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Examining Former President George H.W. Bush's Legacy In Iraq


President George H.W. Bush's decision to expel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's military from Kuwait is often hailed as a success. But when you talk to Iraqis about the Gulf War, it's a far more complicated picture in part because Bush called on Iraqis to rise up.


GEORGE BUSH: There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.

GREENE: Many did revolt, and Saddam's forces then killed tens of thousands of people, maybe more. Feisal Istrabadi says Bush's subsequent decision not to back the uprisings with military force remains controversial in Iraq. Istrabadi was Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, and he spoke with our colleague, Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The United States to this day maintains that there was nothing implied or overt in what President Bush said. There was no promise for aid. How did Iraqis hear that differently?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: It's true. He didn't say, and incidentally, I will guarantee not to allow you to be slaughtered from the air. And I think a reasonable human response to this is, you don't tell people to go and rebel with the understanding that you'll allow them to be slaughtered when you're the president of the United States. And that's certainly not what the Iraqis heard. In a sense, they held up their end of the bargain. No one told them, but if you do and if Saddam slaughters you, you're on your own.

MARTIN: I want to ask about how President George H.W. Bush is viewed by Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish prime minister remembered how Bush protected the Kurds from oppression and Iraqi aggression from Saddam. And he's referring to the no-fly zone imposed...


MARTIN: ...On the north of Iraq after the failed uprising there. How has that decision shaped the Kurdish region all these years later?

ISTRABADI: You make an excellent point that Iraqi Kurds remember George Herbert Walker Bush much more fondly than Arab Iraqis do because he did protect them from Saddam Hussein's depredations through the no-fly zones, et cetera, and allowed humanitarian relief efforts into the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Arabs, however, were left to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein. Of course, in a sense, that sort of separation from Baghdad began a long road that, perhaps, future historians will look back and say that's when the separatist movement gained momentum amongst the Kurds of Iraq. Although, of course, that has not led to independence since, but it may at some future date.

MARTIN: So the legacy of President George Herbert Walker Bush in Iraq is mixed, as you have laid out. But may I ask, when we talk about the Iraqis who felt abandoned by him, who felt that he had somehow promised or implied that the U.S. would support them in an effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein, would their preference have been for Bush 41 to have just gone further after pushing Saddam out of Kuwait? Would they have preferred he overthrow Saddam in that moment? Because his son went on to do that, and we know how that ended.

ISTRABADI: Yes, but it ended the way it ended when his son did it in part because of the perceived betrayal by the father. When the ground war began in 1991, there was euphoria in Baghdad because no one imagined in Baghdad that President Bush would allow Saddam Hussein to survive the war. And then when the rebellion began, no one imagined that with a half-million men and women and air superiority that the United States would standby while it's in theater and allow Saddam Hussein to use helicopter gunships to slaughter men, women and children civilians - well over 100,000 - from the air. It tarnished the American brand amongst the Arabs of Iraq for a very long time. It allowed, also, 13 years of sanctions, which destroyed the Iraqi middle class and allowed the rise of the power of the religious parties in Iraq, which is something that then had to be dealt with in 2003. And we continue to deal with that issue today. George Herbert Walker Bush's decision not to at least prevent Saddam Hussein from using his weaponry to massacre those who rebelled after he exhorted them to rebel is a legacy that we continue to have to deal with today.

GREENE: That was Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq's former ambassador to the U.N. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.