Skip to comments.The gassing of the Kurds
Posted on 04/06/2003 12:37:27 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
Saddam Hussein's 1988 attack underscored the lengths to which he would go to destroy opponents
The following are excerpts from the book ''A Modern History of the Kurds'' by David McDowall (reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, New York, N.Y.). The excerpts cover the 1988 gassing and purge of Iraqi Kurds, who were aiding Iranian forces pushing into Iraq. The architect of the attacks was Ali Hassan al Majid, a cousin of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. It is believed Majid might be behind the suicide attack that killed four U.S. soldiers in Iraq a week ago and the recent shooting of civilians trying to flee Basra.
The 1988 attack was not Iraq's first use of chemical weapons. In the early 1980s, Iraq used poison gas extensively in its war with Iran. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 20,000 Iranians were killed by mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun and sarin during that conflict. The canisters dropped on the Kurds are believed to have carried similar chemicals. Four years after the attacks, traces of nerve agents and mustard gas could still be found in the soil in Kurdistan.
FIVE THOUSAND DEAD: In March 1988, a
single Iraqi warplane swept low over the
town of Halabja, dropping silver canisters
of deadly gas. Many died in their tracks.
PHOTO BY IRNA/CORBIS SYGMA
BY JANUARY 1988 the threat to Baghdad had deepened as Iranian troops seized the strategic heights overlooking Mawat and crossed the Qara Chulan river. The penetration of Kurdish and Iranian forces deeper into Kurdistan in the spring and a breakthrough onto the Mesopotamian plain down the Diyala river now became a serious danger. Saddam sent a secret message seeking a resumption of negotiations with the PUK (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), but Talabani (Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK) dismissed the idea without a change of ruler.
This was the last attempt of Iran to defeat Iraq. Elsewhere its efforts had ground to a standstill. The challenge Iraq now faced in Kurdistan provided the opportunity and the troops that Ali Hasan al Majid needed finally to solve the Kurdish problem. In order to defeat the Kurdish forces he now initiated Operation Anfal (a blasphemous abuse of Quranic injunction) -- a series of major assaults on peshmerga-controlled areas, using chemical and high explosive air attacks -- before ground forces occupied the area.
''Anfal I'' was designed to disrupt PUK-Iranian plans to capture the Dukan dam. It began in early February with the indiscriminate bombardment of inhabitants of the Jafati valley near Sulaymaniya, including PUK forces. It took three weeks to capture the area. Heavy casualties were inflicted. Virtually all adult and teenage males who were arrested disappeared -- in accordance with al Majid's instructions.
At the end of February Jalal Talabani formally accused the regime of genocide, with 1.5 million already deported, and 12 towns and over 3,000 villages razed. Yet the West was generally inclined to dismiss Kurdish claims of genocide, either because they were politically inconvenient, or because it was suggested such reports were probably wild exaggerations. It was only in the aftermath of the Gulf War that evidence collated by Middle East Watch showed that previous Kurdish claims were not only incontrovertible but also in many cases an understatement of the ordeal through which Iraqs Kurd's were then passing.
SAVAGERY AT HALABJA
Chemicals unleashed on town smelled of apples and garlic
On 15 March 1988 PUK and Iranian forces captured the town of Halabja, strategically situated above Lake Darbandikan to the east, inflicting heavy casualties on Iraqi forces. They seemed likely to advance to the Darbandikan dam. The following day Iraqi forces retaliated, shelling the town for several hours. During the afternoon those in air-raid shelters began to smell apple and garlic. Unable to prevent the entry of the gas, they stumbled out into the streets:
Dead bodies -- human and animal -- littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars. Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically, before collapsing... Those who had been directly exposed to the gas found that their symptoms worsened as the night wore on. Many children died along the way and were abandoned where they fell.
Approximately 5,000 civilians died.
Baghdad's savagery at Halabja had a shattering effect on Kurdish morale. It was well known how lethal chemical weapons could be, but it was now internationally clear that Saddam Hussein would resort to killing on a scale previously unimaginable in order to destroy those who threatened him.
A week later al Majid initiated Anfal II, to destroy all Kurdish presence in Qara Dagh, south of Sulaymaniya, a mountain range already surrounded by Iraqi forces. Once again chemical attacks on one village after another preceded ground action. Soon the hills were thronged with fleeing people. The majority, moving north towards Sulaymaniya, were rounded up and taken to assembly areas where their names were recorded and their valuables and IDs removed. Male and female were segregated. The males were driven off to undisclosed locations and exterminated. On the southern side of Qara Dagh a more comprehensive policy prevailed: hundreds of women and children also disappeared without trace.
With Anfal III in mid-April the scene shifted to Garmiyan, the area south of Kirkuk and adjacent to the west side of Qara Dagh which had also been a stronghold of the PUK. Once again all adult or teenage males captured began their nightmare journey to the execution grounds. In southern Garmiyan, where PUK resistance was fiercest, thousands of women and children were also taken for execution.
In many cases the civilian population was rounded up by the jash (pro-government Kurdish forces). In some cases the jash allowed women or children to escape under cover of darkness. They had carte blanche to loot whatever they wished according to Quranic prescription: ''Give the men to us and you can have the property,'' as one Baathi put it. On the whole the jash were dutiful servants of the Anfal, probably unaware that their round-ups were not a prelude to confinement in mujama'at (settlements) but rather to mass execution.
