Twenty years ago this month, George H.W. Bush went wobbly.
The Gulf War had ended. Kuwait, brutally occupied by Iraq in August 1990, had been freed by a massive US-led coalition. Saddam Hussein's forces had been routed, and the hated tyrant had suffered a humiliating defeat.
Though the United States had gone to war to liberate the people of Kuwait, President Bush openly championed the liberation of Iraq's people too. Four weeks into the war, he publicly urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam.
"There's another way for the bloodshed to stop," he said in Washington on Feb. 15, 1991. "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 to comply with the United Nations resolutions and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
On March 1, Bush repeated his call for a rebellion. "I've always said . . . that the Iraqi people should put him aside," he told reporters at a news conference, "and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems."
In Iraq, Bush's blunt exhortation -- broadcast on Voice of America, the BBC, and the CIA-sponsored Voice of Free Iraq -- came through loud and clear. Long-suffering Shi'ites in the south and restive Kurds in the north answered the president's call. Heartened by the assurance that America was with them, and knowing that 400,000 coalition troops were nearby, they seized the moment to break free of Saddam's tyranny.
The uprising began in the south. On March 3, a tank gunner in Basra was cheered when he fired a shell into the giant portrait of Saddam hanging in the city's main square. Within days, the Shi'ite heartland was in open revolt; in Karbala, Najaf and other cities, officials of Saddam's Ba'ath Party were overpowered and either killed or forced to flee. Soon the Kurds rose up as well, liberating Sulaimaniyah and other cities in the north, and uncovering horrific evidence of the Ba'ath regime's crimes against the Kurdish people.
The rebels swiftly took 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Freedom, and Saddam's end, were within reach.