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Anfal and Halabja: A dark period of Kurdish history

The Kurdish struggle for self-determination dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing resistance of Kurds to British rule. Throughout the decades, the Kurds of Iraq fought for their basic human rights and the promised autonomy. With the rise of the Baath regime in 1968 and the failure of the March 1970 Agreement that would have granted Kurdish autonomy, the Kurdish national movement reached a new height.

Further flared by the on-going Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the resulting security vacuum, the Kurdish struggle received assistance from the Iranian forces. The Baath regime under Saddam Hussein responded with unseen atrocities against the Kurdish population – a systematic killing of Kurds ensued.

In several waves, the Baath regime resorted to deportations, arbitrary arrests, mass executions, destructions of entire villages and the use of chemical weapons to fight the Kurdish resistance, including the Peshmerga freedom fighters. The genocide of Kurds in Iraq reached its peak with the poison gas attack on the town of Halabja in 1988 and the subsequent Anfal campaign with the goal of displacement, destruction and liquidation. Between the first systematic killings in the early 1980s and the end of the Anfal campaign, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed by the Iraqi regime and many more internally and externally displaced.

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    • Initial Stages
      One of the first systematic campaigns of the Baath regime against Kurds in Iraq were actions against Faylees, Shia Kurds. During the 1970s and 1980s, large numbers of Faylees were forcibly deported from Baghdad and brought to the Iranian border, consequently losing their properties as well as their Iraqi citizenship and all rights associated with it. A number of male Faylee Kurds between the ages of 18 to 55 became victims of arbitrary detainment, the regime forcing them into prisons around Iraq. Faylees suffered biological and chemical weapon attacks, and reports indicate that many were buried alive. It is estimated that about 13,000 to 30,000 Faylee Kurds died during the systematic campaigns carried out by the regime.

      The atrocities against Kurds of Iraq reached a new height during the Iran-Iraq War, during which Iranian forces supported the Kurdish resistance against the Iraqi Baath regime. In 1983, together with Iranian troops, the Kurdish movement took over the town of Hajj Umran in Northern Iraq. Not long after, the Iraqi army attacked. In the months of July and August 1983, thousands of families from the Barzani tribe were forcibly taken from their homes and forced into displacement camps in north and southern Iraq. As many as 8,000 men and boys were rounded up and separated from their families, never to return. After the Baath regime collapsed, the bodies of hundreds of long-missing Barzanis were found in mass graves in the southern areas of Iraq. Most victims of the ‘Barzani Disappearances’ have not been found until today. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the same methods were to be used on a much larger scale in the years that followed.
      When Saddam Hussein appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid as Secretary General of Northern Iraq in March 1987, he left him with the control of all state agencies, including the army and operations against Kurdish Peshmerga. Shortly after his appointment, al-Majid, who would later become known as ‘Chemical Ali’, ordered the use of poison gas on rural Kurdish areas, especially on those areas that were known to provide food and shelter for the Peshmerga.
      While the most accessible villages were destroyed by Iraqi forces in the early summer of 1987, higher-located valleys were harder to reach. To capture Peshmerga, these remote areas – home to large parts of the Kurdish population – were declared as ‘prohibited’ in directive SF/4008. Clause 4 of the directive ordered Iraqi army officials to “[…] carry out random bombardments, using artillery, helicopters and aircraft, at all times of the day or night, in order to kill the largest number of persons present in these prohibited zones.” Clause 5 of the directive stated that “all persons captured in those villages [shall] be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them […]”.
      In practice, this declaration turned entire villages into death zones, allowing the Iraqi army to immediately kill whoever they encountered within a ‘prohibited territory’. This specifically applied to the male population, as evident in a later directive issued in September 1987, ordering for “the deportation of […] families to the areas where their saboteur relatives are […] except for male [members] between the ages of 12 inclusive and 50 inclusive, who must be detained”. To create additional pressure, the villages were cut off from supplies and inhabitants were deported to camps in southern Iraq.
      In 1988, the Baath operations against the Kurdish population of Iraq culminated in the Anfal campaign, killing thousands of Kurdish civilians and Peshmerga.
    • Anfal Campaign
      Anfal, which means “Spoils of War”, is the name of the eighth Sura of the Quran detailing a strategic military operation against non-believers. The Iraqi Baath regime used this name as code for their systematic extermination operations against the Kurds that took place from February 23 until September 6, 1988. The Anfal operation was ordered by Ali Hassan al-Majid in 1988, during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War.

