On March 2, in Basra's Sa'ad Square, an Iraqi tank driver turned his turret toward a two-story portrait of Saddam Hussein and fired. The shell ignited a rebellion that spread from Basra up the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, reaching the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
In Nasiriyah, crowds literally tore Ba'ath Party officials apart. Government offices, Ba'ath Party headquarters, and military installations were looted and burned. The intensity of Shiite feelings was encapsulated for me in an incident that I witnessed a few weeks later.
I was in a refugee camp on the Iraq-Kuwait border when a U.S. Army medic in a Humvee drove into the camp. Four children, he said, had been collecting tomatoes on the Iraqi side of the border when they stepped on unexploded American ordnance. It had detonated. Was there a doctor, he asked. I rounded up the only available medical person, a Kuwaiti medical student, and drove him into Iraq. Three of the children had been moved to an American field hospital. The medic pointed a pin light in a twelve-year-old boy's eyes. There was no response.
As I watched, the boy's mother came up the road, unaware that anything had happened. Then she saw her dead son, his knees torn open. As she ripped at her hair and clothes, the first words from her lips were "Saddam did this."
About ten days after the uprising began, Saddam consolidated his position sufficiently to move some Republican Guards south. Unlike the conscript army, the Republican Guards were mostly Sunni Arabs and their officers included many from Saddam's own Tikriti clan. The Republican Guards were the regime's last line of defense and Saddam had deliberately kept them out of battle in Kuwait. They were intact and not demoralized by military defeat.
In mid-March, American troops still occupied southern Iraq, holding positions not far from the cities and towns along the Euphrates Valley. The Iraqi advance on the rebellious Shiites arguably violated the cease-fire terms ending the Gulf War dictated by the U.S. theater commander General Norman Schwarzkopf, which Iraq had accepted on March 3. American troops in Iraq could have stopped the Republican Guards and saved tens of thousands of lives. But they had strict orders not to intervene.
Saddam's retribution was swift and terrible. Republican Guard tanks blasted apart ancient city centers. Shiite shrines became battlegrounds and then slaughterhouses as rebels, clerics, and unlucky civilians were massacred. The Republican Guard attached nooses to the gun barrels of their tanks, hanging Shiite men -- several at a time -- by elevating the gun. As all this took place, American soldiers looked on, many seething with anger because they were not allowed to stop the killings. Patrick Lowe was one of the soldiers who witnessed the atrocities. Years later, he heard me on the radio and sent me an e-mail describing what he had seen:
I was a recon scout with the 1st Armored Division. I was responsible for graves registration and EPW's [enemy prisoners of war] for the Squadron. After the ground war I was assigned to an area on the Baghdad to Basrah Highway, about 3 miles outside of Basrah. I watched as Iraq helicopter gun ships flew into the city and gunned down everything in their way. I watched as troops were sent in and I can tell you, first hand, what was going on in Basrah.
I was the one that had to process the civilian refugees that fled the town. They pleaded with me to do something, anything to stop this wholesale mass murder. I heard stories of women and children being burned alive, in their homes. Women being raped to death, men being chopped up alive. Civilians being used for target practice, mass hangings. I can hear their screams and wailing to this day on bad nights. I remember one day in particular. I had been pleading for almost 3 days with my chain of command to let me do something about what was going on. The Squadron Commander flew up to my position, and we had a face to face. He ordered me to do nothing without express orders. In 12 years of service that is the closest that I ever came to disobeying a serious direct order. I even went to the point of sending a patrol out to get closer to the killing fields to see if the Iraq soldiers would shoot at them so that I had a reason to engage and protect those innocent civilians. They did not engage and so we continued to sit and watch. I have never been more ashamed of our country's actions as I was at that point.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter W. Galbraith
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