‘Where were the Americans who had promised to come to our aid?’
Back to Baghdad

During the 1991 Gulf War, Zainab Al-Suwaij joined the uprising against Saddam Hussein, which the Iraqi dictator crushed after US troops stopped short of Baghdad. Now living in the US, she recalls those heady days and their terrifying aftermath

A S war with Iraq draws closer, commentators, journalists and policy-makers frequently question whether the Iraq people would support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But that question has already been answered.
  Although Americans remember the Gulf War, many do not realise that, for a few momentous days immediately after it, much of Iraq rose up in open rebellion against Hussein's regime. In fact, 15 out of 18 Iraqi provinces rebelled. I was one of the rebels.
  For more than a decade, I have stayed silent about what I saw. But now, as the world considers freeing Iraq from Hussein's rule, I feel compelled to bear witness to the last time Iraqis tried to liberate their country.
[Pictures on page 19]
Picture of attractive woman wearing grey headscarf.
In them they trusted: Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of US operation Desert Storm in 1991, above
Faces of Baghdad: A woman weeps at a relative's grave, main picture; fun at the fair for an Iraqi girl, above
Taking sides: Allied soldiers take Iraqi prisoners in 1991, above; Hussein dominates a Baghdad shop, below
  In February 1991, I was living with my grandparents in Karbala, a city of roughly 350,000 an hour southwest of Baghdad. The Gulf War was raging, and my family and I often listened to Voice of America for news free of Iraqi government control.

  We heard President George H.W.Bush repeatedly assure us that if the Iraqi people rose up against Hussein, the US stood ready to help them. "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," Bush Sr had said, "and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Hussein to step aside."
  I was excited by Bush's words, but after two decades of living under the brutal rule of Hussein's Baath Party, it was impossible for me to imagine we would ever be liberated.
  Even though millions of Iraqis dreamed of overthrowing Hussein, we were afraid to speak about it and doubted anyone would ever come to help us. I felt the world had abandoned us.
If I joined any other political party, the regime had the right to kill me
  If an uprising was going to break out, I thought, it certainly wasn't going to be in Karbala, where security was unusually tight, even for a police state. Hussein had special reason to worry about Karbala. For centuries, it has been a sacred place for Shia Muslims, who are largely shut out from the upper levels of Iraq's secular, Sunni-dominated regime.
  Karbala is home to two sacred shrines that honour two of the key figures in Shia history; Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas. Because of the shrines, Iran refrained from bombing Karbala during its war with Iraq, a decision that only made Hussein more suspicious of its residents.
Read: "Back to Baghdad," The Weekend Australian, by Ms Zainab Al-Suwaij, Feb 15-16 2003, pp 19 & 26

  The secret police set up shop in the two shrines and had a pervasive presence in all parts of the city, which crawled with informers. Anyone you met --in the streets, in school, at the mosques -- might be an agent of the secret police, whose ranks ranged from teenage boys to elderly grandmothers.
  At my high school, I felt enormous pressure to join the Baath Party. I refused because I didn't want my name associated in any way with Hussein's crimes. The high school officials denied me my diploma and forced me to sign a document that if I joined any other political party, the regime had the right to kill me.
  This document was added to my school file, and I thereafter tried to keep a low profile because I felt informers were watching me.
ON March 1, 1991, I was fasting and praying with other women in the shrine of Imam Hussein. Suddenly, a woman ran into the mosque and announced: "Our army has pulled out of Kuwait."
  I burst into tears -- not out of regret for the Iraqi army, but because I had hoped Hussein's regime might fall while most of his military was in Kuwait. I worried, with the war over, there would be less reason for people to desert the army, and the elite Republican Guard would return and increase Hussein's control over the country. My hopes of freedom seemed to fade.
  I was still crying when I left the shrine. I was turning 20 the next day, and I suddenly understood that I had no future in Iraq. As long as Hussein ruled, I could not live as a free person.
  I had no diploma. I couldn't speak openly about my political and religious beliefs, and my relatives could -- and did -- disappear at any given minute. Iraq under Hussein was a dead end.
  The years of war with Iran, Kuwait, and now the US and its allies, coupled with Hussein's brutal war against his own people, had sucked the life out of me.
  And the news that the army would be returning from Kuwait intact meant that my limited hope for freedom was crushed.
  Imam Hussein's shrine had always been my place of comfort and on March 3 I went back to pray. Walking along Karbala's main street, I noticed the mood was tense. The street was filled with more secret police than usual.
A FTERNOON prayers that day lasted only one hour, and then the soldiers immediately kicked us out. I had never seen the shrine shut down like this. As I left, I saw a tank and machine guns stationed in the centre of the city.
  The moment I returned home, I tuned in to the Voice of Free Iraq and learned that an uprising had started in Basra and spread north and east to the cities along the Iranian border. Evidently people across Iraq had decided that now was the time to act, before all the troops could return from Kuwait.
  Here was a window to make a difference, while Hussein's army was still in retreat and the US president was promising support. "This is amazing," I thought, "Will our turn ever come?"
TWO days later, on March 5, as I was having breakfast, our neighbour Umali came to see us. "They are coming!" she told me. "Who?" I asked. "The uprising fighters. They have liberated Basra and Najaf, and now they are coming to Karbala."
  These fighters were a loose coalition of regular Iraqis of all backgrounds -- soldiers who had deserted, high school students and older people who could still remember a time before Baath Party rule -- who had risen up with little organisation and were moving across the area.
  I ran outside, where the streets were filled with troops, secret police and heavy weaponry.