      The campaign was organized in eight stages, spreading over a total of approximately eight months:

      • Stage 1: 23 February – 19 March 1988, area: Dollee Jaffayeti
      • Stage 2: 22 March – 1 April 1988, area: Karadagh District
      • Stage 3: 7 April – 20 April 1988, area: Garmeyan District
      • Stage 4: 3 May – 8 May 1988, area: Hawze Zey Bichok
      • Stages 5, 6, and 7: 15 May – 26 August 1988, area: Shaqlawa and Rewandiz Districts
      • Stage 8: 25 August – 6 September 1988, area: Bahdinah

      Each stage was characterized with military attacks by the Iraqi army, consisting of aerial bombings, chemical gas attacks, deportations to camps, forced displacements, destructions of entire villages and communities, and imprisonment of persons found in ‘prohibited areas’.

      Although the Kurdish population of Iraq was most affected by the campaign, other ethnic groups, such as Shabaks, Yasidis, Assyrians, Turkoman people and Mandeans were victims as well. It is estimated that over 4,000 villages and towns were wiped out and 182,000 Kurds were killed during the Anfal operations, leaving behind as many as 100,000 widows and even more orphans.

    • Halabja
      One of the most heinous acts during the Baath campaign against the Kurdish population of Iraq was the Halabja poison gas attack on 16 March 1988, also known as ‘Bloody Friday’. Although technically not part of the Anfal campaign, the Halabja attack, ordered by Saddam Hussein’s regime, forms part of the wider plan of Kurdish genocide in Iraq. The attack strongly affected Kurdish resistance and paved the way for all following stages of the Anfal campaign.

      Amidst the Iran-Iraq War, a new front in the town of Halabja was opened. By 15 March 1988, Halabja was fully in the hands of Kurdish forces. Only a day later, the Iraqi forces responded with poison gas attacks, using mustard gas as well as nerve agents. Since the Peshmerga were situated in the surrounding hill areas, women, children and elderly living in the town of Halabja were most affected by the dreadful attacks. More than 5,000 were killed and over 7,000 were severely injured. While previous attacks focused largely on fighting Peshmerga forces, the poison gas attack on Halabja targeted civilians.
      According to Human Rights Watch, over 250 Kurdish towns and villages were exposed to chemical weapons. Until today, the Halabja poison gas attack remains the single largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in the world. Many victims and bereaved still suffer from diseases, such as leukaemia and other cancers, birth defects, nerve palsy or respiratory ailments as well as psychological consequences resulting from the exposure to poison gas.
    • A personal story about Halabja
      Many of the surviving victims and their children suffer until today from diseases such as leukaemia and other cancers, birth defects, nerve palsy or respiratory ailments, skin defects as well as psychological trauma. The vast majority of victims were unable to receive of adequate medical treatment within Iraq.
      Kayvan was one of the few survivors who was able to obtain medical treatment abroad. Professor Dr. Gerhard Freilinger, a specialist in plastic reconstructive surgery, treated four victims of the Halabja chemical gas attack in Vienna, including Kayvan. This is the story of Dr. Freilinger and Kayvan.
    • Aftermath
      To escape from the Anfal attacks, tens of thousands of people fled through the mountains to reach Iran or Turkey. On September 6, 1988, the Iraqi regime declared an official amnesty for the Kurds in Decree 736. It read “a general and comprehensive amnesty for all Iraqi Kurds…both inside and outside of Iraq”. A number of the Kurdish refugees returned from exile as a result of the announcement. Despite this promise of amnesty, the regime continued its atrocities against the Kurdish population of Iraq. Returnees as well as the Kurds who had remained in Iraq, continued to be under constant surveillance and control of the regime. Reports indicate that several returning refugees were arrested and executed or ‘disappeared’.

      Other refugees remained in camps in Iran or Turkey, often living in dire conditions, without proper medication or nutrition. Even there, they were not safe from attacks. Between 1989 and 1990, three food poisoning attacks occurred in the Mus, Mardin and Diyarbakir refugee camps in Turkey. Some of the Kurdish refugees died, while several hundred had to be hospitalized. British journalists received blood samples and an analysis revealed that a nerve agent was most likely used against the Kurdish refugees. As Turkish authorities did not allow investigations, it is still not clear who was responsible for the poison attacks.
      Only with the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and the establishment of a ‘no-fly’ zone over the now Kurdistan Region of Iraq by the US, UK and France, the attacks against the Kurdish population on Iraq were finally put to a stop.
    • International Recognition
      At the time of the Anfal campaign and the attack on Halabja, the violence committed against the Kurds of Iraq was not immediately recognized by the international community. One reason was that the attacks were presented by the Baath regime as a counterattack against the Peshmerga. Evidence later revealed that the attacks were part of a broader plan for annihilation of the Kurds. What is more, the US, allied with the Iraqi regime during the Iran-Iraq War, partly blamed Iran for the attack on Halabja. Until today, no evidence has been found to verify these allegations. Based on those US claims, the United Nations as well as several western countries for a long time regarded Iraq and Iran as equally responsible for the attacks on the Kurds of Iraq. As a result, international recognition of Anfal and Halabja as genocide was largely absent for several years.

