Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 17. Desert Storm – Aftermath

July 22, 2020

[Featured Image: Sebastião Salgado]

First week of March, 1992. After 37 days of strategic bombing and a blitzkrieg 100-hour ground war, Saddam’s forces were utterly defeated and out of Kuwait. Mission accomplished. Now what?

[Dept. of Defense]

Seeking a second-term, with the November election only eight months off, George Bush said, “We need to have a clean end. People want that. They are going to know we won and the kids can come home. We don’t want to screw this up with a sloppy, muddled ending.”

If only. In fact, Bush, Cheney, Baker, et al., had no real plan for what to do next, no end game, indeed, had not answered, or even asked, the most basic questions to inform their decisions.

Once Iraqi forces are out of Kuwait, do we go on to Baghdad and remove Saddam from power? Do we even want an Iraq without Saddam in charge? If we don’t take him out, is there anyone else who might, what are their chances, and what if anything can and will we do to help them? Will Iraq be better off with someone else in his place? 

Getting rid of Saddam was always a tacit aim of Desert Storm – U.S. war planes bombed every place he might be hiding – but with Iraqi tanks were still burning on the Highway of Death and the 101st Airborne only 150 miles from Baghdad, the Bush administration decided quite literally overnight that U.S. forces would stop.

Dick Cheney summed up their thinking: “If you’re going to try to topple Saddam Hussein,  you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s there now . . . . How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?”

Cheney wasn’t just being a good soldier, saying something he didn’t really believe at the time. Five years later, in PBS Frontline Gulf War documentary, he repeated: “I was not an enthusiast about going into Iraq. We were there in southern Iraq . . . [just] to get Saddam out of Kuwait, . . . but the idea of going to Baghdad [and taking out Saddam], . . . there was a real danger we would get bogged down in a long-drawn out conflict . . . [and] we were all worried about Iraq coming apart, Iranians restarting their 8-year bloody war with Iraq, . . . [and] the Turks get very nervous every time we start talking about an independent Kurdistan.”

Ten years later, Cheney, as Vice President to Bush Junior, would do a 180 and become one of the most hawkish proponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein. But that’s another story for later.

Bush with Scowcroft

In a 2002 essay, Why We Didn’t Remove Saddam, Bush Sr., and Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor, made clear, “While we hoped that popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, [no one] wanted the breakup of the Iraqi state.” 

Very simply, the Bush post-war strategy, if it can be called that, was a wish and a prayer that someone, ideally officers in Saddam’s own Republican Guard, would take him out in a coup without fragmenting Iraq in the bargain. 

It started with the surrender, which Bush and company simply dumped into Schwarzkopf’s lap. Charles Freeman, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992, recalled, “[We] were so frustrated by the lack of instructions, . . . but Washington . . . had no vision what sort of peace they wanted after the war.” Schwarzkopf had to wing it. 

The battleship U.S.S. Missouri, where Japan’s Foreign Minister signed the Instrument of Surrender ending World War II, was stationed in the Gulf and during Desert Storm bombarded Iraqi forces with its 16″ guns, so Schwarzkopf’s first instinct was to use it for the surrender talks with Saddam there in person. But what if Saddam, not about to risk being arrested for war crimes, refused? Continue the war? Not an option. And it would look worse if the U.S. backed down on demanding that he be there.     

So Schwarzkopf settled instead for a canvas tent at Safwan, an airfield in southern Iraq captured only a few days earlier by the U.S. First Infantry, and for Iraq’s Minister of Defense, Lieut. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, and seven other Iraqi officers. On March 4, 1991. they arrived Safwan in U.S. Army open-air jeeps, Schwarzkopf with a squadron of Apache attack helicopters. 50 American and British main battle tanks encircled the tent. No question who was calling the shots.

Still, Schwarzkopf directed his aides not to photograph the Iraqis as they were scanned with metal detectors, “I don’t want them embarrassed; I don’t want them humiliated.”

Surrender Talks – Safwan [Getty Images]

But Schwarzkopf told reporters beforehand, “This isn’t a negotiation. I’m not here to give them anything.” During the talks, he never smiled, not once. Just the basics. Setting the cease fire lines. Marking the Iraqi mine fields. Prisoner exchange logistics.

But as they were wrapping up, Schwarzkopf conceded, on the spot, that with so many bridges destroyed, Iraq could fly helicopters on its side of the cease fire line to transport officials from one part of the country to another. The Iraqi officers asked, incredulously, “You mean armed helicopters?” “Yes,” Schwarzkopf confirmed, “but only on your side of the line and no fixed wing anywhere.” Helicopters. Armed. Mistake. Big.

