In this article, we will discuss the history of the Kurdish Genocide that took place in Iraq in the 1980s. As we shall see, there is detailed evidence that shows the Iraqi government under then leader Saddam Hussein committed gross human rights violations, and more specifically, acts of genocide against the Kurdish population in the country. As many have noted, this was a tragic series of events towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987-1989.
We will go into detail examining the events of genocide that took place, as well as the international response to the Kurdish genocide.
What is the Kurdish Genocide?
The Kurdish Genocide, also known as the Al-Anfal Campaign, was a military campaign led by the Iraqi government leader Saddam Hussein, as well as other Baathist leaders in the country, in which they killed over 100,000 Kurds in Iraq, where some argue the number is as high as over 182,000 (CHAK, 2007). As Human Rights Watch (1993) explains, ““Anfal” was the name given to a concerted series of military offensives, eight in all, conducted in six distinct geographical areas between late February and early September, 1988. Overall command of the operation was in the hands of the Northern Bureau of the Ba’ath PartyOrganization, based in the city of Kirkuk and headed, after March 1987, by the “Struggling Comrade” Ali Hassan al-Majid.2 Kurdish villagers who survived the events of 1988 routinely refer to al-Majid as “Ali Anfal” or “Ali Chemical.”
History of the Kurds in Iraq
In order to better understand the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, it is important to understand some of the demographics and politics of the country in the years and decades prior to the genocide. Iraq has been a country divided primarily among three larger ethnic and religious groups (although there are many religious groups in Iraq, such as various Christian and Jewish groups). In terms of population, the country has a predominantly Shia majority, although there is also a large Sunni Iraq minority, as well as a Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. The borders of Iraq today were set decades ago following World War I, where British colonial leaders put the country together as such, primarily for their own political and economic strategic interests, particularly after the discovery of oil in the country. More specifically, the put Emir Faysal, the son of Hussein (the amir of Mecca) in control of Iraq.
However, following World War I, “both President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination and the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres promised to carve out a sovereign state of Kurdistan. Such commitments were soon reneged upon with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, stranding Kurds as national minorities in other countries” (Benvenuto, Jacobs, & Lim: 2013). Thus, there was a large population of Kurds in this newly formed Iraq, a country and its newly organized borders whose colonial and domestic leaders did not think about the effects too carefully before creating the borders that they set.
Throughout the decades following the establishment of the state of Iraq, there has been demands for Kurdish rights inside of Iraq. For example, the Kurds tried to get autonomy in the 1930s, to no avail (BBC, 2011). In the 1940s, “British RAF bombing forces Kurdish rebels over border into Iran where they join Iranian Kurds led by Qazi Mohamed, who founds an independent Kurdish state in Mahabad[,]” and in 1946, the Kurdish Democratic Party meets (although this group did not last long). However, in 1951, they form again, and in 1958, with a political coup in Iraq, Kurdish groups increase their public organization, and are able to push for Kurdish “national rights” in the new constitution of Iraq (BBC, 2011).
Overall, looking at the picture of Iraq, and the historical relationship between the different Iraq leaders and the Kurdish minority, It has been explained that “In northern Iraq, a Kurdish irredentist movement sputtered through the British Mandate of the 1920s and into the origins of the Iraqi state the following decade. 1961 began a more enduring campaign of rebellion, and soon after the Ba’athist military coup in 1968 the Iraqi Kurds were nominally granted some limited autonomy. This was only a ruse, however, to provide cover for “Arabization,” a project of internal colonialism that sought to integrate and exploit this resource-rich region. Coveting the region’s valuable oil fields, fertile land, mineral wealth, and upstream access to the Tigris River, the Ba’athist regime, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein after 1979, forcibly evicted tens of thousands of Kurdish families” (Benvenuto, Jacobs, & Lim: 2013).
Saddam Hussein took issue with the Kurdish rebellion movements in the 1970s for example. He was upset that Kurdish forces would carry out attacks in Iraq, against the state, and then proceed back into safe havens in Iran. Saddam and Iranian leaders in the 1970s (under the Shah) tried to establish better ties, and Saddam called for the closing of the borders for Kurdish forces to enter into Iran. This was set with the 1975 Algiers Agreement, where the Iranian government no longer aided the Kurdish rebels in Iraq (BBC, 2011).
