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The Capture of Tehran, 1983


Part 10

By Chris Oakley



Summary: In the previous nine chapters of this series we remembered the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War; the course of the war itself; the breakdown in Iraq’s relations with its coalition allies and with the United States in the war’s aftermath; the chain of events leading to the Gulf War; the start of the Gulf War itself; and Saddam Hussein’s desperate efforts to hang on to power as his military forces disintegrated in the face of coalition pressure during Desert Storm. In this segment we’ll look back at the final collapse of the Baathist regime in Iraq and the start of the manhunt for Saddam Hussein.


As if Saddam didn’t have enough problems already between a multi-national army rolling across his border from Kuwait and ever-growing revolts among his own people in the streets of Baghad and Basra, the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq who his regime had been persecuting for years picked the most critical moment of the Gulf War to instigate an uprising against the Baathist dictatorship they hated with a passion. To use a boxing analogy, Kurdish independence advocates sensed that Saddam was on the ropes and the time was here when they could deliver the knockout blow to his regime.

To make things even more harrowing than they had been already, ground zero for the uprising also happened to be one of Iraq’s most important oil production centers: Mosul. The Kurdish territory in northern Iraq contained some of the most oil-rich land in the world, and the Kurds were understandably quite resentful that the profits from oil production in the region were lining the pockets of Saddam and his cronies instead of benefiting the Kurdish people. If control of Mosul were to fall into the hands of Kurdish rebel forces, then it would a severe blow-- maybe even the fatal blow --to what was left of Iraq’s economy and Saddam’s power base. Thus the Iraqi dictator was stuck between the proverbial "rock and a hard place": his only options were to either (A)let the Kurds take over Mosul and risk an explosion of new internal unrest or (B)pull troops away from the war against the U.S.-led coalition to suppress the Mosul uprising and take a chance that coalition ground forces might exploit the crisis to make a concerted push towards Basra, maybe even Baghdad.

Saddam chose option B, dispatching one of his few remaining fully intact Republican Guard units to crush the Mosul uprising by any means necessary. It was a decision he would live(although not very long) to regret....


...because in doing so he critically weakened his already much-undermined southern battlefront just as coalition ground forces were making a push for Umm Qasr and Basra. The unit he’d recalled to deal with the Mosul insurgency had been a vital linchpin in his strategy for defending Umm Qasr against assault by enemy forces, and the gap its departure left in the Iraqi lines was an open invitation for U.S. and allied forces to swoop down on the port like a tidal wave crashing against a beach. The remaining troops guarding the approaches to these two cities did their best to stave off the invaders, but in the end it was like trying to mop up the Euphrates with paper towels. Within four days of the Mosul uprising U.S. and allied troops had seized Umm Qasr and were within four and a half miles of Basra.

It was in Basra that coalition forces would face their sternest test of their ability to penetrate Iraqi defenses around the country’s major cities. A BBC-TV news report aired just before the final U.S.- led drive on Iraq’s third-largest city described the area as "a high- tech Stalingrad" and predicted massive casualties for U.S. and allied forces before Basra finally fell. A pro-Baathist propaganda leaflet circulated around the Middle East boasted U.S. and allied troops would "drown in rivers of their own blood" in the face of the might of the Iraqi army.1 Even General Schwarzkopf’s own command staff acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy to capture the city considering its historical significance to the Iraqi people and the Arab world as a whole, not to mention the vital role Basra played in modern Iraqi life as a port, industrial center, and transportation hub.2

Basra was, in fact, the only major city in Iraq where coalition forces encountered anything remotely resembling serious resistance in the days and weeks after they first crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border. It would take close to 72 hours for U.S. and allied troops to breach the city’s defenses, and another 10 hours after that before Iraqi regular forces finally capitulated. But for every casualty coalition ground troops sustained, they inflicted five or six3 on the Iraqi units in and around Basra.

Modern historians and political analysts have dubbed Basra "the Gulf War’s Stalingrad",4 and this analogy has a great deal of truth to it. For just as the German 6th Army’s defeat at Stalingrad marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler’s dreams of world domination, the coalition victory at Basra would help to trigger the final chain of events that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Within hours of Basra’s fall a dissident faction of Iraqi army officers had gathered in Baghdad to hold a secret meeting to draw up plans for the overthrow of the man to whom they’d been unswervingly loyal just a few months earlier. They were convinced that Saddam was leading their country to disaster, and their hope was that by toppling him from power, they might be able to secure more generous cease-fire conditions from the United States and its coalition partners. On June 22nd, 1990 they put the first phase of their coup plan into action, arranging for a team of commandos to occupy the headquarters of Iraq’s official government radio service under the pretext of securing it against "terrorist" attack. With the radio station secured, the rebels could concentrate fully on implementing the second phase of their plan....