Because on February 15, 1991, just nine days before the start of the decisive 100-hour Desert Storm ground assault, President Bush had proclaimed in a Voice of America radio broadcast into Iraq: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, . . . and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”

On March 1, the day after the cease fire, Bush doubled down with the same message. In the meantime, on February 24, on Saudi-based and CIA-funded Voice of Free Iraq radio, Salah Omar al-Ali, an exiled former member of the Ba’athist Revolutionary Command Council, urged Iraqis to overthrow the “criminal tyrant Saddam.” 

So, figuring that the Americans had their backs, try they did. In the days even before Safwan, Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi’a Iraqis, 60% of the total population and an even higher percentage in southern Iraq, were rising up against Saddam, who had taken them into two disastrous wars, cratered a once thriving economy, and tortured and murdered tens of thousands of dissidents. 

Kurdish Peshmerga [Ramzi Haidar/AFP]

The insurrection started with Kurdish village militias, called jash, quickly joined by the Kurdish national army, the Peshmerga, literally, “those who face death,” and thousands of Iraqi army deserters.

The two main political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), were bitter rivals, but seeing where the wind was blowing, put aside their differences, and in just a few weeks Kurdish forces captured first Sulaymaniyah and then the two largest cities, Kirkuk and Mosul, in northern Iraq. 

Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a country, about 35 million strong, and if a country, working title Kurdistan, would be the 40th largest, between Canada and Saudi Arabia on the population table. For more than a century they have been negotiating, lobbying, fighting for a piece of ground to call their own, and after decades of promises broken and aspirations thwarted, Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait seemed like a golden opportunity. If not now, when? 

[Eric Bouvet]

In the south, Shi’a soldiers – who made up 80% of Iraqi Army conscripts – joined by students, political dissidents and the Iran-based Badr Brigades, peppered Saddam’s photos with bullets, routed his security forces, killed hundreds of Ba’ath party officials, and took control of Basra, Nasiriyah, Karbala and other major cities in the south. By mid-March, Saddam had lost control of 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Sh’ia checkpoint – Nassiriya [Manooche Deghati / Getty]

But the rebellion quickly unwound. Although the Kurds knew what they wanted, democracy for Iraq and significant autonomy, if not independence for themselves, the Shi’a uprisings in the south were a hot mess, fractured revolutionary groups with competing leaders and agendas, all indians, no chiefs. And there was no coordination between the Shi’a and Kurdish rebels. 

Plus Saddam still had Baghdad, and despite wishful thinking back in Washington, his Sunni generals were not about to depose him. As James Baker acknowledged years later, “The Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings [and the killing of Ba’ath party officials in the south] gave Saddam a pretty solid basis to argue to his army, stick with me or we’ll all be out.“ So stick they did, and Saddam unleashed his four still intact Revolutionary Guards divisions and, yes, those helicopter gunships on Kurds and Shi’a. 

What did the U.S. do? Nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. Although Gen. Schwarzkopf enforced his edict against Iraqis flying fixed wing aircraft anywhere in the country, he had at the same time ordered “the Air Force not to shoot down any helicopters flying over the territory of Iraq where our troops are not located,” helicopters that Saddam immediately deployed to put down the uprisings.

And U.S ground forces, still occupying Iraq south of Basra in June 1991, disarmed and interned any Shi’a who came across their line of control, destroyed (or sent to Afghan mujahideen) weapons taken from Shi’a rebels, and allowed Republican Guard units to pass through American lines on their way to attack Shi’a fighters in Basra.

Charles Freeman, U.S. Ambassador to Saudia Arabia: “Whatever our intentions, from an objective point of view, we were allied with Saddam in suppressing the Shi’a rebellion . . . .”

Why? Still smarting from the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and occupation of the American embassy in Tehran, the Bush administration obsessed about the Shi’a, 60% of the Iraqi population, taking over in Bagdad, and the possibility of an Iran-like Islamic republic in Iraq. They absolutely did not want the Shi’a uprising to succeed.

Secretary James Baker spun it with a ‘we really didn’t have a choice’ rationale. “[W]e would have lost the coalition, [our] Arab partners, particularly the Saudis, wanted us to leave, get our forces out of there as promptly as possible.” Plausible. But simply not true. 

Charles W. Freeman, Jr. [U.S. State Dept.]

Ambassador Freeman, on the ground in Riyadh, knew better. He recounts: “Privately, the Saudis, very early on, began to press very hard, through me and directly in Washington, for a joint Saudi-American program of assistance to the Shi’a.”

