BAGHDAD — It was one of the bloodiest episodes in the long, brutal rule of Saddam Hussein: With Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait ahead of advancing U.S. troops in 1991, Shiite Muslim rebels took control of cities in Iraq's south and advanced on Baghdad.
Then, with Shiite rebels just 60 miles from the capital, Saddam's forces retaliated. In the next months, tens of thousands of Shiites were rounded up and executed, their bodies pushed into mass graves with bulldozers, like dirt.
This week, 15 former officials of Saddam's regime, including the notorious "Chemical Ali," Ali Hassan al Majid, went on trial for the mass killings, reopening old wounds in the now dominant Shiite community. But the anger wasn't aimed at just the former officials, who include some of the most notorious Saddam henchmen. It was also aimed at the United States for what Shiites still remember as a betrayal.
"Those who fought Saddam and threw him out of Kuwait for his criminal acts — killing people, looting possessions and destroying the country of Kuwait and Iraq . . . within a minute, they became his supporters and stood beside him to kill the Iraqi people," said Imam Saleh al Haidiri in a sermon Friday at the Khilani mosque in central Baghdad. "And he killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the most hideous ways."
Ibrahim Jaafer, 48, a merchant, also linked the United States to the wanton killings, which claimed his father and two brothers, whose bodies were pushed into a common grave. Jaafer fled and lived in Iran until the U.S. toppled Saddam in 2003. But there's little gratitude.
"Saddam is an agent for the Americans," Jaafer said. "It's known that America, Saddam and the Takfiris (Sunni extremists) are on the same side."
Those feelings help explain why the United States has found Iraq so difficult to navigate. Neither Sunnis who backed Saddam nor Shiites who were his victims fully trust the United States as a friend.
Shiites are especially concerned that the recent U.S. policy of aligning itself with former Sunni insurgents willing to fight al Qaida in Iraq will create a Sunni force capable of striking out at the Shiite-led Iraqi government — a view endorsed by a U.S. intelligence community report released Thursday. That report warned that alliances with the Sunnis could undermine the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
Shiites trace their anger at the United States to the first Gulf War, when the United States amassed a huge force in Saudi Arabia to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Saddam had seized in August 1990.
As the U.S. neared the end of the war, President George H.W. Bush went on Voice of America radio and called for the Iraqi people to rise up.
"There is another way for the bloodshed to stop," Bush said, "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 and then comply with the United Nations' resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
As American troops drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, anti-Saddam forces in both the Shiite south and Kurdish north rose in revolt. The Shiites expected U.S. forces, who had cornered Iraqi army units in Iraq, to help as the Shiites seized control of cities such as Basra, Samawa and Nasariyah.
But it wasn't to be. Bush declared the war over on Feb. 27 and on March 6, 1991, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated U.S. policy: "We don't think that outside powers should be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq."
Saddam began his counterattack, sending in helicopters and ground troops who killed thousands. U.S. forces, stationed within sight of Shiite-held cities, could do nothing; they had no orders to help.
Jaafer heard about his father and brothers' deaths from a cousin, who also was rounded up by Saddam's forces. The cousin told him that his father and brother were shot, then pushed by a bulldozer into a shallow grave. His cousin, too, should have been buried. But the burial had been incomplete and a farmer came across him and took him home. The cousin said "Chemical Ali" had been in command of the executions.
Jaafer fled to Iran. When he returned, he filed charges against Saddam. In 2006, his cousin was shot and killed by suspected Sunni gunmen in Latifiyah, in an area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.
"We will never forget how they treated the people and how they raped the women and confiscated their properties," he said. "They killed the women and children. They violated all of our sacred places, and we want them to be treated the way they treated people."
Shakir Mutar, 50, a retired traffic officer who was sipping coffee in a Baghdad shop Friday, said the United States is to blame for Iraq's violence, then and now.
"The Americans helped Saddam quell the intifada (uprising), whether it was by telling him what to do or by not taking actions against it," he said. "America participated in killing Iraqis in 1991 and they are participating now."
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Contributing from Najaf was special correspondent Qassim Zein.)