Anfal Campaign and Use of Chemical Weapons
By: Jacqueline Gill
On April 21, 1988, Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as “Chemical Ali,” was recorded saying “people caught in the Kurdish areas [of Iraq] ‘have to be destroyed’’ and that they “must have their heads shot off." In a second sound bite, he declared, “I will attack them with chemical weapons and kill them all.” Al-Majid made these incriminating statements the day after he had concluded the third of eight deadly attacks on Kurdish villages in Northern Iraq, which is known as the Anfal Campaign. “Al-Anfal” is the title of the eighth surah of the Qur’an, which “tells a tale in which followers of Mohammed pillage the lands of nonbelievers.” Translated directly from Arabic, al-anfal means “the spoils of war.”
Despite the fact that most of Iraq’s Kurds are Muslim, the Iraqi government justified its attacks on the Kurds, which went unpunished by the international community for over a decade, with this religious rhetoric. In 2003, the Iraqi High Tribunal used al-Majid’s audio clip amongst other evidence to declare al-Majid guilty of crimes of genocide against the Kurdish people of Iraq. While the Kurds did undermine then-president Saddam Hussein’s political stability in Iraq, there was a more important motive for the regime’s attack on its Kurdish civilians: their ancestral lands contained massive oil fields worth billions of dollars.
The series of attacks launched by the Iraqi government against the Kurds of Northern Iraq began in March 1988, the last year of the Iran-Iraq war, and concluded about seven months later. The Iraqi forces destroyed over 2,000 Kurdish villages and killed an estimated 250,000 people. Saddam “granted supreme authority” to his cousin al-Majid to eliminate the Kurds, and “ordered him to, in his words, ‘solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs.’”
Saddam sought to eliminate the Kurdish separatist movements led by Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani in the Kurdish majority regions of Northern Iraq. Ethnic unrest in the country’s north was a constant threat to the Iraqi regime’s stability and to the state’s geographic integrity. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Barzani, took advantage of Iraq’s feud with Iran and gained a powerful ally. In 1983, KDP had united with Iranian forces against the Iraqi army with the intention of undermining, and potentially ousting Saddam from Iraq. Eventually, Iraq’s two largest Kurdish parties formed their own coalition to weaken the regime. In 1987, the KDP united with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two Kurdish parties opened the Kurdistan front in Northern Iraq against Saddam’s troops.
Unable to defeat Iran, Saddam chose to eliminate a less intimidating foe to prove his strength within Iraq to both the Iraqi people and to the international community. He employed the Kurdish parties’ actions against the Iraqi state during the Iran-Iraq War to justify violent attacks on Kurdish villages.
Al-Majid launched eight formulaic attacks against Kurdish civilians. “First, air attacks dropped chemical weapons on both civilian and peshmerga targets. Next, ground troops surrounded the villages, looting and setting fire to homes.” Those that did not die in the raids were herded into trucks, and driven to concentration camps, “the largest being Topzawa, an army camp near Kirkuk.” There, the detainees were separated by gender and age. The government considered males that appeared to be capable of using weapons to be the greatest threat. “Routinely and uniformly, these men and boys were taken to remote sites, executed in groups, and dumped into pre–dug mass graves. Many women and children were also executed, especially those from areas that supported the Kurdish resistance. ”
Today, Saddam’s attempt to exterminate the Iraqi Kurds is infamously remembered for the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Under the leadership of al-Majid, Iraqi forces launched the largest chemical attack in history against the city of Halabja.
The regime’s use of chemical weapons against the 45,000 residents of Halabja and thousands of other civilians overtly ignores Iraq’s legal commitment to its citizens and to the international community. 1931 marked Iraq’s accession of the Geneva Convention’s “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.” Minira Abdul Qader, a survivor of Halabja remembers the attacks on her city: “First came the blast of the bombs dropped from the jets, followed by a smell of apples. Then the birds the family kept caged in the yard dropped dead. Minutes later, human beings began to die, too.” The attackers dropped nerve agents and mustard gas on the civilians, and survivor’s exposure to the chemicals has had lasting health consequences, some of which have been passed down to children born years afterwards.
This was not Saddam’s first attempt to weaken the Kurds. Prior to the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam fought against the Kurdish separatist movement with forced Arabization of majority Kurdish territories. Saddam’s main target was the city of Kirkuk which lies atop one of the largest oil fields in Iraq and historically contained a Kurdish majority. In the 1970s, Saddam began systematically relocating Kurdish families from Kirkuk and enticed Arab families to move to the city. Kurdish peshmerga forces regained control of Kirkuk during the summer of 2014.
The Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurds’ semi-autonomous entity in Northern Iraq founded in 1992, seeks to incorporate Kirkuk into its official territory. After years of marginalization in Iraq, the Kurds consider their acquisition of Kirkuk and its oil resources to be a major financial asset. Kirkuk is an essential piece of puzzle in the Iraqi Kurds’ ongoing struggle for full autonomy from the Iraqi state.