“The Saudis, despite their distaste for the Shi’a religiously, had come to the conclusion, correctly, I believe, that Iraqi Shi’a are Iraqi Arabs first and Shi’a second . . . and they saw support for the Shi’a rebellion as the key to dislodging Saddam Hussein from power, . . . [and they] wanted military training, equipment and the usual sorts of support that one would offer an insurgency to be provided to the Shi’a, who were not attempting to secede from Iraq, to the contrary, they were focused on overthrowing Saddam and participating in national politics in Baghdad.”

“Now, if the Kurds, who are Sunni, are removed from the Iraqi equation, the Shi’a, who constitute about 60 percent of the Iraqi population, would exercise a dominant influence in Iraqi politics. . . . But if the Saudis, great skeptics of Shi’a Islam, were prepared to accept the possibility of greater Shi’a influence in Baghdad, it seemed to me it ill-behooved the United States to object. . . . That, of course, in fact may or may not have been the right decision, I simply note that we didn’t have a policy. And [the Bush administration claim] of Saudi opposition to the rebellion in southern Iraq was incorrect; in fact, they had quite a contrary view. . . .”

“It is conceivable that the Shi’a might well have made common cause with the Kurds in demanding a more federal structure within Iraq. But I fail to see why that is inherently objectionable. After all, the United States is a federal structure, and it works well for us as a means of allowing a large measure of local autonomy and experimentation. . . . Whatever the reason, [these] serious requests, . . . constantly reiterated both to me and directly by very senior members of the royal family in Washington, fell on deaf ears.” 

The situation with the Kurds had even more moving parts. Problem: geography. Kurds are concentrated in eastern Turkey and Syria, as well as northern Iraq and western Iran, and the powers that be in Ankara, Damascus, et al. were concerned – freaking out is more like it – that if the Kurds freed themselves from Baghdad’s rule, their own sizeable Kurd minorities would break away to join a new Kurdish state, straddling and permanently changing the borders of four countries. 

The U.S. was not about to rile the big dogs in the region, especially Turkey, which at least back then was a reliable anti-Soviet ally, and so sat by and watched as Saddam’s forces, just six weeks after Iraq’s “unconditional surrender” at Safwan, crushed the out-gunned rebels, killing an estimated 30,000 – 60,000 Shi’a and 20,000 Kurds, and creating a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. 

More than a million Iraqi Kurds fled the fighting in open trucks, on donkeys, on foot, east to Iran and north into the mountains between Iraq and Turkey. But Ankara, not wanting more Kurds inside Turkey, who already made up a very restive 15% to 20% of its population, sealed the border, and with Saddam’s forces closing in behind them, almost 500,000 Kurdish refugees were trapped, regularly strafed by Iraqi helicopters. The conditions were horrific. U.S. State Department officials estimated that between 500 – 1,000 refugees were dying every day on the Turkish border. 

[Thierry Orban / Corbis]  

James Baker, helicoptering en route to Turkey, had a birds-eye view. “As we were flying along over this really rugged terrain, we saw streams of people, . . . like a tidal wave . . . a sea of people . . . 50,000, 75,000, people in just one little valley, and the mountainside was just covered and every little piece of ground had a little tent or a makeshift shelter on it, and they’d cut down all the trees for firewood, hanging their clothes on what was left of any tree and drinking out of these mountain streams, some were bare foot . . . a very alarming scene . . . . I know how very cold it can get . . . at 8,500 – 10,000 feet, it moved me . . . .”

[Thierry Orban / Corbis]  

Baker: “I called the President, told him I’d never seen anything like it, that a lot of people were going to die if we didn’t do something and quickly, and he needed to really break the china to get it done . . . and that was the genesis of Operation Comfort.”

American, British and French warplanes imposed a “no-fly zone” – helicopters included – above the 36th parallel, and U.S. and other coalition ground forces established a 60-kilometer “safe haven” inside northern Iraq so that U.S. and European governments and NGOs could deliver humanitarian aid to the Kurds on a massive scale. 

In October, Iraq agreed to withdraw from three predominately Kurdish northern provinces, leading to the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and the effective creation of a “Kurdish Autonomous Republic.” This would endure, despite an Iraqi blockade of food, fuel, etc., to these provinces until the Kurdish civil war, 1994 – 1997, between the PUK and KDP, whose leaders, Jala Talabani and Massoud Barzani, and their long feuding families, let egos and personal rivalries trump Kurdish nationalism.

