By Barry Lando
As the standoff in Libya takes on the potential of a bloody civil war, President Barack Obama is forced to consider possible U.S. intervention—at the very least, the enforcement of a no-fly zone. He has ordered his staff to examine how his predecessors handled such situations. One of the most frequently mentioned: how George H.W. Bush dealt with the Shiite and Kurd uprisings in Iraq in 1991, after U.S. forces drove Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait.
But, rather than being an exemplary use of American power, that whole affair was a disgraceful episode that reverberates to this day. What actually happened was that an American president called for an uprising against a brutal Arab dictator, then turned his back, leaving tens, possibly hundreds of thousands to be slaughtered. I recounted that sorry affair in a documentary, “The Trial of Saddam Hussein,” excerpted on YouTube. (See Part 5 and Part 6.)
It was President George H.W. Bush who, on Feb. 15, 1991, as the Iraqi army was being driven from Kuwait, called on the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam.
That call was rebroadcast in Iraq by clandestine CIA radio stations and printed in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force across the country. Problem was, the Iraqis didn’t realize until it was too late that Bush and James Baker, his pragmatic secretary of state, didn’t really mean it.
When it looked as if the insurgents might actually succeed, the American president turned his back. The White House and its allies wanted Saddam replaced not by a popular revolt which they couldn’t control but by a military leader more amenable to U.S. interests. They were also fearful that Iranian influence might spread in the wake of a Shiite takeover. In fact, American officials refused to meet with rebel leaders who were not under Iran’s control and were desperate to explain their cause.
Though leaders in Washington later claimed they had turned against the uprising because key Arab allies in the region, such as the Saudis, were fearful of a Shiite victory in Iraq, the U.S. later turned down a Saudi proposal to continue aiding the Shiites.
So, as the United States permitted Saddam’s attack helicopters to devastate the rebels, American troops just a few kilometers away from the slaughter were ordered to give no aid to those under attack. Instead they destroyed huge stocks of captured weapons rather than let them fall into rebel hands. According to some of the former rebels in Iraq, American troops prevented them from marching on Baghdad.
Then, as Saddam’s forces began carrying out horrific acts of repression, American forces were ordered to withdraw from Iraq. And all the while George H.W. Bush answered calls for U.S. action with denials that the U.S. had any responsibility for fomenting the rebellion in the first place.
What about the no-fly zone? In the end, Bush agreed to provide a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds in the north, but that was only because the plight of thousands of Kurdish refugees was being dramatically broadcast around the globe by CNN. Bush had no choice. There was no such TV coverage of the slaughter of the Shiites in the south. So no need for Bush to react. In later years, American presidents would use the no-fly zone as a pretext for destroying Saddam’s radar defense and missile system and prepare the way for the U.S. invasion that was to come.
There is a convincing argument that if President George H.W. Bush had backed the 1991 revolt—not sent in U.S. troops, but just backed the uprising—the terrible bloodletting and destruction to which Iraq has been subjected to this day could have been avoided.
The U.S. role in the 1991 uprising is recounted at length in my book “Web of Deceit: A History of Western Complicity in Iraq From Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.”
Barry M. Lando spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”
AP / Murad Sezer
A human skull sits on the ground as villagers pull body after body from a mass grave in central Iraq, exhuming in 2003 the remains of up to 3,000 people they suspect were killed during the 1991 Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein’s regime.