When our "friend" Saddam was gassing the Kurds Baghdad's refusal to allow UN experts to inspect the presidential sites on which chemical and biological weapons were allegedly hidden was taken to justify a new bombing campaign on Iraq last month.
Times have changed. Ten years ago, the systematic gassing of the Kurdish population of northern Iraq had far less impact on America. Only six months after the slaughter at Halabja, the White House lent Saddam Hussein another billion dollars. And in 1991, at the end of the Gulf war, US troops stood idly by while Saddam's presidential guard ruthlessly suppressed the popular uprising by the Kurds for which the American president had himself called.
by Kendal Nezan, Chairman of the Kurdish Institute of Paris
The town of Halabja, with 60,000 inhabitants, lies on the southern fringe of Iraqi Kurdistan, a few miles from the border with Iran (1). On 15 March 1988 it fell to the Peshmerga resistance fighters of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, supported by Iranian revolutionary guards.
The next morning Iraqi bombers appeared out of a clear blue sky. The people of Halabja were used to the successive attacks and counter-attacks of the Iraq-Iran war that had ravaged the region since September 1980. They thought they were in for the usual reprisal raid. Those who had time huddled in makeshift shelters. The rest were taken by surprise.
Wave after wave of Iraqi Migs and Mirages dropped chemical bombs on the unsuspecting inhabitants. The town was engulfed in a sickly stench like rotten apples. The bombing stopped at nightfall and it began to rain hard. Iraqi troops had already destroyed the local power station, so the survivors began to search the mud with torches for the dead bodies of their loved ones.
The scene that greeted them in the morning defied description. The streets were strewn with corpses. People had been killed instantaneously by chemicals in the midst of the ordinary acts of everyday life. Babies still sucked their mothers' breasts. Children held their parents' hands, frozen to the spot like a still from a motion picture. In the space of a few hours 5,000 people had died. The 3,200 who no longer had families were buried in a mass grave.
Pictures of the massacre taken by Iranian war correspondents were relayed throughout the world. Journalists flew in and the international press gave the unprecedented event considerable coverage. After all, the use of chemical weapons is banned by the Geneva Convention of 1925. Only Mussolini's Italy had ever defied the ban, in its war against Abyssinia. And now a state was using chemical weapons against its own people.
In point of fact, Iraq had already used chemical weapons against the Kurds on 15 April 1987. It happened two weeks after Hassan Ali Al Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was appointed head of the Northern Bureau set up to deal with Kurdistan. On 29 March of that year the Revolutionary Command Council had issued Decree No. 160, granting him full powers to proceed with the final solution of the Kurdish problem. A problem which the Iraqi regime had failed to solve despite intensive Arabisation, transfers of population, the execution of ringleaders, and a war waged on and off since 1961.
The Iraqi proconsul now had the power of life and death over the Kurds. He decided to evacuate and destroy all the Kurdish villages, concentrate their inhabitants in camps along the main highways, and physically eliminate all groups considered hostile. Chemical weapons were to be used as part of this strategy in order to clean out strongholds of resistance and inaccessible mountain villages.
Hassan Al Majid's chemical experiments began on 15 April. They were directed against thirty or so villages in the provinces of Suleimaniyeh and Erbil and proved devastatingly effective. Hundreds died. On 17 April, after a chemical attack that killed 400 people in the Balisan valley, 286 wounded survivors set out for Erbil in search of medical attention. They were stopped by the army and shot.
To convince his colleagues, Saddam Hussein in particular, that his methods were effective, Mr Al Majid ordered films to be made of the massacres and deportations, and of the effects of chemical gas on the population. The Iraqi government services were trained by Stasi experts from the East German secret police. They are obsessed with keeping records, even of the most horrible of their activities. During the Kurdish uprising of March 1991, part of their archives fell into the hands of the resistance, which passed them on to Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian organisation based in the United States. The eighteen tons of police files and political documents were transferred to the University of Colorado for safekeeping and analysis, and the material will soon be available on the Internet. With its help we can follow the stages of the Iraqi regime's genocidalcampaign against the Kurds.
400,000 deaths in fifteen years
We learn, for example, that Mr Al Majid convened the Ba'ath Party leaders on 26 May 1987. As soon as we complete the deportations, he informed them, we will start attacking [the Pershmega resistance] everywhere... then we will surround them in a small pocket and attack them with chemical weapons. I will not attack them with chemicals just one day; I will continue to attack them with chemicals for fifteen days... I told the expert comrades that I need guerrilla groups in Europe to kill whoever they see of them [Kurdish oppositionists]. I will do it, with the help of God. I will defeat them and follow them to Iran. Then I will ask the Mujaheddin (2) to attack them there (3).
On 3 June 1987 the Iraqi proconsul signed a personal directive, numbered 28/3650, declaring a zone that contained over a thousand Kurdish villages to be a prohibited area, from which all human and animal life was to be eradicated. It is totally prohibited for any foodstuffs or persons or machinery to reach the villages that have been banned for security reasons, the directive stated. Concerning the harvest, it must be finished before 15 July and, after this year, farming will not be authorised in this region... The armed forces must kill any human being or animal present within these areas.
The Iraqi forces were given a free hand. They launched an all-out attack that reached its peak with the Anfal campaign. (The name refers to a verse of the Koran authorising the plunder of infidels.) Anfal lasted from February to September 1988. The last operation was launched on 25 August, a few days after the ceasefirebetween Iraq and Iran that ended eight years of war. Sixteen divisions and a chemical weapons battalion, totalling 200,000 ground troops plus air support, conducted a final cleansing operation in the Kurdish province of Bahdinan along the Turkish border. This operation resulted in the flight of almost 100,000 civilians to Turkey.