In the meantime, Saddam’s forces had intensified their reprisals against Shi’a rebels in the south. Using tanks, artillery and helicopters, they killed thousands, including unarmed civilians, many buried wholesale in mass graves, and tortured and raped thousands more. After 2003, more than 200 mass burial sites were uncovered, one holding an estimated 10,000 victims. 

An estimated 200,000 Shi’a rebels sought refuge near the Iranian border in the Al Hawizeh marshes east of the Tigris river, part of what was before the First Gulf War the largest wetlands ecosystem in the Middle East, 7,700 square miles, the size of Massachusetts, and likely the locus of biblical references to a Garden of Eden. 

[Tor Eigeland]

The primary inhabitants are Marsh Arabs, the Ma’dan, descendants of the ancient Sumerians, a culture dating back five millennia, living in elaborate reed houses, mudhif, in secluded floating villages, most accessible only by boat, sustained by fishing, breeding water buffalo and cultivating rice, barley, pearl millet and other cereals. Idyllic could say. In the 1950’s, almost half a million Ma’dan – a mildly disparaging name used by dry land Iraqis – lived in these Mesopotamian marshes. 

[Hadi Mizban]

Saddam saw the Ma’dan as complicit in providing refuge to Shi’a insurgents. Collective punishment followed. After Saddam crushed the uprisings in Basra and other southern cities, he turned his fury on the marshes, directing his engineers to dam and divert the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and when the Ma’dan villages were high and dry, his helicopter gunships strafed and burned them.

In less than ten years, 93% of the marshes were mud flats and at most only 10,000 Ma’dan remained, almost all on the eastern fringe nourished by upstream water from Iran, the rest dispersed to refugee camps. A cultural and environmental catastrophe of the first order. 

In August 1992, the U.S. and its coalition allies imposed a second “no-fly zone” south of the 32nd parallel, but did nothing to stop Saddam’s forces on the ground, in short, only a semblance of doing something, and as with the Kurds, all too little, too late.

Bush had encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up and oust Saddam, but when they did, he just hung them out to dry. Shi’a cleric Taqui al-Mudaressim nailed it: “The Americans would rather have Saddam without teeth to an Iraq without Saddam.” 

When the dust settled, nothing had changed, Saddam was still in charge, battle field defeat never translated into political defeat. He told his people that he had faced down a coalition of 30 countries and they saw columns of Republican Guard tanks returning from Kuwait. For all most of them knew, it had been a draw.

[Joe Sohm / Getty Images]

Back in the U.S., after a very quick, one-sided and televised war, euphoria reigned, ticker tape parades on Broadway, 24,000 Desert Storm soldiers marching and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. Colin Powell and, yes, even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in vintage convertibles, cheered on by an estimated 4.7 million spectators and showered by 10,000 pounds of confetti.

After the stalemate in Korea and ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, the U.S. military finally had its swagger back, and with the fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. stood astride the world as the only superpower. Bush declared, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” For the time being, at least.

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama went so far as to call it “the end of history,” a silly notion really, but at the time it got him on a lot of talk shows. 

Alas, the good feelings did not last long. Even as Iraqi forces fled down the highway of death and George Bush declared a cease fire, he had a nagging feeling of unfinished business. And so did the American people. 

The Bush administration had done such a good job of selling the war and painting Saddam Hussein as the second coming of Adolf Hitler that, no big surprise, in a January 1991 poll he placed a close second, 36% to 43%, for the title of most evil leader of the 20th century, which given the other notable candidates, Stalin and Mao to name just two, says a lot about the quality of U.S. high school history classes. 


Not that Saddam hadn’t earned a spot on the top ten list. Even as he was announcing Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, Saddam unleashed one last round of Scud missile attacks, one hit a barracks housing American troops outside Dhahran, killing 28 and wounding more than 100, by far the highest U.S. casualty count of the war.

And then ordered his withdrawing forces to set more than 650 Kuwaiti oil wells afire, spewing oil across the desert and into the Persian Gulf, 1.5 billion barrels – the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was “only” five million.

So no surprise then that so many Americans expected Schwarzkopf to charge on to Baghdad and take Saddam out. Senator Bob Kerrey (Dem. NE) didn’t mince words: “People in Nebraska want this guy dead.” With U.S. soldiers back home and Saddam still doing his Saddam thing, many asked, “What was the point, why go to war if we weren’t going to finish the job?” By 1992, over two-thirds of Americans had concluded, per another poll, that Desert Storm was not even a military victory.

In short, Desert Storm victory parades would be the high point of Bush’s first four years and one year later a tax increase – remember his campaign pledge, “Read my lips, no new taxes” – would finish him off as a one-termer, leaving Saddam as one more thorny item on Bill Clinton’s to-do list. How did Bush go wrong? 

