Iraq: Assaults against the Kurds

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


Tensions and conflict between Iraq’s Kurdish minority and the central government in Baghdad have characterized Iraq since it emerged as an independent state following the First World War. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) opposed the British-backed Iraqi monarchy and initially demanded greater autonomy for Iraq’s Kurdish regions. Military conflict over competing visions of governance and autonomy escalated in the 1960s and 1970s.[i] The Baathist regime that came to power in 1968 initially granted some concessions to the Kurds, but fighting quickly resumed over the status of the oil-rich Kirkuk region.[ii] The 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq was followed by Iran’s withdrawal of support for the Iraqi Kurds, thereby enabling the Iraqi government to consolidate its control over the north. The Iraqi government initiated a series of violent efforts to ‘arabize’ the Kurds, which included forceful relocations away from border areas with Iran and Turkey, often into desert regions.[iii]

With the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Iraqi troops were transferred away from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Iranian front. Kurdish guerrilla (peshmerga) activities in the region increased. In 1983, in response to information that the KDP had collaborated with the Iranians against Iraqi forces, the Iraqi army retaliated by attacking Kurdish civilians. Soldiers took as prisoners between 5,000 and 8,000 men and young boys from the Barzani clan, none of whom were seen again. They are presumed to have been killed.[iv]

Kurdish rebels took advantage of the Iran-Iraq war to extend their control throughout rural Kurdistan. The Iraqi government initially attempted to drive a wedge between competing Kurdish factions and negotiate an alliance with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). These efforts collapsed in January 1985. Thereafter, the two main Kurdish groups (KDP and PUK) were both reported to be collaborating with Iran against the Iraqi government. In October 1986, the PUK signed an agreement with Iran covering economic, political and military cooperation, with the shared goal of toppling the Saddan Husssein regime. By the beginning of 1987, Baghdad only exercised effective control over Kurdish cities, larger towns, and paved highways. The rural areas of Iraqi Kurdistan were de facto autonomous, with the KDP controlling the north and the PUK operating in the south. With the internal security situation rapidly deteriorating, the regime in Baghdad decided to put a decisive end to the Kurdish insurgency, which it saw as capital treason.[v]

Atrocities (1987-1988)

The culmination of Iraqi operations against the Kurds occurred between 1987 and 1988, and specifically during the “Anfal” campaign carried out between February and September 1988. On March 18, 1987 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein replaced the existing governor of Kirkuk with Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was tasked with overseeing a campaign to break the nexus between guerrillas and villagers in Kurdish areas. He produced a 2-pronged strategy: (1) depopulate the countryside by razing Kurdish villages, and (2) decapitate the Kurdish leadership. The overarching goal was to destroy Kurdish resistance organizations and eradicate the remaining human settlements in disputed or peshmerga-controlled areas.[vi]

The campaign began with the Balisan Valley chemical attack in April 1987, followed by the bulldozing of hundreds of Kurdish villages along the main roads and towns (at least 703 in 1987).[vii] During this initial phase, the villagers were typically warned of an impending attack and given the choice to “change sides” and resettle to government complexes. Villages in the higher valleys that the army could not yet reach were declared prohibited. An embargo to and from these areas was imposed in order to starve the population and induce them to leave, with limited success.[viii]

Throughout the summer and fall of 1987, the government laid the groundwork for a large-scale military offensive against the Kurds. In June 1987, new guidelines drastically increased the amount of lethal force to be applied against Kurds who remained in the prohibited areas. For example, an order dated from June 22, 1987, stated that: “All the villages in which subversives, agents of Iran and similar traitors to Iraq are still to be found shall be regarded as out of bounds for security reasons” and will be considered “operational zones that are strictly out of bounds to all persons and animals and in which troops can open fire at will, without any instructions.” It further specified that the “corps commanders shall carry out random bombardments using artillery, helicopters and aircraft, at all times of the day or night in order to kill the largest number of persons present in those prohibited zones, keeping us informed of the results.” Persons between the ages of 15 and 70 captured in those villages “shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them.”[ix]

Ahead of the national census in October 1987, Kurds were informed that those who failed to participate would lose their status as Iraqi citizens, and would be regarded as “saboteurs.” In rural Kurdistan, the only way for those still remaining in the officially prohibited areas to participate was to register themselves in government-controlled IDP camps that had been set up to accommodate those displaced by the village destruction campaigns.[x] Many preferred to stay in their homes. After the census, shelling and aerial bombing intensified, and the blockade of the north became more systematic.

