Politics & Policy


Saddam Hussein's horrific 1988 genocide of the Kurds is still having repercussions.

Baghdad — This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s massacre of an estimated 5,000 Kurds in the Iraqi town of Halabja. The March 16, 1988 attack, using a lethal air-delivered mixture of mustard gas and nerve agent, killed virtually every man, woman, and child in the town. The destruction of Halabja initiated a campaign of mass murder that Saddam named Al Anfal — “the Spoils of War,” from a passage in the Koran. It was the high-water mark of his regime’s genocide against the Kurds.

This campaign, carefully planned and executed, resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Kurds — women and children included, and in fact specifically targeted. Entire regions of Kurdistan were depopulated, and more than 1,000 villages disappeared from the map of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands more Kurds fled in terror to become refugees within the borders of their historical enemies, Iran and Turkey.

#ad#This ethnic cleansing of Kurds, while part of Saddam’s “Arabization” project, also had its pragmatic side: The Kurds were predominant in the oil-rich and strategically important areas of northern Iraq, and oil money could help their separatist movement. Perhaps for this reason, Saddam began his assault on the Kurds in 1979, as soon as he became president of Iraq. But he was no means the only guilty party. The entire Iraqi leadership, as well as tens of thousands of Iraqi army personnel and security forces, were culpable in these sickening crimes against humanity that continued until Saddam was removed from power.

The world took no direct action to stop the genocide. This includes the United States of America, which saw Iran as the greater regional threat. During the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), America’s support of Baghdad was also meant to punish the mullahs for occupying the embassy in Tehran and holding U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Saddam saw this support as a green light to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and to invade Kuwait a few years later. The lesson is clear — genocide anywhere threatens everyone everywhere. From Hitler to Pol Pot to Saddam Hussein, history has taught us that there is no satiating such evil.

After 9/11, when the time came to deal with Iraq, how could we dismiss the risk of a megalomaniac who had gassed his own people? The ability of A. Q. Khan of Pakistan to buy, and transport across continents, entire industrial-size uranium-enrichment complexes for his own country as well as Iran and Libya illustrates the ease with which weapons of mass destruction can be moved and concealed. Until the defection in 1995 of Saddam’s son-in-law and minister of armaments, Hussein Kamil, the U.N. — after four years of continuous inspections — was not even aware of Saddam’s extensive and ongoing biological-weapons program.

Much has been made of the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The press constantly points to the Duelfer report, the official post-invasion assessment of Iraq’s unconventional-weapons programs, which stated that no WMDs were found. What the press habitually ignores is the categorical conclusion of the report that once U.N. sanctions were lifted, the government of Iraq planned to reconstitute the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. This conclusion grew out of interviews with hundreds of Iraqi scientists and officials.

Even after suffering poison-gas attacks and ethnic cleansing by an internationally recognized and U.S.-supported government, Iraqi Kurds are now working hard to help secure all of Iraq, not just Kurdistan. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Mosul at an Iraqi army base watching new recruits run “the naked mile,” as their American advisors called it. Stripped down to their underwear, these young and impressively fit men ran about two kilometers through the chilly early-March mountain air to the front gate of the base. This exercise served two purposes: first, to make sure that none of them was wearing a suicide explosives belt, and second, to prove that they really wanted to serve their country. Although most of the recruits were Kurds, there were also some Sunni Arabs. Significantly, these Kurds had come to serve in the Iraqi national military, not the Pesh Merga militia of nearby autonomous Kurdistan.

At the same time, the Kurds are also the principal roadblock in the Iraqi national parliament, which is trying to pass a critical oil law. Under America’s guidance, Iraq now possesses a democracy structured along Jeffersonian lines, with legal protections against tyranny of the majority, which is a pure democracy’s greatest potential flaw. These provisions enable the Kurds and Sunni Arabs to halt any action by the Shiite majority that they regard as detrimental to their respective communities. That’s what’s happening with the oil law, which the Kurds oppose because it gives the central government too much control.

Yet the maneuvering over oil in Iraq’s parliament is really a proxy for larger concerns. For the Kurds, one great sticking point remains on the path to national unity, and it’s not the oil law. The real issue is Kirkuk, which the Kurds refer to as their “Jerusalem.” The 2005 Iraqi constitution called for a resolution by December 2007 of the territorial status of Kirkuk — i.e., whether or not the region will become part of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. That question has not been resolved.

Given the brutal fact that the Kurds — an ancient non-Arab people speaking a Persian-related language — have suffered cruel and prolonged persecution at the hands of the Arab majority, the Iraqi government owes them a resolution of the Kirkuk issue. That would go a long way toward consolidating and strengthening the still-fragile Iraqi nation. The question could be resolved through an internationally monitored referendum of area residents, but the government, fearful of increasing ethnic turmoil and reluctant to reduce its control of the nation’s oil, continues to move Kirkuk’s status to the back burner. Because of the horror and injustice that this weekend’s anniversary recalls, and to improve the prospects of our mission in Iraq, the United States must use its full influence to get this task accomplished.

Carter Andress, CEO and principal owner of American-Iraqi Solutions Group, is author of Contractor Combatants: Tales of an Imbedded Capitalist.

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