Waiting for the Anti-Saddam Revolt: Where Is It?

Why aren’t more Iraqis rising up against President Saddam Hussein? Most likely, many remember what happened the last time they followed U.S. instructions to rise up against him. As the Gulf War was concluding, then-President George H. W. Bush urged Iraqis “to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Two weeks later, so many Iraqis, in fact, heeded those words to fight their own government that the CIA predicted it would fall.

“Saddam Hussein faces his most serious political challenge in more than 20 years in power,” writes the CIA on March 16, 1991, in a secret report in the middle of the monthlong uprisings. “Time is not on his side.”

The revolt began on February 28, 1991, in Iraq’s southernmost city of Basra when a tank commander in a column of Iraqi troops retreating from previously U.S.-occupied Kuwait pulled away to stop in Sa’ad Square, near Basra’s ruling Ba’ath Party headquarters. In a scene that Pentagon planners now dream would repeat itself, the commander got out of his tank and denounced Saddam before he got back in and blew apart a building-size mural of his image.

The fighting spread to Basra’s old city before it reached the neighborhood of Jamoriya, where an Iraqi army private, Mohammad Honan, lived. He said Ba’ath Party paramilitaries were out in the streets.

“We all heard shooting coming from downtown,” Honan told me at the time. “‘It’s a revolution!’ someone shouted. They were demonstrating — shouting, shooting,” added Honan, who joined the anti-Saddam revolt.

Thousands of regular army soldiers, mostly Shiah Arabs, joined the civilians who overran the Ba’ath Party headquarters and emptied the city’s prisons. Within days the intifada, as countless Iraqis called the uprisings at the time, spread north along the Euphrates River engulfing first Nasiriyah and then Samawah before reaching the two holy Shiah cities of Najaf and Karbala, only 50 miles south of Baghdad. (These are the very same battlegrounds of the current conflict).

So far only the Kurdish part of the 1991 uprisings has ever gotten much press, but “the Shiah uprising in the south was far more dangerous to the regime than the Kurdish insurgency in the north,” reads one contemporaneous, formerly classified State Department cable. Across Iraq, 14 of 17 cities were at least partly under anti-Saddam rebel control during the four-week-long uprisings, including every Shiah-dominated city in the south and every Kurdish-dominated city in the north.

The ’91 uprising even flared in Baghdad itself. A secret State Department report issued on March 24, 1991, said: “Discontent was not limited to the insurgencies in the north and south . . . three neighborhoods in Baghdad (one of them named ‘Saddam’) had been sealed off by the military for several days due to anti-regime activities.”

But just as the anti-Saddam intifada was getting under way, U.S. and Iraqi military officers were negotiating the cease-fire accord that formally ended the 1991 Gulf War.

After the first draft of the cease-fire accord, which restricted the flight of Iraqi “fixed-wing” aircraft, had already been printed, Saddam’s generals said they wanted to add a new point: that Iraq be allowed to fly helicopter gunships. Saddam’s generals told the American negotiators that Iraq still needed the helicopters for two reasons: to ferry themselves to the ongoing peace talks, and in order to transport Iraq’s own wounded soldiers.

By the time the uprisings were drowned in blood, the world knew the real intentions of Saddam’s regime were to use the helicopters to massacre the rebels in the north after hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians fled Iraq into neighboring Turkey or Iran in early April 1991. But until then, U.S. officials repeatedly told reporters that they did not know much about the fighting inside Iraq.

Turns out the Americans were also lying. Senior U.S. officials knew just 12 days into the monthlong uprisings that Saddam’s regime was already using his helicopters in violation of at least the spirit of the cease-fire accord. “Throughout Iraq, the military is relying on helicopters to battle the insurgents, often firing indiscriminately on civilian targets in areas of resistance activity,” reads a secret morning briefing paper prepared by the State Department for then-Secretary of State James W. Baker II on March 12, 1991. But the U.S. stood idly by and let the suffocation of the anti-Saddam revolt continue.

I experienced that betrayal at ground level. I can recall one of those days exactly 12 years ago in Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern Iraqi city that remains as coveted today as it was back then. Although Kurdish pesh merga, or “those who face death,” guerrillas managed to hold off Saddam?s elite forces for more than five hours on March 28, 1991, by midday Kirkuk was falling.

At a crossroads on the northern side of the city, thousands of people were walking fast on two roads out of town, as an occasional car, truck or bus packed with more people rushed by in the same direction. No one knew for how long they might be walking, and nearly everyone carried water. Many women wrapped in traditional Kurdish cloth were also carrying or leading children, many of whom were crying, in tow.

