Iraqi rebels wonder why they got no help WAR IN THE GULF


July 28, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KARBALA, Iraq -- The bloody handprints, in gruesome symmetry, stain the wall in a signature of death.

They are chest-high on the whitewashed cement in a small storeroom in the Shrine of Al-Abbas, a holy place where Shiite rebels made a last stand against the Iraqi army after the Persian Gulf war. The room stinks of death. A wooden board in the room is thick with dried blood.

Here is testimony Saddam Hussein has deadly opposition. In the months after the Feb. 28 cease-fire, amid encouragement from Washington, successive rebellions in the south and north threatened the Iraqi leader's rule.

Given more allied support, they might have succeeded. The ruthlessness with which they were put down leaves little hope the regime will be toppled from within.

The revolt began on the tide of deserters from the Iraqi army

fleeing pell-mell from Kuwait and might have swept to Baghdad. But allied troops stopped abruptly after crossing the border. Mr. Hussein's forces regrouped to crush the disorganized and ill-equipped rebels.

It was a nasty business. In the north, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled into the mountains. Many died without proper food or shelter. Belatedly, the allies rushed aid and protection to the Kurds.

There was no such succor in the south for the Shiites, hidden from view of the international press. The rebels grudgingly gave ground town by town in fierce fighting.

While the U.S. public was euphoric over its swift victory, men with battle-glazed eyes and bloody bandages straggled out of southern Iraq. They told reporters at the Kuwait border incredible accounts of carnage in fights between Shiites and Mr. Hussein's forces, stories that seemed unbelievable, given the allies' comparatively easy success in their war with Iraq.

But the cities of Karbala and Najaf offer mute proof of those accounts.

The rebels and the army both waged a scorched-earth struggle. Nearly every government building was gutted by the rebels; a sooty mascara traces the path of flames from each window. Many government officials were killed. Thick cables hung from the ceiling in the Al-Abbas shrine end in grim nooses over dried pools of blood.

The Iraqi Republican Guard was no more gentle. Rebels gave accounts of helicopter gunships pouring fire on soldiers and civilians alike, of corpses that lay rotting in the streets, food for wild dogs.

The center of Karbala is shot into rubble. The buildings that still stand are measled with bullet holes. Most structures simply surrendered to the explosives and crumbled into heaps.

No one knows how many died here. The Karbala District governor, who sits in a gold-embossed chair in an office overpopulated with portraits of Mr. Hussein, said 300 died. A resident of Najaf said 10,000.

"Why did the American president desert us?" asked the man from Najaf. "He gave us the sign to start the uprising. Then he let Saddam have the tanks and helicopters to put it down."

The south is now in the tight lock of the Iraqi army. In the north, where the Kurds have been promised that allied help is "just a phone call away," Mr. Hussein's hold is much more compromised.

Beyond the northern town of Erbil, past a large streetside portrait of Mr. Hussein that is riddled with bullet holes, the Iraqi checkpoints give way to ones manned by Kurdish Pesh Merga soldiers.

The Kurds control this area and hope to strike a deal with Mr. Hussein to give them a self-governed state within Iraq. The negotiations have dragged on for four months.

"For 20 years, we tried to overthrow the government, and we failed, and he tried to crush us, and he failed," said Sami Abdul Rahaman, an officer of one of two main Kurdish groups. "That is no good for anyone."

At Shaqlawah, their mountain headquarters, Pesh Merga guerrillas fill the lobby of what was once a government resort hotel. They have automatic rifles strapped to their shoulders, crossed bandoleers of ammunition, and long knives stuck in their distinctive cummerbunds.

"We don't like carrying our Kalashnikov's with us, but what can we do? Saddam wants to kill us," said Ali, 24.

His prediction was proved the following day, when a firefight between Kurds and Iraqis left more than 100 wounded or dead.

"He's a sick man, Saddam Hussein," complained Asad Gozeh, a 36-year-old Pesh Merga who said he was gassed seven times by Iraqi forces.

"The war did not teach him," he said. "Even if you give him just a palace, and a few guards, he will try to remain in power."

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