrifically gas Iranians and his own people (with some of those chemical weapons materials provided by US and European corporations), but taking over Kuwait and menacing Saudi Arabia, thus threatening the free world’s energy supply, could not be tolerated. After all, those countries didn’t grow carrots. They “grew” oil, and we certainly gave a damn.

And so it was that our generation got its own “splendid little war.” Desert Storm was a cakewalk. Despite Saddam’s million-man army, America’s not-so-smart smart weapons, and malfunctioning US Patriot missiles, the war was all but over just as soon as it began. As it became increasingly clear that Hussein’s forces were being routed and would soon have no other choice but to surrender or face utter annihilation—and even some who gave up were still brutally massacred—oppressed segments of the Iraqi population felt emboldened to make a stand and fight for their liberation from tyranny.

On February 15, 1991, President Bush called on Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. American planes dropped millions of leaflets over Iraq exhorting Hussein’s long-oppressed victims to take up arms against the dictator and his forces. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south and east of the country heeded Bush’s call.

Their revolt nearly succeeded. But for all its high-minded talk of freedom and democracy, Bush betrayed those who were fighting—and dying—to oust Hussein because his administration realized that a popular uprising would run contrary to American interests in the Middle East. What Bush really wanted was a military coup that would replace Hussein with another strongman who could be used to maintain an American-dictated stability in the region. And so America turned its back on the great Iraqi uprising that it had instigated, much as it had done in Hungary back in 1956 when the Eisenhower administration coldly decided that it wasn’t going to risk Baltimore—or even Berlin, for that matter—over Budapest.

Not only did the United States abandon the Iraqi rebels, it actively aided Saddam Hussein’s forces as he quashed the rebellion with great cruelty. Not only were US troops ordered not to help the rebels in any way, they also blocked their retreat and threatened to slaughter them if they didn’t turn back towards Hussein’s forces and certain death. American soldiers destroyed massive stockpiles of weaponry captured from Iraqi forces that the rebels desperately needed in order to carry on the fight. They denied the rebels medical care, even after Hussein’s forces massacred all the doctors and nurses at a nearby hospital. Rocky Gonzalez, a US special forces officer at the time, recalled:

“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 US 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… It was gut-wrenching to me. Here we are sitting on the Euphrates River and we were ordered to stop. As a human being, I wanted to help, but as a soldier I had my orders.”

General “Stormin’” Norman Schwartzkopf gave the Iraqi military permission to ignore the “no-fly” zone imposed over large swathes of the country. He surprised and delighted Iraqi generals, who incredulously asked “you mean even the helicopters that are armed can fly in the Iraqi skies?” The answer was yes, and  they immediately set to strafing Kurdish and Shiite rebels from above. US forces also gave fuel to Iraqi Republican Guard units and allowed an Iraqi tank division to pass through American checkpoints unhindered.

The United States didn’t even protest when Saddam Hussein, desperate to save his threatened regime, authorized the use of chemical weapons against the rebels. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Americans knew about this. “People stared showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns,” confirmed Gonzalez, “they had blisters and burns on their face and on their hands.”

In 2004 the American task force investigating Iraq’s WMD programs following the second US invasion determined that Hussein’s forces had used sarin nerve gas against the Shiite rebels. President Bush had threatened Hussein with harsh reprisals if he dared use chemical weapons, but the Iraqi dictator had done just that and Bush never uttered a word against it. The American president never lifted a finger as Iraqi forces raped and murdered their way back into control, with Saddam Hussein ordering the horrific repression televised so that all Iraqis could see and fear. Those ghastly images never made it onto American TV screens.

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” President Bush declared in his 1989 inaugural address, “We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” The people of Iraq, spurred to action by the United States and then left to be torn to shreds by Saddam Hussein, their bodies ordered to rot unburied in the streets so that dogs could feast upon their bloated innards, had just learned a hard lesson about America’s “high moral principles.” Hussein was once again firmly in control of Iraq and Iraqi oil was soon flowing anew to Western markets.

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