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Did the U.S. betray Iraqis in 1991?

By Lev Grossman

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It has often been repeated that the reason Iraqis haven't greeted American forces with flowers and smiles is that the U.S. failed to come to the aid of those Iraqis who--with the encouragement of the first President Bush--revolted after Desert Storm in 1991.

And the U.S. stood by when Saddam Hussein crushed the rebellion. What did happen in 1991? It's a sad story of false hopes and serious miscalculations. After the U.S. evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait, George Herbert Walker Bush had no intention of marching the U.S. Army to Baghdad to topple Saddam. He had promised the Arabs in the war coalition that he would push Saddam's army back into Iraq--that's all.

That didn't mean Bush Sr. wanted Saddam to remain in power. Pentagon planners were prepared to finish him off with Air Force bombing or special-ops commandos if they could find him. And if U.S. forces could not get to him, Bush had made it no secret that he would be more than happy if others did the job.

On February 15, 1991, as the Desert Storm air campaign blasted Iraqi defenses in Kuwait, Bush flew to Andover, Mass., for a rally at the Raytheon plant, which manufactured the Patriot Air Defense System.

In the middle of a rousing speech, he noted, almost as an aside, "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and this is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."

This was a notion trumpeted by other Administration officials as well, but what they and Bush had in mind was encouraging senior leaders of the Iraqi army or Baath Party to revolt.

"We didn't expect a general public uprising," says a former Bush aide. It was the Shi'ites in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north--both of whom had long been subjugated by Saddam--who took Bush's words to heart.

They began their revolt on March 1, just one day after Bush halted the war. But Saddam's battered Republican Guard divisions in the south quickly refashioned themselves and attacked Shi'ite guerrillas. Meanwhile, in the north, several Iraqi divisions moved to crush the Kurdish rebellion.

The U.S. inadvertently helped Saddam annihilate the rebels by agreeing in the cease-fire deal negotiated by General Norman Schwarzkopf to allow Iraqi generals to continue flying their helicopters--a mistake because Saddam then used them to strafe rebels on the ground.

Desperate Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders begged the U.S. military for help. But Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wanted U.S. troops safely home, not mired in what might become a messy civil war. Secretary of State James Baker feared the "Lebanonization of Iraq."

His nightmare: Iraqi Shi'ites, aligned with Iran's fundamentalist Shi'ites, would carve out the south; Sunni Muslims would hold the center; and Kurds, who long craved an independent state, would capture the north, upsetting Turkey, which feared revolt from its own Kurdish population.

American pilots flying over southern Iraq held their fire as the Republican Guard massacred Shi'ites on the ground. Bush refrained from aiding Kurdish rebels in the north, although he finally sent troops and relief supplies to protect hundreds of thousands of fleeing Kurds who were in danger of freezing or starving to death.

Bush has never regretted his decision not to intervene. It's debatable whether he could have given the Shi'ites and Kurds enough firepower to topple Saddam without American soldiers' being sucked into a civil war.

These days George W. Bush bristles when others question whether the U.S. betrayed the Iraqis.

But the decision of the father not to intervene has become a handy way for some of his son's allies to explain why the cheering for U.S. soldiers has so far been muted.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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