Fahdil was a thin, balding pesh merga who was an intelligence officer with the Kurdish wing of the Iraqi Communist Party. “Now it is time to leave Kirkuk,” he told a small group of journalists at the crossroads.

For hours that morning Saddam’s regime only deployed a handful of small helicopters, as pesh merga fired captured government anti-aircraft guns into the sky. But by noon the Soviet-made helicopter gunships suddenly appeared and spread out over the city. With multiple pods on each fixed wing, they fired exploding rockets. Soon everyone in sight began to run.

At the time, many Iraqis across the country were filled with hope. Several different pesh merga in northern Iraq in March 1991 told Western journalists about different Kurdish couples that had just given their newborns the first name “Bush.” But many Iraqi babies died of exposure just weeks later after their families went on the run. No wonder so few Iraqis are rising up alongside U.S.-led forces today.

Frank Smyth, who covered the 1991 Gulf War for CBS News, The Economist and Village Voice, is writing a book on the 1991 uprisings.

Iraq: Telling the Left from the Right

How many Americans who oppose the looming war know the left from the right when it comes to Iraq? The only two players on the field are not George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. For inside and outside the borders of Iraq there is a political opposition to Saddam — and while some of those opponents are now aligned with the White House, others remain on the political left.

But don’t expect to read or hear much about any Iraqi leftist groups in the mainstream or even the “alternative” press.

In past U.S. foreign-policy conflicts, American activists frequently expressed their solidarity with and support of embattled leftists, whether in Chile, Nicaragua or El Salvador. But in this standoff with Iraq, American leftists seem woefully ignorant of their Iraqi counterparts and, consequently, of their views on the present conflict. And for these Iraqi leftists the current crisis transcends the prevailing American leftist view, which reduces the matter simply to either war or peace.

Today, Iraqi leftists play an important oppositional role against Saddam. Foremost among them is the Iraqi Communist Party, which at one time was that country’s biggest and broadest leftist mass movement, touching the lives of literally millions. Even before Iraq’s short-lived, British-imposed monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the Communist Party was organizing trade unions and other civic groups.

The leftist party has also long been Iraq’s most diverse political movement, cutting across traditional population lines to incorporate many disenfranchised majority Shias and minority Kurds. Even though tens of thousands of Communists and other leftists have perished in Saddam’s gulags and are still actively targeted by the ruling Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi CP today maintains a clandestine network across Iraq that experts deem to be of significant scale and political potential.

That network provides some of the best and most detailed reporting on armed resistance and government repression within Iraq. Indeed, human-rights activists, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, rely heavily on the detailed reporting that comes out of Iraq via this network. “[T]he bodies of tens of people from the city of Basra, who were executed by firing squads of the dictatorial regime in late March 1999, are buried in a mass grave in the Burjesiyya district near the town of Zubair, about 20 km southeast of Basra,” reads the Iraqi Communist Party Web site in an article about a brief anti-Saddam uprising three years ago in the Shi’a-dominated, southernmost city. “Some of the victims fell into the hands of security forces after being wounded, or when their ammunition had finished. But most of the arrests took place during the following days when the authorities . . . unleashed an unprecedented campaign of police raids, house searches and detentions.” The report concludes that 400 to 600 people died in this massacre. “The massacre culminated with security men firing their handguns at the [h]eads of their victims,” says the report. “The horrific scene ended with throwing the bodies of victims in a deep pit dug with a bulldozer which was used later to cover up the site in an attempt to hide the traces of the crime.”

Today, Iraqi Communists, and most Iraqi leftists, firmly oppose the Bush administration’s war plans — but not necessarily war itself. Unlike many of their American counterparts, Iraqi leftists offer a policy alternative other than a vague call for “peace.” Instead of a unilateral U.S. invasion, Iraqi leftists want the international community to back an Iraqi-led military uprising against Saddam.

Short of that, Iraqi leftists would most likely support a multilateral military intervention that would not only overthrow Saddam but also hand him over to an international tribunal that would try him on charges of crimes against humanity.

Iraqi leftist groups also favor other positions routinely ignored by most American leftists, including vigorous U.N. human-rights monitoring inside Iraq. Most American anti-war activists also downplay another issue that Iraqi leftists are most worried about. What might a post-Saddam Iraq look like? The Communist Party and other Iraqi leftist groups refused to join the recent U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition meeting in London, pointing out that Washington has only been planning to replace Saddam’s regime with another minority dictatorship. The Iraqis closest to Washington remain deposed aristocrats, although the Bush administration finally dumped the plan, backed by the Pentagon alone, to restore exiled former supporters of the Kingdom of Iraq, which prevailed for [37] years, to power as the Iraqi National Congress.