However, in 1979, with the Iranian revolution that saw the Shah overthrown, the relationship between Iran and Iraq changed greatly. The new Islamic theocracy under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for similar regime changes in the Middle East. Moreover, some within the Kurdish rebellion (such as the KDP) were supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and in 1986, “Iranian government sponsors a meeting reconciling the KDP and PUK. Now both major Kurdish parties are receiving support from Tehran” (BBC, 2011).
Throughout this Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi government was not treating the Kurdish population as equal to other Iraqis. In fact, “Over the course of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, the Kurds were increasingly seen as an irredentist “fifth column.” Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam and the Defense Minister, was delegated the task of vanquishing this perceived strategic liability, whereby he earned the notorious moniker, “Chemical Ali.” Al-Anfal was the brutal counterinsurgency campaign he waged against the Kurds of northern Iraq.”
It was then in 1988 that Iraq embarked upon its Anfal Campaign against the Kurdish population. As Human Rights Watch (1993) writes:
The Anfal campaign was the culmination of a long-term strategy to solve what the government saw as its “Kurdish problem.” Since the Ba’ath Party coup in 1968, the Iraqi government had deemed the Kurds as a threat to the nation. Baghdad forced many Kurds to leave their homes and relocated them in the Kurdish “Autonomous Region.” It then “Arabized” the formerly Kurdish areas by enticing Arab tribespeople there with offers of relocation benefits. “Genocide in Iraq” shows that in the mid-1980s the government began to demarcate special areas within the Autonomous Region that it declared to be off-limits. The residents of these “prohibited zones” were, with very minor exceptions, Kurds who after the October 1987 census were defined as non-Iraqi nationals and traitors. In 1988, they were marked for destruction.
1997-1989 Kurdish Genocide
In one of the most detailed examinations of the Kurdish Genocide, in 1993, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “Genocide in Iraq–The Anfal Campain Against the Kurds.” Here, they go into detail regarding Iraqi actions of genocide from 1987 to 1989.
The Iraqi government began their campaign against the Kurdish population by the way that they framed the actions of the Kurds. It was at this time –during the Iran-Iraq War–that the government was looking for ways to portray the Kurdish population as traitors, or unloyal citizens against the government. What Hussein and the military did was begin sectioning off parts of northern Iraq as “prohibited zones.” Theses areas were heavily populated by Kurds. Then, when the Kurds were unwilling to leave their towns, villages, and cities in the late 1980s, in 1987, the Iraqi government framed this so as to make it seem that the Kurds were going against the state, and that they were taking the side of Iran (and maybe even helping Iran). These sorts of accusations against the Kurdish citizens was the pretext in which Saddam Huseein used to begin what is now known as the Kurdish genocide. The Iraqi government began attacking these areas as early as 1985, and “legally prohibited these rural are as in 1985, in a confidential decree dated June 29, 1985 (CHAK, 2007: 11).
It was in 1988 that the government implemented the Anfal Campaign. As Human Rights Watch (2006) explains, “The Anfal occurred at a time when the Iraqi government believed that Iran would soon agree to a cease-fire which would have freed the Iraqi military to redeploy troops to the north. In February 1988, the Iraqi military launched the Anfal with an assault on the headquarters of one of the Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The armed forces, meeting little or no resistance, then began moving through the “prohibited zones.” Residents were swept up in the Anfal dragnet, detained in temporary camps for identification and registration and then driven off to execution sites outside the Kurdish region. There they were summarily shot and buried in the desert by bulldozers. Those few who managed to avoid the dragnet and sought refuge in the towns and housing complexes were hunted down, arrested, and also executed.”
Iraq’s Chemical Weapons Attacks Against the Kurds
In 1987, the Iraqi government began conducting chemical attacks against the Kurds in Northern Iraq; where “In April 1987, Iraqi warplanes bombarded several villages north of Arbil with chemical poison and killed several hundred civilian villagers in Balisan and the Shekh Wesan valley” (CHAK, 2007: 12). However, this was just the beginning for “Chemical Ali” and Saddam Hussein. Shortly after the April attacks, “In a decree dated 23 June 1987 and signed by Chemical Ali, he ordered heavy bombardment with every kind of heavy artillery, including chemical poison, against all the prohibited areas with the purpose of killing the greatest number of Kurds possible. He ordered the demolition of all human beings and animals inside t hose areas. Even if the people surrendered themselves to the Iraqi army units, they were sentenced to death” (CHAK, 2007: 12).