At the beginning of May the Anfal (IV) operation swung northwards to deal with the area between Kirkuk, Arbil and Koi-Sanjaq. Hundreds more died from chemical attack on the bank of the Lesser Zab. Out of sight, possibly 30,000 Kurds were taken away. In the areas of greatest resistance women and children too were taken to the execution grounds. During the summer months three more Anfal operations (V, VI and VII) were carried out to remove PUK forces in Balisan and the mountain recesses east of Shaqlawa. In certain cases the population was persuaded to turn themselves in on the spurious promise of pardon. It made no difference to their fate.
IRAN ACCEPTS CEASE-FIRE
Systematic purge of civilians in Kurdish centers continues
By now Iran was economically and militarily exhausted by its efforts to destroy a regime supported by the international community. In April its forces had been driven from Faw and the environs of Basra. In the first half of July it lost Sardasht, Zubaydat and Mawat, and withdrew from Halabja and Hajj Umran. On 22 July it announced it would accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, and on 20 August this cease-fire came into effect.
During the next four days troops were massed around Bahdinan. On 25 August Anfal VIII began with chemical and high explosive bombardments on the villages and valleys in which fleeing civilians and peshmergas (resistance fighters) were concentrated. Eight-year-old Agiza remembered what happened. She was tending the family livestock above her village when she saw the planes fly in, dropping bombs, one of which exploded close to her house.
``It made smoke, yellowish-white smoke. It had a bad smell like DDT, the powder they kill insects with. It had a bitter taste. Aftcr I smelled the gas, my nose began to run and my eyes became blurry and I could not see and my eyes started watering too.... I saw my parents fall down with my brother after the attack, and they told me they were dead. I looked at their skin and it was black and they weren't moving. And I was scared and crying and I did not know what to do. I saw their skin turn dark and blood coming out from their mouths and from their noses. I wanted to touch them but they stopped me and I started crying again.''
Thousands were asphyxiated in the precipitous valleys through which they fled. On 29 August in Bazi Gorge, approximately 2,980 fugitives were gassed, and their bodies subsequently burnt by government troops. Elsewhere all captured males were exterminated. Amnesty International was inundated with reports of hundreds of civilians being deliberately killed.
We shall never know the exact number of those who perished in the Anfal operations, but they probably accounted for 150,000-200,000 lives. In a few cases villagers and peshmergas were shot without distinction on the spot. The vast majority of people, however, were sent to Topzawa, a large army base south-west of Kirkuk which housed a transient population of approximately 5,000. It was here that the registration and segregation took place with a brutality reminiscent of Nazi death camps. Teenage and adult males were lined up rank after rank, and stripped of everything but their clothes, and interrogated. Beatings were routine. 'We saw them taking off the men's shirts and beating them,' one old man recalled. ''They were handcuffed in pairs, and they took away their shoes.'' After two or three days at Topzawa, all these males were loaded onto closed trucks. They were not seen again.
Through the testimonies of six survivors we know the end of the road for the men of the Anfal. Taken to the execution grounds at Ramadi, Hatra and elsewhere, they were tied up in long lines alongside deep trenches, and shot. When the trenches were full, they were covered in.
The elderly and a few women and children were bused to a concentration camp in the southwest desert of Iraq, at Nuqra Salman. Routine punishment at Nuqra Salman included being made to squat without movement for two hours, or being tied to a metal post in the midday sun. From June onwards death by beatings, exposure and infection was commonplace in Nuqta Salman, running at a rate of four or five a day. One man kept a tally, 517 dead by the day of his release in September, but more died after his departure. Many were deliberately left to rot for days where they died before being thrown into pits, which took about 40 corpses each.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN DIE
Iraq's response: `We do not have information concerning their fate'
Most women were taken to Dibs camp, close to the Kirkuk-Mosul highway. Both these categories were held for four or five months until the end of the peshmerga's resistance at the beginning of September. Thousands, however, did not survive. Many children died of malnutrition and dysentery at Dibs. Approximately half the women were taken to other terminals of the Anfal -- for example, the death pits of Samawa.
At first the regime answered all enquiries regarding its victims: ''They were arrested during the victorious Anfal operation and remain in detention,'' but as the number of relatives seeking the missing grew during the following two years, it changed its response to ''We do not have any information concerning their fate.'' So, despite the registration of his victims, Saddam Hussein massaged the truth into some vague misadventure of which his administration no longer had any knowledge.
By the end of the war almost 4,000 villages and hamlets were destroyed, and at least 1.5 million people had been forcibly resettled. Yet the government had still not finished with its rearrangement of Kurdistan. In December it announced its intention to create 22 new towns, each to accommodate 10,000-15,000 resettled Kurds. First it razed Sangasar, a town of 12,000 inhabitants. Then in June 1989 it razed the town of Qala Diza, offering resettlement to its 100,000 inhabitants, and another estimated 100,000 people living in the town's environs. Raniya, a town of 25,000, was similarly threatened. By July 45,000 out of 75,000 square kilometres of Kurdistan had been cleared of Kurds, according to the Kurdistan Front. This was no longer about security but the atomization of Kurdish society, except for those groups in service to the government.
And even if they were to read the book, they'd simply dismiss it as fiction. But they would believe a book about the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon being staged.
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