The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous eight 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, and the outbreak of the Gulf War itself. In this episode we’ll look back at Saddam Hussein’s desperate efforts to hang on to power as his military forces disintegrated in the face of coalition pressure during Desert Storm.
Within a scant ten days after Operation Desert Storm began, the Iraqi regular armed forces had lost more than half of their pre-war combat personnel strength. The Republican Guard was in even worse shape, having lost nearly sixty-five percent of its own pre-Gulf War manpower. This was not the glorious triumph over the so- called "infidel" West that Saddam Hussein had envisioned when he was first drafting war plans for the invasion and occupation of Kuwait. In fact, his war machine seemed to be falling apart like wet paper in the face of the U.S.-led coalition’s relentless attacks. On top of the huge number of battle deaths that were being inflicted on the Baathist regime at the hands of coalition ground and air forces, many an Iraqi soldier was simply throwing down his gun and surrendering himself to coalition troops in the belief that life as a POW was much better than death at the hands of the execution squads Saddam often used to punish those in his military who he believed had failed him in combat.
Iraq’s navy, hardly much of a fighting force to begin with, had effectively ceased to exist; what was left of the Iraqi air force was being blasted out of the sky like clay pigeons. Despite the Baathist propaganda machine’s best efforts to conceal the truth about how the war was going from the Iraqi masses, it was slowly becoming clear that Saddam’s Kuwait gambit was a catastrophic failure-- and that bitter knowledge would gradually become political sulfuric acid that ate away at the dictator’s power base.
On June 13th, 1990 a group of sixty university students braved a typically hot Baghdad afternoon and the wrath of the Baathist regime’s secret police to hold a rally demanding that the government disclose the full unvarnished truth about the war between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition was going. Ninety minutes into the rally, Baathist security forces surrounded the demonstrators and threatened to fire on them if they did not disperse immediately; one of the protest leaders reacted to this threat by taking off his shoe and throwing it at the security troops in a traditional Iraqi gesture of insult.
What happened next is somewhat in dispute even now, but this much is clear: the Baathist troops, either of their own accord or on instructions from their superiors, made good on their previous threat and began shooting at the protesters. Eleven demonstrators were killed outright by the fusillade; two others would die from their wounds in a Baghdad hospital; four were trampled to death in the mass stampede of civilians triggered by the shooting; and six would later be arrested and incarcerated at Abu Ghraib. The remaining demonstrators chained themselves to the gates of the Republican Guard headquarters and would spent the next twelve hours there before they too were arrested.
Two days after the rally Saddam imposed martial law in Baghdad, Basra, and Fallujah1. But if he thought he could silence the student uprisings against his regime, he was sorely mistaken. If anything, the martial law decrees served to inflame anti-Saddam feeling among the protestors; within days student rallies were being held at schools and universities throughout Iraq demanding Saddam’s ouster.
One major and unexpected beneficiary of the growing unrest in Iraq was the Iranian liberation movement, which had been weakened by the Qom massacre and found it increasingly difficult to advance its goals in the face of the heavy Iraqi occupation troop presence within Iran. As more regular Iraqi army and Republican Guard personnel were recalled to Iraq to fight encroaching U.S. coalition forces or put down the anti-Saddam protests roiling Iraq’s major cities, Iranians who wanted to regain control of their homeland began once again taking to the streets to rally for their freedom. Some of the movement’s more daring spirits even began to contemplate the possibility of an armed insurgency against the Iraqi occupation forces.
Right around this time, a man who today is known as one of the most controversial political leaders in the Middle East began to play an increasingly vital role in the Iranian liberation movement. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Iran University of Science & Technology student who had been jailed dozens of times before the Gulf War by the Iraqi occupation authorities for distributing anti-Saddam leaflets in Tehran and its suburbs, became deputy chairman of the Tehran branch of Iran’s largest anti-Saddam organization, the People’s Committee for Freedom in Iran.
In that capacity Ahmadinejad would play a major role in shaping the PCFI’s policy during the final weeks of the Iraqi occupation; he would also become the de facto "face" of the group as videos of his speeches to PCFI supporters were smuggled out of Iran and aired on TV newscasts throughout Europe and North America. Iraqi efforts to thwart the PCFI from distributing these videos were at best ham-fisted; for every tape the occupation authorities seized, four or five slipped right through their fingers. And even when the occupation forces were successful in confiscating those tapes, they would sometimes learn to their dismay that the PCFI had already copied said videos and smuggled the copies across the Iranian border with the co-operation of third parties who wanted to stick it to Baghdad by any means possible.
While Ahmadinejad’s call for an Iraqi pullout from Iran enjoyed widespread popular support in the West, particularly the US, another of his political stands was regarded somewhat askance: he advocated a re-establishment of the old Islamic Republic. In his younger days, he had been a staunch supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini; he’d been left as grief-stricken by Khomeini’s assassination as if it were a death in the family. In the years since the assassination, Ahmadinejad had made it his life’s mission to revive the Islamic government Khomeini had once been head of. The Iraqi occupation of Iran hadn’t done anything to diminish Ahmadinejad’s dedication to bringing about that revival-- if anything it spurred him on in his efforts to make his dream of a new Islamic Republic a reality.
The PCFI got a healthy dose of financial, political, and spiritual backing from Iranian exiles living abroad in North America and Europe. They were a diverse lot, coming from every social class and every part of the political spectrum; at a typical meeting of one exile group in London, for example, bankers might rub elbows with mechanics, Marxists with conservatives, millionaires with paupers. In some cases the more urbane exiles-- usually former diplomats or academics --worked to make ties with Iraqi dissident organizations who shared their loathing for the Baathist dictatorship responsible for inflicting so much misery on both Iraq and Iran.
The Mukhabarat, Saddam’s counterintelligence service, had planted agents within both the Iraqi and Iranian exile communities hoping to disrupt their efforts at regime change in Baghdad with carefully time acts of sabotage and assassination. But the agency was no longer as effective or competently staff as it had once been; some of the agents assigned to carry out these terror missions ended up switching sides and working for the very organizations they’d been ordered to destroy. Indeed, in one or two instances dissident factions actually succeeded in pulling off a counter-infiltration, inserting some of their people into the Baathist security apparatus to throw monkey wrenches into its operations whenever possible.
Even among the Republican Guard, there were those who secretly sympathized with the Iranian liberation movement. These sympathizers constituted a kind of fifth column in the midst of Saddam’s own power structure, and though their numbers were few they certainly did their part to hamper the Baathist regime’s faltering efforts to maintain control of Iran.
Back in Baghdad, the Saddam government’s attempts to silence the protestors who opposed the war with the U.S.-sponsored international coalition and the occupation of Iran were backfiring worse than ever. Far from being suppressed, the leaders of the movement to "bring the troops home" from Iran and end hostilities with the coalition were becoming internationally famous; their rallies seemed to be the lead story every other night on TV newscasts in Europe and the US. There appeared to be no end to the number of newspaper and magazine reports chronicling the dissidents’ growing political strength among the ranks of the Iraqi civil population.
The popular sentiment in Iraq had turned against the Baathist regime to the point where even some of his own generals were secretly beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to back Saddam Hussein or his war with the U.S.-sponsored international coalition that had frustrated his plans to occupy Kuwait. Every day that the fighting went on, these officers believed, pushed Iraq one step closer to the edge of disaster-- if it hadn’t fallen over that edge already...
To Be Continued
 The Baghdad rally had inspired students in Basra and Fallujah critical of the Saddam regime to mount their own demonstrations against the Baathist dictatorship.