Instead of the U.S.-backed return of the old ruling class, the Communist Party and Shi’a and Kurdish opposition groups want U.N.-monitored elections inside a post-Saddam Iraq leading to a federal representative government. This is an ongoing struggle yet to be adequately reported, unfortunately, in any U.S. publication, and the issue represents a genuinely democratic frontline with, so far, few if any so-called American progressives on it.

American and Iraqi leftists also differ over whom to blame for any coming war. The Iraqi CP blames not only the Bush administration, but also the Iraqi government. In this regard, the Iraqi Communist Party ironically joins the Bush administration in unequivocally demanding that Saddam fully cooperate with U.N. inspections to prevent his regime from developing more weapons of mass destruction. “The rulers” of “the dictatorial regime in Iraq,” reads an Iraqi CP declaration, put “their selfish interest above the people’s national interest, refusing to allow the [work] of U.N. weapons inspectors, and thus preventing action to spare our people and country looming dangers.”

Any U.S. leftist who even remotely thinks that Saddam’s regime is — beside its heavy-handedness — some sort of socialist alternative had better think again. No matter how much Saddam relies on the Stalinist model for his security services, the Iraqi dictator has never held anything but contempt for Iraqi leftists.

At 22, Saddam Hussein carried out his first assassination plot, against a Communist-backed leader in Baghdad who was the first president of Iraq. In fact, the young man from Tirkit was not accepted into the Ba’ath party until after he and others shot at President Abdel-Karim Qassem, who was backed by the Iraqi Communist Party and many trade unions. President Qassem survived, while Saddam was wounded in the leg.

Instead of leftist principles, Saddam’s ruling Ba’athist ideology unabashedly champions ethnic nationalism in order to build a greater nation based on ethnicity. [The name of h]is Iraqi Arab Socialist Ba’ath party explicitly excludes the one in every five Iraqis who are ethnic Kurds. Moreover, the Ba’athists’ Pan-Arab message is shaped mainly by Arabs of the Sunni Muslim faith like Saddam, and their form of Arab nationalism has little appeal for Arab Muslims of the Shia faith, who constitute three out of five Iraqis. Rather than empower either Iraq’s Shi’a majority or its Kurdish minority, the Ba’ath party merely replaced Iraq’s old rulers, who were Sunni Arab-led monarchists based in Baghdad, with new Sunni Arab-led rulers like Saddam from rural regions north of the capital.

“A ruling class-clan rapidly developed and maintained a tight grip on the army, the Ba’ath party, the bureaucracy, and the business milieus,” writes Faleh A. Jabar, a University of London scholar and former Iraqi Communist Party newspaper editor, in a recent issue of the U.S. monthly The Progressive. “You had either to be with the Ba’ath or you were against it.”

Today most of Kurdish-speaking Iraq, in the north, enjoys U.S.-enforced autonomy from Saddam’s regime, while Shias, in the south, still actively resist rule from Baghdad. Take Basra, where Saddam’s officials routinely bring visiting U.S. peace activists. “We were welcomed warmly into the home of Abu Haider, the father of a young boy who was killed three years ago by a U.S. Tomaha[w]k missile shot from a ship in the Gulf,” reads a pre-Christmas report from Pax Christi, a faith-based group. Pax Christi’s newsletter today says that this U.S. missile attack occurred in Basra in 1998. Undoubtedly true. But missing from that newsletter is that in that same year Saddam’s regime interred dozens of anti-Saddam rebels and others in secret graves in that same city, according to Iraqi Communist sources.

Opposing American imperialism is one thing. But ignoring Iraqi fascism is quite another. In the wake of the Gulf War, and after then-President Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up, mass armed rebellion swept Iraq in the spring of 1991. More than a dozen major cities fell into the hands of the Iraqi rebels. Yet, as American forces stood by with arms crossed, Saddam’s troops and attack helicopters drowned the rebellion in blood, taking at least 100,000 lives. The anti-Saddam opposition was openly and tragically betrayed by Washington.

American leftists and peace activists must not now repeat the same sin. Only a quintessentially American arrogance would lead leftists in a big country to think that leftists in a smaller country don’t matter. Iraqi socialists and leftists have endured Saddam’s Ba’athist terror long enough to know the left from the right in Iraq. And as our nation prepares to invade their country, more Americans, especially peace activists, should take the trouble to do the same.

Frank Smyth is finishing a book on the 1991 Iraqi uprisings, which he reported on for CBS News, The Economist and Village Voice.