Guns were drawn. Soldiers were shouting into loudspeakers, ordering everyone to return to their houses and shut their doors. To my surprise, dozens of young men were defying the soldiers and urging people to remain outside.
  When I returned home to change into pants and boots, my grandfather tried to stop me from leaving. He survived decades of Iraq's internal battles by refusing to get involved in politics. He knew that what was about to happen could have a bad ending.
  Overcome with anger, I told myself I had a choice. By joining the young men, I could show I wanted to live as a free person. A rebellion had begun in Karbala, and I made a conscious decision to be a part of it.
  As I left the house, I saw groups of men, mostly local Shia, who had heard of the uprising in Basra and gathered in Karbala to join the rebellion. Many were teenagers and they carried whatever they could find: sticks, axes, knives, even curtain rods. A few had guns. "God is great!" they shouted.
  I was the only woman in the street, surrounded by mobs of men. "This is my fight, too," I told them. "I am with you."
  With makeshift weapons and our own bodies, we began to confront the Iraqi soldiers who had entered the town in recent days. The soldiers started firing on the crowd -- the first time I had ever seen live shooting.
  Caught up in the frenzy of noise and excitement, I didn't run for cover. Instead, I kept shouting along with the others "Down with Hussein!" Years of anger within me came pouring out. Even with its guns, the army was no match for us that day. The angry crowds surged towards the soldiers' trucks and jeeps despite the rain of bullets. They swarmed over the military vehicles and forced the troops out. Many soldiers threw down their weapons and ran off down the street, chased by the crowd.
  Many were caught and some were beaten; most who were captured were taken to the Imam Hussein shrine, which became a makeshift headquarters for the rebels. I saw one soldier who escaped the crowds banging on my neighbour's door, crying. He asked to be hidden or at least given some civilian clothes that might save him.
  With the army on the run, it became easier for us to get weapons. During the Gulf war, Hussein had stored many of his weapons in places the US and its allies would never dare bomb: schools. Guards who used to work at the schools began emptying their storage rooms and passing us everything from Kalashnikov rifles to grenade launchers. The guns would be necessary: though many of the soldiers had run off, I saw that some were putting up resistance, and they were increasingly joined by Baath Party civilian militias and members of the secret police.
  For the Baath members and the secret police, their existence depended on Hussein stying in power, so they holed inside Karbala's city hall and other municipal buildings and fired into the crowds, killing as many people as they could. Later that night, many were killed or captured by the rebels.
  By late afternoon on March 5, when the situation had calmed down a little, I returned home. My grandmother had been worried sick about me, but I told her not to worry. "If I live, I want to live in freedom," I said. "Otherwise, why bother?"
  "But," she argued, "none of this is organised!" I responded passionately: Remember what president Bush said? If we rise up against Hussein, the Americans will help us."
I FELT this was a historic moment for the Iraqi people, and I wanted to record it. So I grabbed my family's camcorder and started filming the scene in the streets, where people were dancing and shouting in celebration, after many of the troops retreated.

