Genocide and the Kurds
Iraq’s Kurds want the world to recognise the mass murders their community suffered under the former Saddam regime as genocide, writes Salah Nasrawi
Nearly 25 years after the gassing of Kurds in
Iraq‘s northern town of , Iraqi Kurds have begun a worldwide campaign for the massacre of their people during Saddam Hussein’s era to be formally recognised as genocide. Halabja
The move comes as tension rises between the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the central Baghdad government amid speculation that Iraq’s fragile ethnic federation could be in trouble and signs of increasing Kurdish frustration with the union.
A delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government started a visit to the UN headquarters in New York this week in a bid to solicit support from UN member states to its request.
Kurds around the world have also started a campaign to press governments and parliaments to do the same.
The campaign hopes that official recognition will be the first step towards the UN bringing formal charges against individuals at international tribunals. It could also heighten Kurdish nationalism and give the Kurds a shot at fulfilling their dream of getting international recognition for an independent Kurdistan.
The Kurds accuse the former Saddam regime of using chemical weapons against them in the 1980s in an attempt to put down Kurdish demands for autonomy within Iraq.
In the most notorious attack, they say, regime warplanes dropped chemical bombs on the town of Halabja in March 1988, killing some 5,000 men, women and children.
Some 715 victims of the attack are believed to be still alive, many of them suffering from serious aliments, including cancer.
Campaigners also say that many other innocent people were murdered as part of a sustained campaign to wipe out Kurdish villages in Iraq in 1987 and 1988 near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.
There is an agreement that hundreds of thousands of Kurds died in the decade-long conflict, during which the Kurds were fighting the Iraqi army for self-rule. Some Kurds were deported from their villages, and others were sent as far as southern Iraq.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam was convicted of crimes against humanity and other crimes during the 1987-88 crackdown on the Kurds. However, he was not tried on charges of genocide.
Article 2 of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide describes it as the carrying out of acts intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
Many legal experts believe that genocide may be hard to prove under this definition because there must be an intention to destroy a particular group.
Last year, in a non-binding decision the Iraqi parliament recognised the killings in Halabja as genocide, but the atrocity has not been recognised as such by the Baghdad government. The Kurds are now considering going to Iraq’s supreme court to obtain this recognition.
The dispute about whether the killings in Halabja were genocide centres on the question of whether they were systematic, premeditated and orchestrated.
The Kurds believe they were, but a number of Iraqi and foreign observers have questioned this assertion.
Even now, few people know what happened in Halabja on 16 March 1988. Some key elements of the events remain disputed, but what is known for certain is that Halabja, a small town of a few thousand people on the Iranian border, was bombarded with poison gas.
No one is in a position to answer with any certainty the multiple questions about all the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
A US government report suggested that it might have been Iran, and not Iraq, that carried out the killings in Halabja.
The United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated the allegations immediately after the event and produced a classified report that asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds.
The agency said that each side had used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. However, the condition of the dead Kurds’ bodies indicated that they had been killed with a cyanide-based gas, which Iran was known to use, according to the report.
The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in battle, are not known to have possessed cyanide agents at the time, the report concluded.
However, the Kurds and their supporters in the media blamed this conclusion on the then Reagan administration in the US’s indifference and its attempts to get closer to Saddam, then seen as a friend of the United States.
They say that the agency report allowed the Saddam regime to use the US statements to deflect criticism against it.
Critics also say that a UN team that investigated the claims also failed to pursue evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish refugees that it saw during a visit to a town in Iranian Kurdistan, claiming that the issue was not within the mission’s terms of reference.
Observers also differ on the circumstances that led to the battle of Halabja and the role of the Kurdish peshmergas fighters in the tragic episode.
Officials from the former Saddam regime have always said that Kurdish fighters belonging to Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party led Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the town, putting the Kurds’ lives in danger since the town was facing an imminent Iraqi counteroffensive.
A closer look at events during this chapter of the Iran-Iraq war reveals an Iranian role in the tragedy of Halabja, since as the War wound down in 1988 the Iranian military unleashed a major offensive on the northern front, trying to take territory and build up a bridgehead inside Iraq for further infiltration inside Kurdistan.
The present writer was in the northern war zone in the days before the attack on Halabja, while covering the battles for the Associated Press.
In interviews with commanders of Iraqi army units based in the Sharazour Valley near Halabja only two days before the gassing in the town, mention was made of an imminent Iranian offensive to capture the Valley, which opens onto Suleimaniya, Kurdistan’s second-largest city.
According to these commanders, the other major goal of the Iranian offensive, codenamed Wa Al-Fajr-10, was to capture the strategic hydro-electric dam of Darbandikhan, the main source of electricity for Baghdad, just south of Halabja.
In a report filed from Darbandikhan on 14 March, 1988, several Kurdish civilians were quoted as saying that they had been injured by Iranian chemical weapons in attacks on their villages on the border with Iran.
Jafer Barazanchi, the then regional governor who now lives in Kurdistan, said that a “mass evacuation” of Darbandikhan’s population was being considered out of fears of a further Iranian thrust deeper inside Iraq.
The Iranians seized Halabja on 15 March, and the development was serious enough to prompt Iraqi officers to remove journalists from the battlefield.
No news was heard about Halabja until a few days later, when Iran flew a group of Western reporters already in Tehran to the site to show them hundreds of dead bodies in Halabja’s deserted streets that it said had been left by Iraq’s use of poison gas against the town.
There has been no Iraqi government response to the Kurds’ demands for recognition of the Halabja gassing as genocide, and the country’s Shia-led government may be reluctant to support an effort that may lead to the finger being pointed at its allies in Shia Iran.
However, Saddam loyalists have launched their own campaign to discredit the Kurdish bid and deny that the Iraqi army carried out the atrocities.
Several former Saddam regime officials have written to deny the charges and blame Iran for the atrocities. They include Jafar Dhia Jafar, head of Saddam’s nuclear programme, General Hossam Mohamed Amin, a senior official in Saddam’s weapons programme, and Ambassador Muafak Jassim Al-Anni, in charge of the US desk at Saddam’s Foreign Ministry.
No country has yet formally recognised the killing of the Iraqi Kurds in 1988 as genocide, and it is unlikely that the UN or other international organisations or countries will do so, at least for now.
The Kurds seem to think that recognition of genocide may provide them with an opportunity to advance their national ambitions and put these on the international agenda.
While many Iraqis assent to the Kurds’ right for the atrocities to be condemned and fully exposed, others argue that investigating what happened in the Kurdish region during the former regime will open further wounds and should be left to historians.
However, a proper and thorough investigation of the atrocities may be needed in order to prevent any recurrence and to deny impunity to those that carried them out.
In the case of Halabja, it is vitally important to determine not only who the real perpetrators of the massacres were, but also who supplied them with the weapons to carry them out.