With the 2 year civil war in Syria dominating the news now, it reminds me of the greatest tragedy of which I personally witnessed; the revolts in Iraq of 1991 and the disgraceful massacres that followed.
But first, some background information for those who do not know/remember:
Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 and captured the country. (Kuwait had originally been part of Iraq, and this was their fourth attempt to take it.). Officially, the invasion was because of $1 billion. Iraq had said that Kuwait was illegally stealing oil from the Rumaila Oil field (they were) and demanded $10 billion in compensation. Kuwait offered $9 billion. The invasion followed.
Iraq was confused by the reaction to the invasion in the US, especially after assurances they had received from American Ambassador April Glaspie. Also, the United States had seven months earlier invaded and overthrew Panama, officially because a US Naval officer’s wife had been threatened with rape, but later changed to President Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking. President Bush initially did not react, but he was shamed into action by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who questioned his manhood. The Kuwait government in exile hired the PR firm Hill and Knowlton to invent stories of the occupation and stir up public opinion for war. It was the best $11 million they ever spent.
After convincing the Saudi government that they were next (they were not), an international coalition was built and the largest US deployment since Vietnam was quickly mobilized. It was better handled than the deployments of the War on Terror, and is a testament to the skill of thousands of dedicated personnel.
Expecting a long war, the US and other governments were shocked at the rapid success of the coalition forces, in what would become the most successful military campaign in US history. President Bush ordered a cease fire after 100 hours of ground combat.
The US and its allies had no real plans for the post-conflict, and ordered General Norman Schwarzkopf to handle the negotiations. Citing his lack of diplomatic experience, he demanded that the State Dept. give him directions; they sent him only four points, and he asked nothing more than those at the table. The Iraqis, surprised at their luck, turned defeat into a kind of victory and readily accepted. What had started as an almost bloodless victory (on the coalition side) turned into an 18th century “balance of power” war.
President Bush had called President Saddam Hussein “the Hitler of our time”, despite the previous support given to him by his administration and the fact that Hussein actually modeled himself after Russia’s Joseph Stalin. Although the coalition had no mandate (and several governments were against it), the public of the coalition countries had been lead to believe that the Hussein government would be replaced and brought to justice. In my personal belief, this was the first mistake that lead to President Bush not getting reelected.
That was the background for what came next.
On February 15, 1991 President Bush said over Voice of America Radio, “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”
On March 1, 1991, he again said, “In my own view…the Iraqi people should put [Saddam] aside, and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems that exist and certainly would facilitate the acceptance of Iraq back into the family of peace-loving nations.”
The Voice of Free Iraq radio also encouraged a revolt.
Revolts broke out first in the southern Shia parts of Iraq, quickly followed by the Kurdish north, and rapidly spread throughout the entire country, fueled by armed army and militia soldiers. Massacres of government officials and loyalists were common. President Hussein did offer the rebels a voice in the government, but this was rejected. The southern revolts were directed towards a democratic Iraq, while the Kurds fought (once again) for an independent homeland.
Loyalist forces, led by the Republican Guard, launched a nationwide counteroffensive, aided by the use of helicopters, which General Schwarzkopf had said they could use.
The rebels were truly devastated to discover that they could expect no help from coalition forces. Alarmed that Iran might gain too much influence in the New Iraq, the US government destroyed stockpiles of weapons, and ordered US troops to not intervene in any way to help rebels or civilians. As the rebellion began to fail, American soldiers stood by helplessly while civilians begged them for help, only to be murdered in front of them by laughing Iraqi soldiers.
On April 2, 1991 the State Department said, “We never, ever, stated as either a military or a political goal of the coalition or the international community the removal of Saddam Hussein.”
On April 5, 1991, President Bush said, “I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So I don’t think the Shiites in the south, those who are unhappy with Saddam in Baghdad, or the Kurds in the north ever felt that the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man…I have not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America, or has any other coalition partner, all of whom to my knowledge agree with me in this position.”
How many people died in the revolt, and the massacres that followed, will never truly be known. A similar fate had been granted to the people of Eastern Europe when they had revolted against the Soviet Union, and the American soldiers promised by Radio Free Europe never arrived. The people of Bosnia would learn the costs of non-intervention starting in 1992.
Many excuses were made for the lack of US intervention in the revolts, including the length of time of occupation, and the high cost of additional casualties and money. All of which were greatly expanded in the 2003 invasion.
In 2011, American Ambassador James Jeffrey officially apologized to Iraqi politicians and tribal leaders for US inaction in 1991.
Ayatollah Basheer Hussain Najafi, said, “The apology of the U.S. has come too late, and does not change what happened. The apology is not going to bring back to the widows their husbands, and bereaved mothers their sons and brothers that they lost in the massacre that followed the uprising.”