In July 1988 the Iraqi army razed Halabja to the ground. Kurds have always considered the city a major cultural centre. It even acquired some fame in the English-speaking world, when Britain became the mandatory power in Iraq in the aftermath of the first world war. Adela Khanum, princess of Halabja and patron of the arts, fascinated her British overlords. They conferred on this Islamic Medicis the title Khan Bahadur, Princess of the Brave. These brave subjects of hers, famous since the time of Xenophon for their skill in the use of traditional weapons and the art of war, were finally to be vanquished by an invisible enemy, poison gas.
The destruction of Kurdish towns and villages continued into 1989. In June of that year Qala Diza, a city of 120,000 inhabitants on the Iranian frontier, was evacuated and razed to the ground. It was the last major action of the campaign. By Decree No. 271, issued on 23 April 1989, the Revolutionary Command Council revoked Hassan Al Majid's special powers. In December Saddam Hussein considered the Kurdish question settled. He abolished the Northern Bureau which he had set up ten years earlier.
By the time the genocidal frenzy ended, 90 % of Kurdish villages, and over twenty small towns and cities, had been wiped off the map (4). The countryside was riddled with 15 million landmines, intended to make agricultureand husbandry impossible. A million and a half Kurdish peasants had been interned in camps. Since 1974 over 400,000 had died in Baghdad's war against the Kurds. Almost half had disappeared without trace. About 10 % of the total Kurdish population of Iraq had perished.
The fate of those who had disappeared was raised with Baghdad in May 1991 by the Kurdish delegation to the abortive peace talks. When questioned about the 182,000 people who had vanished without trace, Mr Al Majid lost his temper. You always exaggerate, he shouted. The total number killed in the Anfal campaign cannot be more than 100,000.
In the minutes of a meeting held in January 1989 (5), he makes no secret of the means employed. Am I supposed to keep them in good shape... take good care of them? No, I will bury them with bulldozers. Then they ask me for the names of all the prisoners in order to publish them... Where am I supposed to put this enormous number of people? I started to distribute them among the governorates. I had to send bulldozers hither and thither.
Protected by the West
At that time the regime was not worried about international reaction. In the recording of the meeting of 26 May 1987, Proconsul Al Majid declares: I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! (6)
His language may be coarse, but the cynicism of the butcher of Kurdistan, later promoted governor of Kuwait and subsequently minister of defence, was fully justified. Iraq was then seen as a secular bulwark against the Islamic regime in Teheran. It had the support of East and West and of the whole Arab world except Syria.
All the Western countries were supplying it with arms and funds. France was particularly zealous in this respect. Not content with selling Mirages and helicopters to Iraq, it even lent the regime Super Etendard aircraft in the middle of its war with Iran. Germany supplied Baghdad with a large part of the technology required for the production of chemical weapons. And in an unusual display of East-West military cooperation, German engineers enhanced the performance of the Scud aircraft which Iraq had obtained from the Soviet Union, increasing their range so that they could strike at Teheran and other distant Iranian cities.
Despite the enormous public outrage at the gas attack on Halabja, France, which is a depositary of the Geneva Convention of 1925, confined itself to an enigmatic communiqué condemning the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world. The UN dispatched Colonel Dominguez, a Spanish military expert, to the scene. In a report published on 26 April 1988, he confined himself to recording that chemical weapons had been used once again both in Iran and in Iraq and that the number of civilian victims was increasing (7). On the same day the UN Secretary-General stated that, with respect to both the weapons themselves and those who were using them, it was difficult to determine the nationalities involved.
Clearly, Iraq's powerful allies did not want Baghdad condemned. In August 1988 the United Nations Sub-Committee on Human Rights voted by 11 votes to 8 not to condemn Iraq for human rights violations. Only the Scandinavian countries, Australia and Canada, together with bodies like the European Parliament and the Socialist International, saved their honour by clearly condemning Iraq.
Things did not begin to change until the end of the Iraq-Iran conflict and the influx into Turkey in September 1988 of refugees fleeing a new chemical weapons offensive. On 7 September France issued a communiqué in which President Mitterrand expressed concern at information received about the use of chemical weapons and other means of repression against the Kurdish population in Iraq. He added that he had no wish to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs, but the bonds of friendship between Iraq and France were even more reason to make his feelings known.
In America, a resolution urging sanctions against Iraq was tabled by Senator Claiborne D. Pell and passed by both Houses of Congress. It was vetoed by President Bush. The White House even granted Baghdad a further loan of a
It was not until Iraq occupied the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait in August 1990 that Saddam Hussein became America's bogeyman, referred to by George Bush as a new Hitler. Still useful, however, he survived the Gulf war. American troops did nothing to overturn the Iraqi dictator. And they stood idly by in the spring of 1991 while his presidential guard ruthlessly suppressed the popular uprising for which the United States' president had himself called.
(1) See Christiane More, Les Kurdes à la recherche d'une nouvelle stratégie, Le Monde diplomatique, October 1988.
(2) Iranian opposition organisation based in Iraq and aided by the Baghdad government.
(3) The transcript of the recording of this meeting was published in Genocide in Iraq, The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1993.
(4) According to a study by the Ministry of Reconstruction and Development of the Kurdish Government, a total of 4,049 villages were destroyed and 673 spared in the three governorates of Erbil, Duhok and Suleymaniyeh. This study does not include the province of Kirkuk, where several hundred more villages were destroyed.
(5) Genocide in Iraq, op. cit.
(6) Genocide in Iraq, op. cit.
(7) Le Monde, 28 April 1988.
Translated by Barry Smerin