...which was to broadcast a series of code signals to supporters elsewhere in Iraq indicating that the time had arrived to move against the secret police and prepare to defend themselves against Saddam’s remaining followers. Some rebels didn’t even wait for the signals to be transmitted; the Kurdish uprising in Mosul inspired a ragtag group of Islamic guerrilla fighters and Iran-Iraq War veterans to mount a revolt of their own in the town of Haditha. These insurgents seized the local Baathist Party offices and annihilated a Republican Guard detachment sent to clear them out. Local civilians also joined in the Haditha rebellion, using everything from rocks to surplus AK-47s to fight the pro-Saddam factions trying to put the revolt down. They were still eliminating pockets of Baathist holdouts when coalition advance troops reached the outskirts of the town.

By noon local time on June 24th, Baghdad was in a state of near- total chaos and all but the most die-hard Saddam loyalists realized that his regime was on the verge of collapse. Still the Iraqi dictator continued to insist his forces would prevail over both the coalition invaders and the mutinous elements among his own population. Even as U.S., British, and Saudi warplanes bombed Baghdad almost at will and Iraq’s few remaining open roads were jammed with refugees trying to get to safety abroad, Saddam was making grandiose predictions of his ultimate victory over all his enemies foreign and domestic.

His sons Uday and Qusay shared his delusions; Qusay in particular made several forays into downtown Baghdad to direct random executions of Iraqi civilians alleged to have spread "defeatist" propaganda. His death squads are estimated to have killed between 150 and 350 people in the last hours before the Saddam regime collapsed. Post-Gulf War inquiries by US and international authorities have since found solid evidence linking Uday Hussein to a number of sexual assaults against young Iraqi women in the final days of Baathist rule;5 he’s even been accused post-mortem of plotting the assassination of Iraqi National Congress founder and former Iraqi prime minister Ahmed Chalabi.


On the evening of June 24th, 1990 the leaders of the anti-Saddam rebellion put the third phase of their plan into action. A crack unit of special operations troops, acting under the pretext of guarding key cultural assets in Baghdad against looters, fanned out over the heart of the Iraqi capital and encircled Saddam’s main presidential palace; after a bitter three-hour firefight between the commandos and Saddam’s personal bodyguards, the palace was taken and the rebels began a room- to-room search for the fallen dictator. They would soon learn they had just missed him by a handful of seconds; determined not to let himself be captured by coalition ground troops or revolutionary elements among his fellow Iraqis, Saddam had fled the palace along with his sons just before the rebels reached the palace perimeter.

Even "Baghdad Bill" had finally acknowledged that the jig was up for the Baathists: at 1:30 AM local time on June 25th, with U.S. and allied ground forces less than a mile from downtown Baghdad, he held a strange impromptu press conference to announce both his resignation from the Information Ministry and the formation of a new provisional Iraqi government-- the first non-Baathist administration to rule Iraq in almost a quarter-century. The new government’s first official act was to contact General Schwarzkopf’s command headquarters via radio to request cease-fire terms; its second was to order that the search for Saddam be expanded to cover all of metropolitan Baghdad.


Meanwhile, a team of U.S. Navy SEALS had already commenced their own hunt for the ousted tyrant. Originally airlifted from Kuwait into coalition-held Iraqi territory via C-130, they’d been inserted into the Baghdad area by helicopter armed with the latest automatic weapons and an identification poster inscribed with the Old West-style caption "Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti-- Wanted Dead Or Alive." Saddam’s regime was dead, and very shortly the final nail would be hammered in its coffin...


To Be Continued





[1] A questionable assertion at best given the Iraqi army’s performance in previous engagements with U.S. and other coalition forces.

[2] Basra is not only a critical link in Iraq’s overland highway network but also boasts a major airport complex that doubles as a gateway to the city’s port area.

[3] According to official postwar Defense Department and U.N. estimates; the present-day Iraqi army has calculated that the loss ratio at Basra may have been as high as eight to one.

[4] Quoted from the book Perfect Storm: The Battle For Basra And The Fall Of Iraq’s Baathist Tyranny by John Keegan, copyright 1997 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[5] He has also been accused of committing hundreds of sexual assaults on Iraqi women in the pre-Gulf War era.


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