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The 1991 uprisings in Iraq were a series of anti-governmental rebellions in southern and northern Iraqmarker during the aftermath of the Gulf War. The revolt was fueled by the perception that the power of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was vulnerable at the time; as well as by heavily fueled anger at government repression and the devastation wrought by two wars in a decade, the Gulf War and the Iran–Iraq War. United Statesmarker also had a role in instigating the uprisings, which were then controversially not aided by the U.S. forces present on Iraqi soil.

The revolts in the Shia-dominated southern Iraq involved demoralized Iraqi Army troops and the anti-government Shia parties, in particular the Islamic Dawa Party and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Another wave of insurgency broke out shortly afterwards in the Kurdish populated northern Iraq; unlike the spontaneous rebellion in the South, the uprising in the North was organized by two rival Kurdish party-based militias: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and some long-term planning had taken place.

Although they presented a very serious threat to the Iraqi Ba'ath Party regime, Saddam managed to suppress the rebellions with massive and indiscriminate force and maintained power. They were ruthlessly crushed by the loyalist forces spearheaded by the Iraqi Republican Guard and the population was successfully terrorized. During the few weeks of unrest tens of thousands of people were killed. Many more died during the following months, while nearly two million Iraqis fled for their lives. In the aftermath, the government intensified the forced relocating of Marsh Arabs and the draining of the Iraqi marshlands, while the Allies established the Iraqi no-fly zones.

U.S. radio broadcasts

On February 15, 1991, President of the United States George H. W. Bush announced on the Voice of America radio saying:

On the evening of February 24, several days before the Gulf War ceasefire was signed in Safwanmarker, the Saudi Arabiamarker-based Voice of Free Iraq radio station, funded and operated by the CIA, broadcasted a message to the Iraqis telling them to rise up and overthrow Saddam. The speaker on the radio was Salah Omar al-Ali, a former member of the Ba'ath Party and the Revolutionary Command Council. Al-Ali's message urged the Iraqis to overthrow the "criminal tyrant of Iraq":

Al-Ali's radio broadcast encouraged Iraqis to "stage a revolution" and claimed that "[Saddam] will flee the battlefield when he becomes certain that the catastrophe has engulfed every street, every house and every family in Iraq."

The uprisings

The turmoil began in Basra on March 1, 1991, one day after the Gulf War ceasefire, when a T-72 tank gunner returning home after Iraq's defeat in Kuwaitmarker fired a shell into a portrait of Saddam as other soldiers applauded. In Najafmarker, a demonstration near the city's great Imam Ali Mosquemarker became a gun battle between Shia deserters and Saddam's security forces; the rebels seized the shrine as Ba'ath members fled the city or were killed. The uprising spread within days to all of the largest Shia cities of southern Iraq: Karbalamarker, Hilla, Nasiriyahmarker, Amarahmarker, Samawamarker, Kut, and Diwaniya; smaller cities were also swept up in the revolt. There was also unrest in the Shiite slum of Sadr Citymarker (then-called Saddam City), in the Iraqi capital of Baghdadmarker. On the day that each city rebelled, masses of unarmed civilians and small contingents of rebels converged in the streets. They descended on government buildings shouting anti-regime and pro-Iranian slogans before staging an attack. Government forces fought back, but were either killed, captured or allowed to flee. Once in control, the rebels flung open the regime's prisons and interrogation centers and seized small caches of weapons.

The rebellion in the North (Iraqi Kurdistanmarker) erupted on March 4, in the town of Rania, northwest of Sulaymaniyahmarker. Within 10 days the Kurds controlled every city in the North, except Kirkukmarker and Mosulmarker. However, on March 20 the Kurdish rebels captured Kirkuk. In Sulaymaniyah, Kurdish rebels captured the regional headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service; inside, they found torture devices smeared with blood; in retaliation, the rebels brutally killed the captured secret policemen. Ordinary government soldiers were however spared in an amnesty and were issued safe-conduct passes to traverse Kurdish-held territory on their way home. In Arbilmarker, the rebels also captured and handed over the government documents related to the genocidal Operation Anfal to western human rights organizations.

The March 1991 uprising gathered momentum as many of the government's regular soldiers and militiamen switched sides. The army contained substantial anti-government elements; Shia Arabs accounted for 80% of the fighting ranks but only 20% of the officers. In the North, the defection of the government-recruited Kurdish Jash militia gave considerable force to the revolt.

Suppression of the uprisings

With little more than small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and some captured tanks and artillery pieces, the rebels had few surface-to-air missiles, which made them almost defenseless against Iraqi helicopter gunships and indiscriminate artillery barrages. The central government responded to the uprisings with crushing force. According to Human Rights Watch:

The Kurdish uprising collapsed even more quickly than it had begun. After ousting the peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) from Kirkuk on March 29, the Iraqi army rolled into Dahuk and Irbilmarker on March 30, Zakhomarker on April 1, and Sulaymaniyah, the last important town held by the rebels, over the next two days. In the South, the government quelled all but scattered resistance by the end of March. On[April 5, Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council announced "the complete crushing of acts of sedition, sabotage, and rioting in all towns of Iraq."

