Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Tuesday, 21 August 2007 13:49 UK

Flashback: the 1991 Iraqi revolt

The crushing of a 1991 uprising by Shias in Iraq's south and Kurds in the north was one of the most brutal acts of repression under Saddam Hussein.

Human rights organisations estimate that tens of thousands of people died during the crackdown, which lasted several months.

Iraqi boys hold a skull found in a mass grave near Basra
The legacies of the 1991 crackdown continue to shape modern Iraq

The rebellion began in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War.

On 3 March 1991 an Iraqi tank commander fired a shell through a vast portrait of Saddam Hussein which hung in Basra's main square.

This act ignited an uprising across Iraq's Shia-dominated south. A Kurdish-led rebellion followed in the north a week later.

In the cities of Basra, Nasiriya and Karbala hundreds of unarmed civilians spilled out onto the streets and took control of government buildings, freeing prisoners from jails and seizing caches of small arms.

At its height, control of 14 of the country's 18 provinces had been wrestled from Saddam Hussein's forces and fighting even spread to within miles of the capital, Baghdad.


The uprising was partly fuelled by the disastrous defeat of Iraq's security forces and their forced retreat from Kuwait.

People were convinced that the army would never be weaker or more demoralised.

That is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside
Former US President George Bush

But crucially, the rebels were convinced that they had the backing of the US, who would come to their aid to help oust Saddam.

Many Shia feel that they were betrayed by the US administration who failed to intervene after appearing to endorse a popular rebellion.

In February 1991, as US forces were crushing the Iraqi army and driving it out of Kuwait, former US President George Bush broadcast a message telling Iraqis that there was another way for the bloodshed to stop.

"That is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside..." he said in the Voice of America broadcast.

As the uprising spread throughout the country however, US officials insisted it was never their policy to intervene in Iraq's internal affairs nor to remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power.


Fearing chaos and under pressure from Iraq's neighbours, the US came to a ceasefire agreement with Iraq that controversially did not ban the use of helicopters, which were then widely used to suppress the rebellion.

A bombed Shia holy site near Karbala, Iraq
Shia shrines were destroyed during bombing raids

Some were shot in their homes and houses, others - young men especially - were rounded up from the streets and later executed en masse.

Others still were gunned down by helicopter gunships piloted by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards as they tried to flee. Women and children were among the targets of the violent crackdown.

Many tried to escape and Human Rights Watch has said that as much as 10% of the country's population was displaced, some crossing the border into neighbouring Iran and Turkey and others seeking refuge within Iraq.

As part of the punishment, Saddam Hussein also ordered the bombing of many historical centres and Shia shrines in the south of the country.

The massacres further scarred the country's collective memory and haunt Iraq to this day as mass graves continue to be uncovered.

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