'Despite all this the Shia remained generally loyal – that is, until 1991, when Shia soldiers returning from the first Gulf war in Kuwait sparked a riot in Basra that quickly spread north to Najaf. The Shia looked to the United States for support, interpreting President George H.W. Bush's call to the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam to mean American intervention on their behalf. However, Saudi Arabia warned Washington in no uncertain terms that if Saddam were to fall from power, Iran would gain control of southern Iraq. The House of Saud did not wish to see the Shia uprising against Saddam succeed. Riyadh saw the same threat in Shia empowerment in Iraq in 1991 that it sees today. It preferred to keep Iraq under a Sunni dictatorship rather than risk empowering the Shia. Influenced by their ally in the war, the United States balked at involvement in the uprising. U.S. forces stationed in the Euphrates Valley looked on as Saddam sent his dreaded Republican Guards to the south, armed with tanks and helicopter gunships to crush the rebellion.
Large parts of Shia towns were razed, the shrines in Najaf and Karbala were shelled, and tens of thousands of Shias were killed. Bodies were draped across the beams of the shrine of Husayn in Karbala. The brutality was merciless; as one Iraqi general said about a massacre of Shias in Hilla after the 1991 uprising, "We captured many people and separated them into three groups. The first group we were sure were made up of people who were guilty. The second group we had doubts about, and the third group was innocent. We telephoned the high command to ask what we should do with them. They said we should kill them all, and that's what we did." –Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival