Tuesday marked the 28th anniversary of the successful uprising of the Kurdish people against the former Iraqi government, then led by brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. In the morning, a special ceremony was held in commemoration of the 1991 revolt by people from the town where it all began.
“It is true that, in the past, [the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)] has not been able to serve the people of this area at a level comparable to the sacrifices you have made,“ said Hiwa Qarani, head of the Raparin Administration, of which Rania is a part.
In response to years of repression by the central government, including the murderous Anfal campaign which saw the killing and forced disappearance of at least 180,000 people over a three-year period starting in 1986, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq rose up in March 1991 to put an end to Saddam Hussein’s reach in their areas.
Though largely spontaneous and locally-organized at the start, Kurdish efforts against the regime became more coordinated in time. Peshmerga units mobilized into various areas and forced the surrender of Iraqi forces at offices in cities and towns across the four Kurdish-majority provinces of Sulaimani, Erbil, Duhok, and Kirkuk.
This came as other revolts were blazing in the southern and central provinces. Locals, chief among them members of the persecuted Shia majority, exploded in rage at years of despotism in Baghdad.
At this time, Saddam Hussein’s control over the country was at its lowest point, with the two wars into which he had plunged the country having severely depleted its resources. The long, drawn-out Iran-Iraq war began in 1980 and went on for eight years. The conflict saw at least 100,000 civilian as well as 1,000,000 military deaths on both sides.
Just two years later, after Iran agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire with Iraq, Iraqi commanders launched a swift invasion of its southern neighbor of Kuwait. Baghdad took full control of the small country overnight, announcing it was annexing it as a new Iraqi province.
A US-led coalition responded to Saddam's actions with aerial bombardments and then a ground assault, forcing the expulsion of the Iraqi army. As they retreated, Iraqi troops set fire to 700 oil wells, creating a hellish scene and a major man-made environmental disaster.
One element that contributed to making the revolt less bloody in the north and initially successful in the south was anti-regime personnel within the Iraqi army who were part of the oppressed classes. These troops quickly surrendered, deserted, or defected to rebel forces, substantially adding to the strength of anti-government movements.
Capitalizing on Baghdad’s weakness, its army in near-complete disarray, many in the south were sparking their own revolution. On March 5, the people of Rania took to the streets to wrest control from regime forces.
They succeeded, establishing a momentum that threw off the grip of the Baathist government in a movement that spread like wildfire from town to town and city to city. This ended with the formation of an autonomous region for the Kurds, protected by a no-fly zone established by US, UK, and French forces to deter possible aerial retaliation by Baghdad.
To mark the importance of the first public uprising, the people of Rania organize events like the one on Tuesday to pay tribute to the value of every life lost during the conflict, laying wreaths on monuments dedicated to the victims.
Rania is commonly referred to as the “gateway” to the revolt in the north of Iraq, although many people from the neighboring town of Qaladize who had then fled to Rania to escape persecution took part in, and some say even started, the movement.
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani, himself among those who led the Kurdish coalition to combat Saddam Hussein known as the Kurdish Front, congratulated the people of the Kurdistan Region on the remarkable day when a people’s ambitions were realized.
“This uprising was the clear message of the Kurds to the whole world, rejecting occupation. If Kurdistan is united, it will always triumph over oppression,” Barzani said in a statement.
The KRG voiced similar sentiments in its own statement for Tuesday's celebration.
“With the sacrifices and the struggle of the people, the unity of the political parties, and all components [of Kurdish society]… the greatest historic victory of our people has been recorded.”