According to the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Affairs group of the Australian Parliament, the Iraq-based Iranian rebel group People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) is also accused of having assisted the Iraqi Republican Guard in suppressing brutally suppressing the uprisings. Maryam Rajavi, who assumed the leadership role of the PMOI after a series of years as co-leader alongside her husband Massoud Rajavi, has been reported by former members of the PMOI as having said: "Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards."

The death toll was high throughout the country. The rebels had killed Baathist officials in many southern cities. In response, thousands of unarmed civilians were killed by indiscriminate fire from loyalist tanks, artillery and helicopters. Later, when security forces rolled into the cities, they detained and summarily executed people at random using the policy of collective responsibility.


Exodus from cities

In March and early April, nearly two million Iraqis escaped from strife-torn cities to the mountains along the northern borders, into the southern marshes, and into Turkeymarker and Iran. Their exodus was sudden and chaotic, with thousands of desperate refugees fleeing on foot, on donkeys or crammed onto open-backed trucks and tractors. Some were killed by army helicopters, which deliberately strafed columns of fleeing civilians in a number of incidents in both the North and South. Others were injured when they stepped on land mines planted by Iraqi troops near the eastern border during the war with Iran.

Destruction of the Iraqi marshlands

In southeastern Iraq, thousands of Shia civilians, army deserters, and rebels began seeking precarious shelter in remote areas of the marshes straddling the Iranian border. After the uprising, the Marsh Arabs were singled out for mass reprisals, accompanied by ecologically catastrophic drainage of the Iraqi marshlands and the large-scale and systematic forcible transfer of the local population.

Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq

A long positional war followed, and an estimated 100,000-150,000 soldiers remained along the front, backed by tanks and heavy artillery. The Iraqi government established a blockade of food, fuel and other goods going to the rebel-controlled zone in the North, which targeted one segment of the Iraqi populace; predominantly Kurds for punishment. The general stalemate was broken during the 1994-1997 Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, when one of the main Kurdish factions sided with the government, and the regular conflict ended when the U.S. led forces intervened on the Kurdish side during the 2003 Iraq War.

Mass graves

Many of the people killed were buried in mass graves. Several mass graves containing thousands of bodies have been uncovered since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, notably in the Shia Arab South and Kurdish North. Of the 200 mass graves the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry had registered in the three years since the American-led invasion, the majority were in the South, including one located south of Baghdad that is believed to hold as many as 10,000 to 15,000 victims.

War crimes trial

The trial of 15 former aides to Saddam Hussein, including Ali Hassan al-Majid, over their alleged role in the suppression of a Shia uprising and the deaths of 60,000 to 100,000 people, took place in Baghdad in August 2007. Al-Majid had been already sentenced to death in June 2007 for genocide against the Kurds.

U.S. non-intervention controversy

The Iraqi survivors and American critics of President George H. W. Bush say the president encouraged the rebellion after halting UN coalition forces at Iraq's southern border with Kuwait at the end of the Gulf war. Soon after the uprising began, fears of a disintegrating Iraq led the Bush Administration to distance itself from the insurgents.

Officials downplayed the significance of the revolts and spelled out a policy of nonintervention in Iraq's internal affairs. On March 5, Rear Admiral John Michael McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged "chaotic and spontaneous" uprisings were under way in 13 Iraqi cities, but stated the Pentagonmarker's view that Saddam would prevail because of the rebels' "lack of organization and leadership." On the same day, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said "it would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, our writ extends to trying to move inside Iraq."

U.S. Major General Martin Brandtner, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added "there is no move on the [part of] U.S. let any weapons slip through [to the rebels], or to play any role whatsoever in fomenting or assisting any side." U.S.marker State Departmentmarker spokesman Richard Boucher explained the next day on March 6: "We don't think that outside powers should be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." Consequently, U.S. occupation forces stationed a few miles from Nasiriyah, Samawa, and Basra did nothing to help the rebels. .

The Administration sternly warned Iraqi authorities on March 7 against the use of chemical weapons during the unrest, but equivocated Iraq's use of helicopter gunships against civilians. The question of helicopters was ignored in the March 3, ceasefire agreement, prohibiting Iraq's use of fixed-wing aircraft. In the end, the aircraft were employed with impunity to attack rebels and civilians alike, and proved instrumental in quelling the insurrection.

In a carefully crafted statement, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said on April 2, that the Bush Administration had "never, ever stated as either a military or a political goal...the removal of Saddam Hussein." President Bush insisted three days later, just as the Iraqi loyalist forces were putting down the last resistance in the cities:

In film

The southern rebellions were subjects of the 1999 film Three Kings by David O. Russell and the 2008 film Dawn of the World by Abbas Fahdel, as well as the 1993 Frontline documentary Saddam's Killing Fields by Michael Wood.

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