The Battle of Karbala was a battle which was fought during the 1991 uprisings in Iraq which followed the Gulf War. The battle started after demoralized troops throughout Iraq began to rebel against Saddam Hussein. From 5 to 19 March 1991, the city of Karbala became a chaotic battlefield as the result of bitter fighting between the insurgents and the Iraqi Republican Guard. After the failure of the uprising, citizens were killed in large numbers. Parts of the city were nearly leveled.
In the years leading up to the Gulf War, the city of Karbala boasted that it had a population of over 150,000 inhabitants. Tourists from Africa all the way to Pakistan flocked to the city in order to go on pilgrimages to the Imam Husayn Shrine. In the months of the Gulf War, the city was carefully avoided by the Coalition during its bombing campaign due to the significance of its mosques. The city suffered little damage throughout the war in general.
In the days leading up to the uprising, some believed that agents from Iran moved in amongst the population for the future purpose of channeling a Islamic revolution; an unsubstantiated claim which the Ba’athist regime was all too eager to propagate as part of its attempt to discredit the uprising. Finally, on 1 March, the uprising began in the southern city of Basra. With this, the tides of revolt spread throughout Iraq, from the southern marshes to the Kurdish mountains.
Some of the opposition groups had already distributed pamphlets throughout the local population, feeding anti-Saddam sentiment to the people. It was also reported that a number of these opposition groups consisted of former regular Iraqi Army soldiers who had served in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. Earlier that day, soldiers returning from the front arrived in Karbala.
The revolt began at 2:30 PM when youths began riding through the streets with weapons, attacking government buildings and loyalist soldiers. This action provoked the population to come out of their homes with light arms and knives, known as “white weapons,” to join in the attack. Such weapons became supplemented with heavier weapons captured from Baath Party forces. The Holy Endowments administration building was the first to be sacked, followed by several others. The rebels also stormed the al-Husseini hospital and took over their wards. Many of the holy Shiashrines immediately became the main headquarters for the insurgency, the main two being the Shrines of Husayn ibn Ali and Al-Abbas ibn Ali.
Some of the local Baathist officials and top security agents, including the chief of police and the deputy governor, were killed in brutal ways since they did not retreat in time. Many of their bodies were left lying in their streets and often burned. On the loudspeakers from the Shia Shrines, insurgents called for prisoners to be brought to the Shrine of Abbas for execution. By morning, the city was under complete rebel control.