MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All this week, we've been looking at the life and legacy of President George Herbert Walker Bush - his legacy both on domestic issues here in the U.S. and how he projected American power abroad.
Today, we zoom in on a very specific moment in his presidency - the first few months of 1991. The U.S. had begun its military offensive to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. And on February 15, 1991, Bush gave a speech that would later be broadcast directly to Iraqis.
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GEORGE BUSH: And there's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that 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.
KELLY: A clear call for an uprising against Saddam. And inside Iraq, it was understood that such an uprising would be supported by American military might.
We're going to unpack what played out in the months that followed with someone who was there, Joost Hiltermann, who now is the Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. Joost Hiltermann, welcome.
JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you very much.
KELLY: So let's go straight to how Bush's words were received by Iraqis. What was the reaction to that clear call we just heard? Rise up. You can topple Saddam yourself.
HILTERMANN: Well, people rose up. And the first to rise up were Iraqi soldiers returning from Kuwait who mutinied against Saddam and started an uprising in the largely Shia south. And then Kurds in the north similarly decided that enough was enough, and this was an opportunity because they'd heard President Bush say, or suggest anyway, that they would get American support.
KELLY: How much traction did these rebellions ever get?
HILTERMANN: Well, they were pretty massive. And certainly, among the population, it involved a lot of people and engulfed 14 out of 18 governorates, so it was really extensive. Only Baghdad and the surrounding areas were relatively insulated from this. But even inside Baghdad, there were some attempts at rising up because this was a big Shia slum.
But, of course, once the regime turned its guns on the uprising, there was mass panic because people were not very well armed, and they did not get American support. And so they fled. And many Shia fled into Iran and Saudi Arabia. And many Kurds fled into Iran and into Turkey, if Turkey let them.
KELLY: Now, the U.S. campaign, as you know, ended up ending sooner than many thought it would. The actual ground invasion only lasted about a hundred hours. When did Iraqis realize the U.S. was not coming to the rescue?
HILTERMANN: Well, they realized it when Saddam turned tanks and helicopters on them. The United States and Iraq came to an agreement whereby Iraq was not allowed to fly its aircraft but was allowed to use its helicopters for humanitarian purposes.
But, of course, Iraq then used these helicopters to fight the uprisings in the north and the south and suppress them effectively. And so they said, well, wait a minute. Here we are. We are fighting. We're doing what George Bush has said we should do, and nobody's coming to our aid.
KELLY: The U.S. did establish a no-fly zone over the northern part of the country to protect Kurds who were rebelling. How successful was it?
HILTERMANN: Well, it was successful. But keep in mind that this was after the uprising in the north had already been crushed. But it allowed the Kurds to come back. And that was key because in 1991, the Kurds were able to, essentially, establish self-rule in those areas thanks to coalition protection. And that was partly due to the no-fly zone and partly due to the safe area that the coalition set up in the north.
And then Saddam's troops unilaterally withdrew a few months later, figuring that it wasn't worth the fight.
KELLY: How did George H.W. Bush defend this, because there was massive criticism at the time in '91, not just from Iraq, but here in the U.S., of people saying, hey, human rights are a pillar of U.S. foreign policy?
HILTERMANN: Well, he took a strategic point of view, which was, first of all, he had put together a coalition of countries that were fighting this Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and in Iraq. And he said that if he were to go further and go into Baghdad and remove the regime, he would lose his allies because that's not what they had agreed to.
KELLY: He was making a tactical calculation. But how did he defend the morality of this decision?
HILTERMANN: Well, he claimed that he had never actually said that he would support any popular uprising. He may have admitted that he called on people to throw off the yoke of Saddam Hussein but not that he would send American troops to protect them.
KELLY: Joost Hiltermann - he is Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. Mr. Hiltermann, thank you.
HILTERMANN: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.