Then, on February 23rd, 1988, until September 6th of 1988, the multiple Anfal military campaigns commenced. During this time period,
In all eight phases of the Anfal, the Iraqi army was supported by aircraft such as Mig fighters, Soxoy fighters, Pilatos war airplanes and fighter helicopters. The army also used heavy canons, katushas, tanks and armoured vehicles. Destruction and burning of the villages and looting the items and possessions of the villagers were fully allowed throughout the campaign. Thousands were killed; hundreds of thousands fled to Iran, Turkey or other countries, and tens of thousands were captured by the Iraqi forces. The capture of thousands of women, children and others, who were sent to concentration complexes such as Tobzawe, Dubz and Nezarke, took place systematically during the campaign. Many of the detainees were sent to other complexes in Iraq’s western Sahara such as Nugra Salman and other places, or were sent directly to shooting pits in the Sahara or near the complexes (CHAK, 2007: 26).
Much of the attention has been on the chemical weapons attacks that was part of the Kurdish genocide by the Iraqi regime. And while this needs to be recorded, so that the truth regarding these atrocities are recorded and not lost, it is also important to note that “Chemical attacks were only one mode of destruction, as al-Anfal intended to definitively “cleanse” the region through mass deportation. Iraqi security forces rounded up civilians into concentration camps, the most notorious of which was Topzawa near the city of Kirkuk. Adult males and teenage boys were selected from the camps for mass execution, while many children, women, and the elderly perished from disease and starvation. The Kurdish presence in northern Iraq was devastated by al-Anfal. Verifiable statistics are difficult to obtain, but at least 100,000 Kurds lost their lives, most of who were non-combatants, and about 90% of Kurdish villages in the targeted area were attacked” (Benvenuto, Jacobs, & Lim: 2013).
In fact, CHAK (2007) notes the various actions committed by the government against the Kurds. They point out the that the military:
-Attacked and bombarded the areas with heavy artillery and chemical poisons. The Iraqi Air Force dropped sarin, VX and tabun chemical agents on the civilian population in the villages and the surrounding areas.-Killed people running for their lives without differentiation.-Killed every one who refused to surrender or somehow took a defensive position.-Detained all inhabitants in the villages.-Looted the villages completely and destroyed them entirely.-Deported the detainees to concentration camps such as Tobzawa and Dubiz near Kirkuk, Nizarke near Dihok in the north and Ar‘ar and Nugra Salman in the Sahara southwest of Iraq.-Detained villagers who fled to other Kurdish cities-Detained villagers who surrendered themselves to government forces.– Separated the men and boys from women and children in the concentration complexes.-Sold hundreds of young Kurdish girls to Arab countries such as Egypt.-Executed almost all the men and boys immediately, or gradually within days, in pits in the north and southwest of Iraq.-Executed many women and children in pits in the north and southwest of Iraq.-The executions were carried out in different ways; for instance, some were executedoutside the pits and then thrown them into the pits; some were executed inside the pits. The pits were covered using bulldozers. Kalashnikovrifles were primarily used for theexecutions.-Many women, children and elderly people died in theconcentration camps due to illness,disease, torture and hunger.-Hundreds of thousands of villagers and others escaped the Iraqi attacks and fled to Iran,Turkey and other countries (CHAK, 2007: 32-33).
BBC (2011). Timeline: Iraqi Kurds. 19 April 2011. Available Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/country_profiles/2893067.stm
Benvenuto, J., Jacobs, R. & Lim, J. (2013). Al-Anfal and the Genocide of Iraqi Kurds, 1988. Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences University College–Newark. Available Online: http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/center-study-genocide-conflict-resolution-and-human-rights/al-anfal-and-genocide-iraqi-kurds-1988
Center of Halabja against Anfalization and genocide of the Kurds (CHAK) (2007). “Anfal”The Iraqi State’s Genocide against the Kurds. February 2007. Available Online: http://www.genocidewatch.org/images/Iraq_07_02_Anfal_The_Iraqi_State_s_Genocide_against_the_Kurds.pdf
Human Rights Watch (2006). Genocide in Iraq–The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds: Report Summary. Available Online: https://www.hrw.org/legacy/english/docs/2006/08/14/iraq13979_txt.htm