Adm. Wm. Crowe wit. Bush & Reagan [Naval Historical Foundation]

In a word, politics. Bush’s decisions both to go to war and then end it in haste were driven by his poll numbers and the upcoming November 1992 presidential election. All the rest was window dressing.

As William J. Crowe, Chairman of Joint Chiefs from 1985 to 1989, revealed to Bob Woodward, “[M]uch of the discussion at National Security Council meetings was political, decisions were made based on their likely impact on the Congress, the media and public opinion, and the focus was on managing the reaction.”

Bush claimed he ordered U.S. forces into Kuwait to protect Saudi Arabia from being next on Saddam’s hit list, when in fact this was never a real threat with Desert Shield in place and so many Iraqi tanks mired deep in desert sands. When that argument evaporated, Bush proclaimed that the U.S., as a matter of principle, had to stop the “naked aggression” by Iraq against a small defenseless neighbor, ignoring the many times that U.S. allies, e.g., Turkey, Indonesia, Israel and Morocco, had done just that and the U.S. did nothing except give them more unconditioned military and economic aid. And time and time again Bush, Cheney, et al., rebuffed Gorbachev’s entreaties for a diplomatic workout. No question, Bush and company were hell bent on going to war.  

Bad enough, but made worse by the fact that they began to believe their own propaganda, their magical thinking about a “new world order,” blocking any nuanced thinking about what Iraq would actually look like after Desert Storm. 

The Bush party line for a hasty exit was that the Saudis wanted U.S. forces out of the Gulf, when in fact the Saudis wanted the U.S. to help the Shi’a oust Saddam and bring about a new political order in Iraq, for the Saudis a new world order could wait. Freeman and the Saudi royal family told them exactly that again and again, but Bush and company believed what they wanted to believe. Deaf ears.

They wanted to get in and get out fast, declare victory and bring the boys home. So they just bailed, leaving Schwarzkopf to sort out the details. And as former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau once noted, “War is too important to be left to generals.’’

What could Bush and company could have done had they not been in such a big rush to pick up and leave lock, stock and barrel? For starters, they could have kept the heat on Saddam, leaving a brigade or two to sit on the Rumaila oil field and squeeze his oil revenues, and by making it very personal, sending a smart bomb every other day into one of his palaces or command bunkers and passing the word through back channels to his generals that they would not have a quiet night’s sleep as long as Saddam was in charge.

And whether Saddam stayed or went, they could have negotiated a better peace, a better outcome, not just for Shi’a and Kurds, but for all the Iraqi people. But as Ambassador Freeman made clear, “There was no political negotiation [with Saddam], never even a request for one.”

Even in the run-up to Desert Storm, except for James Baker’s six-hour our-way-or-the-highway meeting with Tarik Aziz in Geneva six days before the start of the air war, no one in the Bush administration ever met or talked directly with Saddam or anyone in this regime. Not even a phone call. Nothing but pronouncements to the press. And nothing but ultimatums.

This is no way to talk someone down off a ledge or convince a hostage taker to put down his gun, much less stop a war. If you want to resolve any conflict, it is necessary to actually speak with your adversary, not just yourself, and give the other guy an expedient, if not graceful, way out. 

The bottom line of this expedient and myopic strategy? First, irony or not, Bush lost his bid for a second term. Worse, by destroying Iraq’s infrastructure and electrical grid and then leaving Saddam Hussein in power, the Bush administration insured the worst possible outcome for ordinary Iraqis.

Bush, Scowcroft, et al., would have had a more nuanced, thoughtful and, not least, compassionate plan if they had actually gotten out on the ground as Baker did with Kurdish refugees in the mountains, or listened to Charles Freeman and others who were. By not having any “vision of what sort of peace they wanted” and letting domestic policies drive their decisions, they insured that the war never ended. Four presidents and almost 30 years later we are still dealing with the fallout. 


Ma’dan Postscript. After Saddam was deposed in 2003, with the combined efforts of the Iraqi government, the U.N. and environmental NGOs, the Mesopotamian Marshes, now a UNESCO Heritage site, have partially recovered, with permanent wetlands reaching 60% of 1970 levels by 2008. However, regional drought and construction of upstream dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran are cutting inflows by 40%, and the long-term viability of the marshes is uncertain, with barely 20,000 Ma’dan now living there. 



Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization – The Conquest of the Middle East (2005)

Theodore H. Draper, The True History of the Gulf War (1992)

Next: Economics sanctions on Iraq


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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