The US Watches, as Saddam Crushes the Uprisings: 25th Anniversary

“The Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”

The post-Gulf War uprisings came as a surprise to US authorities. As the unrest began, it was at first difficult to understand what was happening. However, it soon became clear that much of the country was in revolt. It also became clear that the US had greatly overestimated the extent of the damage that it had inflicted on Iraqi forces and that Saddam Hussein was now using them to crush the popular revolts.

Jonathan Randall, a reporter for the Washington Post, was with the Kurds then. In his book, After Such Knowledge, Randall details the repeated instances in which the US had encouraged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. They include, most notably, President George H.W. Bush’s call on “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”

When the Gulf War ended, the US had overwhelming military dominance, but did virtually nothing as Saddam proceeded to ruthlessly suppress the post-war rebellions. Despite warnings from the Bush administration, Saddam’s forces even used chemical weapons. After 2003, the US officially confirmed one such account.


Immediately after the ceasefire, UN ambassador Thomas Pickering proposed turning the large territory held by coalition forces—all of Iraq south of Basra—into a demilitarized zone from which Saddam’s forces would be excluded. Robert Kimmitt, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, backed Pickering’s suggestion.

In early March, Secretary of State James Baker flew to Riyadh to discuss the idea. A debate took place during the flight, a senior official accompanying Baker told this author. The State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs argued that a victory by Iraq’s Shi’ites would be more dangerous than Saddam remaining in power, and they opposed Pickering’s suggestion.

Despite the Saudis’ fierce rivalry with Iran and their sectarian distaste for Shiites, the Saudis supported it. Indeed, they wanted to do more, including arming the Shiites. They worried more about Saddam remaining in power than about any advantage Tehran might gain. But Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf opposed the notion, and his opposition killed it, Gen. Bernard Trainor (UMSC, ret.) and New York Times reporter Michael Gordon explain.

The debate then shifted to whether the US should at least shoot down the helicopters that Schwarzkopf had surprisingly allowed the Iraqis to fly and which Saddam was now using to horrifyingly devastating effect. Sympathy was growing for the rebels; nearly 70% of Americans favored shooting down the helicopters.


However, National Security Council Adviser Brent Scowcroft was focused on ousting Saddam through a coup. He was most concerned about maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity.

The US was, in fact, at odds with the leadership of its key regional allies. The Saudis wanted Saddam gone. So, too, did Turkish president Turgut Ozal. Kamaran Karadaghi, a Kurdish journalist with al-Hayat, interviewed Ozal in mid-February, and Ozal told him that if Saddam remained in power, the whole region would suffer. Of course, Karadaghi published that. And the Israelis were so stunned when Bush ended the war with Saddam in power, that Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir actually ordered the Mossad to prepare an operation to assassinate Saddam.

But the Bush administration did not listen to those allies. On March 1, an NSC staffer, told Peter Galbraith, “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime.”

As Saddam’s forces proceeded to suppress the revolts, some people even began to blame the rebels for the absence of any coup. “Experts on the region such as Phebe Marr of the National Defense University,” wrote The Washington Post, “contend that the domestic chaos in Iraq will reduce the likelihood that the military can get rid of Saddam soon. ‘The rebellion is strengthening Saddam, not weakening him…. No military is going to overthrow him while they are fighting a rebellion.’”

On March 26, the Bush administration clarified a growing ambiguity. The White House spokesman explicitly stated that the US would not shoot down Iraqi helicopters. Turkish president Ozal (with whom the Kurdish leadership had begun to cultivate ties through Karadaghi) criticized the announcement as a “big help for Saddam Hussein.”

That same day, Scowcroft left for Saudi Arabia.

Elements of the Iraqi opposition were in Riyadh at the invitation of the Saudi government. They had met with Turki al-Faysal, head of Saudi intelligence, as well as a deputy to Crown Prince Abdullah.

The Kurdish representatives confirmed to the Saudis that they were not seeking the break-up of Iraq, “but we have been abandoned,” Hoshyar Zebari told this author (after 2003, Zebari would become Iraq’s first post-liberation Foreign Minister.) The Saudis were “very enthusiastic,” he said. But after Scowcroft’s visit, the Saudis told us, “Here are your tickets.”

A few days later, Bush left Washington for a fishing vacation in Florida.

As a senior US official explained to The Washington Post, “Bush believes ‘Saddam will quash the rebellions and after the dust settles, the Ba'ath military establishment and other elites will blame him for not only the death and destruction from the war, but the death and destruction from putting down the rebellion. They will emerge then and install a new leadership and will make the case it is time for new leaders and a new beginning.’ ...  But this official expressed his own doubts. ‘There might not be a coup... and all these thousands and thousands will be dead while we looked on.’”


Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Most recently, she served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan.


Editing by Delovan Barwari