Al-Anfal and the Genocide of Iraqi Kurds, 1988

The al-Anfal campaign in 1988 was a genocidal military operation led by Saddam Hussein's Ba’athist regime against the ethnic Kurds of northern Iraq. Set in the context of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the predominately Kurdish area of northern Iraq was seen as a strategic vulnerability to the Ba’athist regime, and a brutal counterinsurgency was waged to vanquish the perceived threat. At least 100,000 Kurdish lives were taken and some 4,000 of their villages were destroyed through the use of chemical weapons, aerial attacks, and a host of other extra-legal modes of destruction. Since 2003, the Iraqi Special Tribunal convicted many of the operation’s leaders with crimes against humanity, genocide, and premeditated murder.

All Photos courtesy of Kurdistan Democratic Party-KDP

The Kurdish people are the fourth largest ethnic and linguistic group in the Middle East, following in size the Arabs, Turks, and Persians. Sharing such ancient origins, the Kurds have their own tradition of cultural independence. After 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. Today, some 25 million Kurds live in their indigenous hearth region that overlaps eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. Pockets of the Kurdish diaspora extend even further, ranging from former Soviet satellites to Western Europe and North America.

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. Many fled as refugees to Iran.

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. Consisting of eight separate operations and lasting from February until September 1988, the most infamous incident was on March 16, 1988, with the ruthless chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, near the Iranian border. Up to 5,000 civilians were killed, thousands more injured and dying later from health complications.  Foreign journalists, such as Turkish photographer Ramazan Öztürk, arrived soon after the massacre, graphically documenting Halabja for posterity.

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.

Primary documentation of the genocide by the Iraqi Secret Police was captured by Kurdish forces following yet another uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. This material was used in Human Rights Watch’s investigation of al-Anfal and is now available at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Archive.  After the 2003 American invasion and subsequently tumultuous occupation, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (formerly known as the Iraqi Special Tribunal) was established to adjudicate the transgressions of the Ba’athist regime. It has focused on genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other egregious acts.  Saddam Hussein was tried and convicted for crimes against humanity, although the Tribunal did not charge him with connection al-Anfal. "Chemical Ali" was prosecuted for his direct role, however, was found guilty of genocide by the Tribunal and executed in January 2010.