  I felt as if I were taping an enormous wedding celebration. Despite the joy, there were many people who had been killed and injured in the initial rush at the army troops. Wounded rebels, army soldiers and Baath Party members lay in the streets.
(THAT evening Al-Suwaij and hundreds of others, including many wounded, take shelter in a mosque run by her family.)
  As night fell and the city grew quiet, a great fear set in, fostered by years of living in Iraq. We wondered who in the mosque was really with us and who was against us.
[Picture caption on page 26]
Deja vu: Bush Sr flanked by former defence secretary, current Vice-President Dick Cheney (left), and Colin Powell in 1991
Would someone burst in and try to kill us?
  Most of us were strangers to each other. Some of the people in our group, of course, had worked for the secret police -- with so many Iraqis in one room, some would have worked for the security services.
  When things got quieter, I sat with other members of the group in the prayer hall of the mosque while each person told his or her history. Soon we were telling jokes we recalled from the Voice of Free Iraq.
  It may not sound dramatic, but talking together openly was a completely new experience for us.
  For years we had lived in a society of informers, where nobody could be trusted. Now, on this first night of the uprising, we were getting to know each other at last.
‘As I wandered around the jail I saw huge meat grinders that fed into septic tanks’
  Our neighbour Said, a former army general, told us he had been jailed for 10 years for refusing to join the Baath Party. I was shocked to find out he had been in prison: I had merely thought of him as our strange, aloof neighbour.
  Two of the injured men, Sami and Hazam, recounted their experiences. Years before, Sami had spent four years in prison. He described how prison guards had beaten him, tied him to a ceiling fan and turned it on. Hazam had also been imprisoned. He joined the army to get out of jail but deserted when the military invaded Kuwait.
  We also discussed some of our hopes and visions for the future of Iraq. A medical student named Ali, who had come to the mosque and volunteered to treat the wounded, joked: "When we capture Hussein, we'll charge five dollars to everyone who wants to spit on him."
  We all started laughing, because previously nobody had ever dared to make jokes like this. Ali continued: "If someone wants to kick him, ten dollars. That's how we'll raise the money to rebuild Iraq."
  We were sure it was only a matter of time before the Americans arrived, and we were thinking about how to build a democratic society. We spoke quietly so the injured could sleep.
IN the morning, on March 6, I walked over to the city jail. The front door was open and most of the guards had fled, leaving the prisoners alone.
  It was a huge building with many floors. People were wandering through the halls and inmates were banging on the walls of their cells, yelling to be let out. There were prisoners from many countries -- Kuwaitis, Saudis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and even a few Europeans who had been arrested during the invasion of Kuwait and shipped to Karbala.
  Although there were still a few cowed guards around, everyone was being freed by members of the uprising who had come to the jail over the past day. One man, a Kuwaiti, told me he had come to Iraq to check on his brother, a prisoner of war from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He was arrested and held for three months; prison guards tortured him every day.

  Some of the older prisoners didn't even know what year it was. Some no longer remembered why they were imprisoned in the first place.
  As I wandered around the jail, I saw huge meat grinders that fed into a septic tank and rooms I believe were used for sexual abuse. Instruction manuals on how to use torture devices were posted on the wall. A terrible smell was everywhere. Here before me was the dark secret of Hussein's Iraq. I felt sick but free. Now, I thought, these rooms will never be used again.
  Walking out into the street, I saw that people were still celebrating, but they were also waiting for US support. People became anxious, not knowing what to expect. The strange reality of the uprising, with its hope and joy, its danger and uncertainty, unleashed a mix of emotions.
  Many of the rebels were eager to destroy the people who had terrorised us for years and tried to kill as many soldiers and government agents as possible. There were revenge killings in which families murdered the secret police agents who had killed their relatives.
  When I visited the hospital on the second day of the uprising to give blood, I saw the corpse of Jabbar, a well-known local informer, lying in the hospital's courtyard. A local man wanted to use his car to run over Jabbar's dead body.
  Other rebels showed mercy, protecting some government workers and helping them hide from angry mobs.
  Instead of summarily executing all of Hussein's solders, informers, and secret agents, they arrested some -- though they also killed many. I saw people cooking in the streets and giving food to strangers. I had never seen Iraqis standing together like this, but then I had never seen Iraqis experience any semblance of freedom.
AS the conflict in Karbala wore on, our fear intensified. By the third day of the uprising, it was only a matter of time, we thought, before Hussein's troops arrived
en masse to destroy us. Where were the Americans who had promised to come to our aid? Depression began to set in. We waited and waited -- for the Americans, for international help, for food, for water, and for medical supplies. The hours grew longer and longer.
  By the fifth day. March 9, regiments of the Iraqi army loyal to Hussein arrived on the outskirts of Karbala and started bombing the city from a distance. Under cover of artillery fire, they began sending deployments of soldiers into the city.
  When I returned home, I saw two soldiers trying to shoot my neighbour Said. I yelled at him to be careful as shots hit his hand. One of the soldiers shot at me and the bullet grazed my cheek. At first I didn't even notice it. But Said called out to me: "My daughter, something is coming out of your face." I touched my hand to my cheek and felt blood.
  Around 4.30pm tanks from the Republican Guard, Hussein's most devoted troops, started rumbling down Karbala's main street. A group of us gathered outside as Said, the former general, assigned positions to the men.
  "I don't want to hear a single shot until all the tanks are in," he told us. "Tanks are good in deserts and open spaces, but they're terrible in the streets. Don't attack until all the tanks are trapped."
  Said asked for volunteers to bomb one of the tanks. "Who will stay with me?" he asked. I stepped forward, but he was sceptical. "You've been shot and you're a woman," he told me. "But you need me here now, and you don't have anyone else," I replied. He reluctantly agreed to let me try.
  I went up to the roof above the tank I was assigned to bomb. I watched as the other fighters down the street ambushed the tanks, one by one. Suddenly it was my turn. I pulled the pin and threw the grenade, which hit its target. There were fires and explosions everywhere. There was a jolt through my body.

