In the sweltering, dust-blown outskirts of the central Iraqi town of Hilla, scenes of chaotic horror have been taking place, beamed around the world by television cameras.
The discovery of the remains of up to 15,000 Iraqis in mass graves has prompted international revulsion, as well as uncontainable grief and despair among Iraqis clawing through piles of bones that once were their relatives.
In Washington, the discovery of what appears to be ruthless executions of Shiites who rebelled against Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War has been greeted with pious expressions of outrage and shock. This, say members of President George W. Bush’s administration, is blatant evidence of the bestial nature of Saddam’s regime, and why it had to be removed by force.
Few people, of course, doubted the depths to which Saddam would sink in maintaining his iron grip on Iraq. And reports of the 1991 uprisings and their terrible toll are an undisputed part of the recent history of the region.
What seems to have been forgotten, however — if only in the West — is the role that the United States played in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis who rose up, in spite of what they knew to be overwhelming danger, to overthrow the hated dictator. Among Iraq’s Shiia majority it is burnt into the collective memory in a way that will come back to haunt Iraq’s new American rulers long into the future.
“Our betrayal by the United States will never be forgotten,” says an Iraqi physicist jailed and tortured by Saddam. “People remember how they were urged to rise up against Saddam, and how the Americans then turned their backs. They even helped Saddam massacre the Shiia.”
The extent to which Washington deserves such devastating criticism is unclear. But it was obvious that at the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. was caught in a diplomatic bind that made overthrowing Saddam an unattractive option.
It partly resulted from the American forces’ massive attack on retreating Iraqi troops making their way back from the disastrous invasion of Kuwait.
The fierce and concentrated air assault on the soldiers, who were driving across open desert between Kuwait City, Basra and Um Qasr, was described at the time as “shooting fish in a barrel.”
In less than 48 hours, tens of thousands died, their blood running in rivulets through which traumatized American ground troops soon found themselves wading. The Basra road retreat was symbolized by a photograph of charred Iraqi bodies slumped over the side of a partly incinerated tank.
In a chilling mirror image of Hilla today, the bodies were bulldozed into pits in the sand, from where the families of the dead were never to recover them or identify what was left of the corpses. Few of those who survived to limp home to their families have recovered from the scene.
The deaths appalled the international community, but not President George Bush senior. He and his military viewed them as part of a “total victory” over Saddam and his forces of evil, who had perpetrated heinous crimes in Kuwait. But at the same time, Bush realized that the Gulf War “coalition” cobbled together by threats and promises from Washington could not hold if Baghdad were now invaded.
Unlike his son, Bush had no September 11 to point to, no implied threat of “international menace” to convince his allies that Saddam must at all costs be overthrown. A decade ago, the idea of national sovereignty was still paramount, and few countries dared to infringe upon it.
What is clear is that Bush wanted Iraqis themselves to finish the job of ridding the country of Saddam.
“We all want Saddam removed, and I hope the Iraqi people do something towards that,” he said, in one of many calls to arms issued by the president and his administration.
They were the words the long-repressed Shiia were waiting for. And it was easy for them to believe that the Americans would be behind them as they put their lives on the line.
Anger against the Iraqi dictator overflowed first in Basra, with demonstrations that gathered force and spread. By the time they moved north to Nasiriya, thousands were openly chanting “down with Saddam.” Slogans were drowned out by shooting: in less than a week in March, 1991, Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf, Karbala, Amara, Kut and Hilla were in rebel hands.
Here, the story becomes hazy with the fog of war.
Bush and his officials suddenly awoke to find that they had fought a bloody and expensive conflict only to position a new “menace” to take over Iraq. Their earlier strategy of “leaving it to Iraqis” — if any strategy existed — evaporated overnight.
A few years earlier, when the Iran-Iraq war broke out, America had spent little time choosing sides. The radical Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was the common enemy. Now, as Washington saw it, the threat of Shiite extremism had returned, but writ large. The spectre of an Iranian-Iraqi Islamic republic loomed.
Saddam, meanwhile, was ready to take action against the growing rebellions, which were swollen by Kurdish dissidents in the north.
With severely reduced ground troops, and forbidden to use aircraft in his own air space, Saddam sent his general, Sultan Hashim Ahmad, with an important question for American commander Norman Schwarzkopf: could Iraqi helicopters still fly — even armed ones?
On the record, Schwarzkopf replied in the affirmative, saying that he would “instruct our air force not to shoot at any helicopters that are flying over the territory of Iraq where we are not located.”
For the Shiia, and thousands of hapless Kurds, the rest is history – one of the blackest chapters of their already tortured past. Many are convinced that Schwartzkopf went much further than naïve acquiescence, and America actively encouraged the massacre perpetrated by the dictator Washington cultivated for so long,
The fact that the American troops, assisted by the French, admittedly dug trenches to slow down the rebels from pursuing Iraqi government soldiers, and gave safe passage through American lines to Republican Guard units on their way to crushing the rebellion, is all the proof of collusion that many Shiia need.
Not surprisingly, some believe that Saddam has now made a covert deal with his former allies, and is living happily ever after in an obscure, luxurious villa obtained by George Bush junior.
There is little joy for the relatives of the dead in Hilla.
“Around us was a scene of utter chaos and horror,” said an experienced Human Rights Watch emergency official, Peter Bouckaert. “Since early morning, a backhoe had been digging up the earth, often uncovering dozens of corpses in a single scoop…occasionally a piercing scream would rise above the crowd as a body was identified by relatives.”
The abysmal scene, Bouckaert noted, was watched by American marines “standing on a nearby hill taking snapshots.” What was running through the minds of the desperate relatives as they glanced at those uniforms ranged above them, the broiling sun glinting from state-of-the-art weapons?
Soon enough, the answer will be evident.