      It was only after the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from what is now the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992, that international observers were able to visit the Kurdistan Region and conduct formal inquiries. Five years after the Halabja attack, Human Rights Watch became one of the first and largest international institutes to carry out investigations on the Anfal campaign and the attack on Halabja. The organization collected soil samples, conducted numerous interviews with witnesses and survivors, and visited several of the villages, detention camps and mass graves. In their subsequent report, Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal campaign against the Kurds, published in July 1993, the organization declared that Iraq’s crimes against the Kurds amounted to genocide as defined in Article 2 of the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
      Since 2003, the KRG along with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) are working together in excavating mass graves and identify victims through DNA analysis. As the search for supporting documents and mass graves continues, more and more evidence continues to be found. Yet, many of the abducted Kurds remain missing to this day.
      One of the most important steps in the international recognition of the genocide against the Kurdish people of Iraq occurred in 2005. A Dutch court convicted Frans van Anraat, a businessman, for having supplied chemical agents to the Iraqi regime in the 1980s. Moreover, the court declared that the Anfal campaign amount to genocide as laid out in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
      As the first western state, Canada recognised the atrocities against the Kurdish people in Iraq as crimes against humanity in 2010. There is currently a campaign underway in Canada to recognize the attacks as genocide.
      The United Nations and the European Union, in March 2011, held international conferences to discuss legal recognition of the genocide, victim compensation and treatment of long-term consequences.
      In November 2012, the Norwegian Parliament declared the Anfal campaign and the Halabja poison gas attack as genocide; in December 2012 the Swedish Parliament followed. Furthermore, after a nationwide campaign, and a petition with almost 28,000 signatories, the British Parliament in February 2013 unanimously decided to recognise the Kurdish genocide in Iraq.
      Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which deals with the prosecution of individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. Although, based on its mandate, the ICC only rules on crimes committed after its foundation in 2002, the KRG is urging Iraq to become a member in order to prevent attacks such as the Anfal campaign and the Halabja poison gas attack from happening in the future.
    • National Recognition
      After Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan al-Masjid and other key actors of the former Baath regime were arrested, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (SICT) was established by the transitional government of Iraq. The aim was to criminally try Saddam Hussein and other Baath officials for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against Kurds and Shiites. In 2006, one month into the Anfal criminal proceedings, Saddam Hussein was executed for the 1982 massacre against Iraqi Shiites. After Hussein’s death, all other charges against him, including those from Anfal and Halabja, were dropped. In 2007, Ali Hassan al-Majid was convicted for committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Kurdish population of Iraq. He was executed by hanging in 2010.

      In 2008, the Iraqi Presidential Council approved Parliamentary Resolution 26, which declared Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds as an act of genocide. In 2010, the Iraqi Supreme Court followed in recognizing the attacks of 1988 as genocide. By 2010, the Barzani disappearances were also recognised as genocide and as a crime against humanity by the Iraqi Court of Justice, the Iraqi Council of Representative and the Iraqi Parliament.
      Since its establishment, the KRG has actively engaged in providing health, education and social services to the widows, victims and families affected by the genocide. In 2006, the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs was established to facilitate this support. In addition to assisting the victims of Saddam Hussein’s attacks, the Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs works with international organizations and KRG Representations abroad in the campaign for global recognition of genocide against the Kurds.
      To commemorate the attacks against the Kurds, the KRG constructed two memorial sites in the town of Halabja. In Sulaimani, a museum was opened in the old security police headquarters previously used by the Baath regime. The museum now raises awareness by highlighting the cruel system of torture exercised by the regime.
      In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani stressed that international recognition of the Kurdish genocide remains one of the key policy priorities for the KRG, “The crimes that were committed against the people of Kurdistan are not less than what is known in the international community as genocide. Although much has already been achieved in this respect, we need to broaden our efforts to make the Anfal campaigns and the use of chemical weapons by the former regime of Iraq universally recognised as genocide amongst the international community.”

Get involved
Since the 1960s, approximately 1 million people have ‘disappeared’ in Iraq. In its initial 1991 report, Human Rights Watch indicated that between 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed during the Anfal campaign; subsequent reports estimated over 180,000 Kurdish victims, with boys and men having been especially targeted. A survey conducted in 2007 found that about 15% of the Kurdistan population in Iraq are Anfal widows, often unable to remarry and dependent on their families. Over 90% of all villages and more than twenty towns were destroyed.

Recognition of the genocide by foreign governments as well as international institutions, such as the European Union or the United Nations, will help to achieve justice and closure for these victims. Furthermore, the international recognition of the 1988 attacks on the Kurdish people of Iraq as genocide and raising awareness will help to prevent such tragedies in the future, not only in Iraq but in all parts of the world.

If you would like to support the KRG’s efforts toward achieving international recognition of the genocide against the Kurds of Iraq, please contact the KRG representation in Austria.