  For three hours I couldn't move and stayed hidden behind the wall. I just sat there praying. What had become of me? A 20-year-old woman, desperate for a future that was now slipping away, tossing grenades and vainly trying to hold off the tragedy I realised was about to come.
  By now, it was clear the Americans were not coming. Bush had promised to help us if we rose up against Hussein and we had believed him. But the help never arrived. American troops did not interfere as Hussein turned his helicopters and tanks against us.
  With no help from the world, our supplies were running out, our energy was gone, and our momentum had disappeared. Troops loyal to Hussein began swarming through the city as the residents of Karbala fled. Within a few days, the uprising was crushed. Now it was about our own survival. We said goodbye, cried and spread out on our own.
  Hussein assigned responsibility for Karbala to his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who quickly made an example of the resistance fighters, having troops shoot on sight anyone accused of being in the resistance. Kamel also let the bodies of those rebels shot during the uprising lie untouched in the streets as a reminder to the populace of what happened to people who rose up. I saw stray dogs approach the bodies and start eating them.
  To escape Karbala, 20 family members, friends and I crammed into a car built for five. The son of an army general, who was a close friend, drove us out of Karbala through a hail of bullets. At checkpoints just outside the city, guards screamed at us, but, when the driver showed his army credentials, we passed through.
  The next few months were difficult, as the secret police hunted uprising fighters across the country. People told me they entered our home Karbala and took everything.
  One family friend returned home to his family in Karbala months later.
The next day, the secret police took him to prison. Someone had told them he participated in the uprising, and he was tortured for 45 days, each day denying their accusations.
  One day a taxi driver knocked on the family's door. "Pull your son out of my car," the driver said, "because he can't move." In prison, the family friend had lost his mind. He stayed curled up, friends told me, crying like a baby and yelling, "I want my mummy!"
  I hid in a small home outside the city, covering my face and sleeping in a secret room. All my hopes and dreams had seemed so close, but now they were crushed. The spirit had been sucked out of me, but, to keep from getting depressed while I hid, I spent hours writing poetry, waiting for the opportunity to escape.
  I kept thinking about the bizarre window of freedom I had just experienced: Iraq without Hussein's rule, the joy of liberation, the anger of many people after two decades of repression, the way in which we spontaneously organised, the feeling of being open with neighbours and complete strangers, the sight of the prisoners and the human meat grinders.
  Eventually, the border to Jordan was reopened and I seized the chance to flee Iraq. At the border, I had to bribe the border guard to ignore my name on a list of people who were not allowed to leave the country. I was out, but I felt dead inside.
THE surviving veterans of the uprising scattered across Iraq and around the world. Sometimes I hear from a fellow refugee in California or Michigan who also participated in the uprising. But mostly there is silence.
  We thought if we forgot about the past -- or at least stopped talking about it -- it would go away. But now the weapons inspection crisis has reached a boil. Could it possibly be that President George W.

Bush will bring justice and liberation where his father failed?
  The US's showdown with Hussein has evoked all the emotions from March 1991 that I have tried so long to forget. They remind me of the diary I kept during the uprising. I made a point of writing in it every day because I believed we were making history. I wanted to preserve those moments so that I would never forget the first precious days of freedom.
  The night before I left Iraq, I burned my diary in an oven, page by page. Anyone caught with such a document would be killed. As the pages went up in flames, tears streamed down my face.
  For many years, I have tried to forget what I wrote in those pages. But I can never erase those memories. Sometimes I feel I am back in Karbala. We are waiting for the Americans once again.

The New Republic
Zainab Al-Suwaij is executive director of the
American Islamic Congress.


"Back to Baghdad," The Weekend Australian, by Ms Zainab Al-Suwaij, Feb 15-16 2003, pp 19 & 26
This was previously published in The New Republic, U.S.A., as "MEMORIES OF A FREE IRAQ: The Fire Last Time," by Zainab Al-Suwaij, posted Feb 3 03, issue date Feb 10 03

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COMMENT: This seems similar to the U.S. promises on Radio Free Europe to help the subjugated peoples in the Soviet bloc. In 1956 the Hungarians rose up. The Americans didn't come. The Czechoslovaks had a "Prague Spring," and the Soviets invaded -- nobody came. END of COMMENT.
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