The Iraqi opposition in 1991

Submitted by AWL on 20 December, 2002 - 10:11

Crushed by Saddam Hussein while the West looked on
Almost immediately with an agreement of a ceasefire at the end of the last Gulf War, early in March 1991, the Shi'a people of the south of Iraq rose up in rebellion. In the north the Kurds also launched a rebellion. These movements were not welcomed by the US and its allies. Clive Bradley looks at events which may be repeated in a war on Iraq in 2003.

The Shi'a (sometimes called "marsh Arabs" because of the marshy terrain) - the smaller of the two main Islamic sects - are a majority of the Iraqi population; by some estimates, Sunnis, although they dominate the state, are only 20% of the population. Some of the main Shi'a holy sites and cities are in Iraq. In the 1970s, Shi'a opposition to the Ba'th, later linked to Iran (after the revolution of 1979) had been significant, but this had been crushed.

Their 1991 revolt, often called the "intifada", began in the town of Nasiriyeh, where armed insurgents linked up with deserters from Saddam's defeated army. There were huge numbers of such deserters, since the army had just been overwhelmingly defeated in the war (perhaps 30,000 massacred on the Basra road).

The revolt spread rapidly to other Shi'a majority towns and cities - including the large port of Basra and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Tens of thousands reputedly took part in the uprising in Karbala, which houses two of the holiest Shi'a shrines, the tombs of Imams Hussein and Abbas.

As elsewhere, they executed Ba'thist military officers and officials. Saddam, obviously, was very alarmed - and initially tried to deal with the revolt by offering, for example, an amnesty for deserters, who were joining the revolt in large numbers, increasing food rations, and hiking wages to conscripts and Republican Guard.

From very early on, there were reports of thousands of armed Iranians crossing the border to join the revolt. The Iranian president of the time, Rafsanjani. made statements calling for the overthrow of Saddam (although immediately before and during the war itself, Iran had closed ranks somewhat with their erstwhile military foes, and offered bases for Iraqi planes fleeing American attack). The Iraqi Shi'a Islamist movement, by then based in Iran, also crossed over to join the revolt. Within a few days of the start of the intifada, there was heavy Islamist and Iranian involvement.

The US and its allies had, initially, wanted an uprising against Saddam, and had apparently been grooming Ba'thists who had split with the regime. But the intifada quickly started to move in a direction which was the last thing they wanted.

The US was not keen to see an Islamist regime in southern Iraq; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia must have been positively apoplectic at the idea - the Saudis have been extremely nervous ever since the Iranian revolution, and their Shi'a population is on the Iraqi border.

Thus, when Saddam's forces began to regroup, the US and its allies did nothing to prevent their brutal suppression of the intifada. The White House declared the whole matter an internal Iraqi affair, in which the "American people" had no interest intervening.

Saddam's regime successfully suppressed the uprising. The death toll was placed around 30,000, with perhaps 70,000 forced to flee into Iran. Another source (Marion and Peter Farouk-Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958) estimates 300,000 dead.

Meanwhile, in the north, the Kurds, who had been fighting the Ba'thist regime for two decades, launched their own uprising. Among the cities they seized were oil-rich Mosul, and Tikrit (from where Saddam's family comes). 100,000 Kurdish members of the Iraqi army went over to the rebels.

Within a week, the Kurds, led by Barzani's Kurdish Democratic party, declared an official Kurdistan Autonomous Region, which included Iraq's richest oil-producing city, Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders were meeting with Shia'as from the south in Beirut, in a Saudi-led initiative, to work out a post-war settlement. But according to Dilip Hiro: "By the time the Shia and Kurdish opposition leaders... left the Lebanese capital on 33 March to take charge of their respective movements inside Iraq it was too late." (Neighbours, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran after the Gulf Wars, p 39).

Saddam's repression of the Kurdish uprising was as brutal as in the south. On 28 March, the Iraqi army launched a full-scale assault on Kirkuk. About one and a half million people, or half the population of the region, fled into the mountains, mainly towards Turkey.

The uprising against Saddam had spread to fourteen, or all but four, of the provinces of Iraq. But by the beginning of April - a month after it started - it had been crushed. In the far north east, a no-fly zone was imposed by the West to protect the Kurds. The Shi'a were not so lucky.

The uprising in the Kurdish areas seems to have been, more or less, a straightforward nationalist affair, dominated by one of the traditional Kurdish nationalist parties. Neither the KDP nor Talabani's PUK have a very honourable record; but they are nationalist movements in the "normal" mould with all the limitations of such movements, but nothing much worse. There are reports of workers' struggles, and even workers' councils being formed during the uprising, but it's hard to know how much faith to put in such claims.

In the south, the situation was much more complex. Beginning as a purely Iraqi affair, although Islamist-tinged, later there was very heavy Islamist influence and apparently even direct Iranian involvement. Saddam's regime had quite effectively crushed the Islamist opposition movement by the early 1980s.

It seems that although the Shi'as certainly are discriminated against the idea of a general Shi'a consciousness among the southern Arabs, hostile to the Sunni government, is at least an exaggeration.

The Slugletts write: "...while sectarian affiliation has always been important... the fundamental division... was not 'religious' or 'sectarian' but socio-economic, between the haves, and the have-nots, who [are] distributed between both sects." (p190)

They point to the fact that although there has been a historical affinity to some degree between Iraqi Shi'a and Iran, this is more limited than some observers suppose, and on the whole "Shi'ism was worn fairly lightly, and found its main expression not in prayers and fasting, but in participation in the great festivals and processions...". Many Shi'a are only recent converts.

While I suspect that there is a degree of wishful thinking here on the Slugletts' part, it is certainly true that throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's Shi'a were successfully mobilised against Iran, and attempts by the Islamic Republic to win over its co-religionists evidently fell on deaf ears.

It seems reasonable, though, to conclude that the intifada in the south was not simply an Iranian-backed Islamist revolt. Islamists were able to predominate probably because they were better organised than anyone else, and receiving support (including money, etc) from Tehran, and able to key into whatever levels of specifically Shi'a disaffection and resentment with Baghdad there were.

As Dilip Hiro comments: 'Many Shias in southern Iraq, who joined the popular uprising to gain democratic freedoms, were angered and alienated when they realised that the aim of the leaders of the insurgency was to create an Islamic state on the Iranian model. After all, most of them had fought Iran for eight years to prevent such an outcome.' (p36)

Things have changed now; the 1991 intifada is very unlikely to play out exactly the same in 2003. The Kurds have had a de fact autonomous area since 1991 (with areas controlled by the different nationalist parties). Iran has changed: there is a more moderate president, and there have been struggles by students demanding democracy which have been repressed.

As a whole, though, Iran seems very concerned to make Western friends, encourage business with the West, etc (and played an important role in securing the eventual outcome for the war in Afghanistan - although Bush rather ungratefully still included them in the "axis of evil").

Still, in the event of a war, there might be an uprising - a democratic revolution, perhaps - of some kind, and socialists should be prepared for it if it happens.

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