Throughout our first few days in Iraqi Kurdistan, the history of the Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s rule has been unavoidable. Every step of the way, whether in official meetings with the Speaker of the Kurdistan Region Parliament, the Minister of Planning and the Governor of Erbil, we are faced with this troubled, bloody history.
Our meeting with Dr. Kamal Kirkuki, the Speaker of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament and our gracious host, took place in a building formerly run by regional Baathists which now serves as the headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament. In his opening remarks before the question and answer session, Dr. Kirkuki paid homage to the 182,000 Kurds killed during Saddam’s rule and discussed in detail the actions of the Baathist regional governor of the Kurdish regions during his reign, the infamous Ali Hassan Al-Majid (also known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign). One particular story the Speaker recounted was the burial of 3500 Kurds in the backyard of Al-Majid’s house in Kirkuk. When Dr. Kirkuki discussed domestic Iraqi political concerns such as certain UN proposals to resolve the status of his home-town of Kirkuk and the census, one cannot help but notice that his concerns are influenced by this brutal history. He even went as far as to call some of the UN proposals racist and undemocratic.
During our visits to the Ministry of Planning and the Governorate of Erbil, we came across many memorials dedicated to victims of the Al-Anfal campaign of the 1980s. For instance, at the Governorate, there was a large photograph of several white coffins draped in Kurdish flags. These were coffins of members of the Barzani clan—8000 of whom were killed and thrown into mass graves in the south of Iraq (all men above the age of eight were taken). In detailed discussions with the Kurdish Minister of Planning, Dr. Ali Sindhi, he outlined the specific concerns related to the now postponed Iraqi census. He clearly believes that in the central government, there is an attempt to dilute the number of Kurds through the questions on the census (for instance, dividing Kurds along religious lines in a census question about ethnicity when a previous question already dealt the question of religion). It is clear that in order for Iraq to overcome stagnation, these issues of mistrust informed by bloody conflict and oppression by the previous regime need to be addressed.