The Anfal campaign began on February 23, 1988, when the Iraqi army (assisted by the air force) launched a large-scale operation to take control of the rural areas that had been declared “prohibited” in 1987. The campaign included the use of ground offensives, aerial bombing, chemical gassing, forced relocation and firing squads. It unfolded in eight stages, seven of which targeted areas controlled by the PUK. The general pattern would involve ground forces encircling a given village, followed by artillery bombardments and targeted chemical strikes. Survivors and fleeing civilians would be rounded up sent to transfer camps, where men and boys roughly between the ages of 15 and 60 were often systematically separated from their families.[xi] Those accused of being insurgents were killed in mass executions or disappeared. The rest faced dire humanitarian circumstances in camps, where they lacked food, sanitation and shelter.[xii] Although men and boys were specifically targeted, thousands of women and children also died from gassing, starvation and exposure.[xiii] The specific treatment and detention of the villagers also varied significantly by region, with particular violence unleashed against civilians in Kirkuk and those affected by the Third and Fourth Anfal campaigns.[xiv]

The chemical weapons attack on Halabja on March 16, 1988, though not part of the Anfal campaign, is the most notorious example of gassing a civilian center. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 3,200 people and potentially up to 5,000 civilians were killed during the attack or shortly after.[xv] The Halabja bombings were neither the first nor the last use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. In fact, chemical weapons were used against Kurdish villages during each of the eight phases of the Anfal campaign. Only in May 1988 (in the Fifth Anfal) did Iraqi forces have difficulty meeting their objectives due to persistent resistance by PUK peshmerga. The campaign was renewed in July and August, and by August 26, the last PUK-controlled area was officially declared “cleansed of saboteurs.”[xvi]

By the end of the 1980s, thousands of villages had thus been decimated and hundreds of thousands of Kurds had been relocated to government-controlled resettlement camps.[xvii] Besides the attack on Halabja, the violence largely failed to capture international attention. The Iraqi government continued to frame the Kurdish leaders and parties as “traitors” and “enemy collaborators.”[xviii] The Iraqi government only lost its standing with western powers, especially the U.S., following its invasion of Kuwait and brutal repression of a popular uprising in southern and northern Iraq in February 1991, which eventually led to the creation of a “safe haven” for Iraqi Kurds.


After 1991, the Kurds seized many Iraqi military documents detailing the forced relocation of Kurdish villagers as well as other human rights violations. Less documentation exists regarding the specifics of the Anfal campaign, and precise estimates of the total number of dead are not available. Shortly after the attacks, the PUK estimated a total of 180,000 people disappeared during the Iraqi offensive, though the number seems to have been based on an extrapolation of assumed average village size in 1988 with no direct relation to actual disappearances and killings.[xix]

Human Rights Watch estimates the total number of casualties is between 50,000 and 100,000.[xx] Thus estimate is based on a careful but incomplete survey by the Committee for the Defence of Anfal Victims, a Kurdish human rights organization based in Suleimaniyeh.[xxi] The organization documented 63,000 “disappeared,” not counting the area of Anfal XIII (which could add another 7,000-8,000). Its survey also did not reach those areas still under regime control in 1992-1995. The survey found that the overwhelming majority of “disappearances” occurred in the areas of Anfal III. The organization’s estimate of a maximum of 70,000 dead proved highly controversial in Kurdistan.[xxii]

The specific number of people killed in the Halabja chemical attack also remains elusive. Human Rights Watch suggests that at least 3,200 (the number of names collected in systematic interviews) and potentially up to 5,000 civilians died during or shortly after the attack.[xxiii] Many reports continue to cite Kurdish or Iranian estimates of at least 4,000 and as many as 7,000.[xxiv]

The Kurdish Democratic Party further reports that 3,496 people were killed within the month following the ceasefire agreement between Iran and Iraq signed on August 20, 1988. The same source reports 20,000 people were killed over the course of 1988. The source of this data is unclear, although Human Rights Watch cites KDP estimates as conservative and reliable.[xxv]


The Iraq-Iran war ended on August 20, 1988. The ceasefire freed up large numbers of Iraqi troops to continue the last stages of the Anfal campaign in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The final (and eighth) Anfal began on August 25 and was over in several days, with the last areas declared “free of Kurdish saboteurs.” On September 6, 1988, the Iraqi regime declared its victory by announcing a general amnesty for all Kurds.[xxvi] At this point, some survivors were released from prison and large-scale offensives ended.

However, the logic governing the Anfal campaign persisted in subsequent developments: those released from prisons as well as those returned from exile were resettled into government complexes with no compensation. Others were simply “dumped on the barren earth of the Erbil plain with no infrastructure,” where many died of disease, exposure and hunger.[xxvii] Kurds continued to be deprived of full citizenship rights and employment opportunities, and the “prohibited areas” remained off limits to civilians. Arrests, executions as well as the destruction of left-over villages continued. According to Human Rights Watch, by April 23, 1989, the Ba’ath regime considered its objectives to have been accomplished, and revoked the special powers it had granted to Ali Hassan al-Majid for the duration of the campaign.[xxviii]

In March 1991, Kurdish citizens in the town of Rania began a revolt against the central government in Baghdad, which spread rapidly through the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Within three weeks Iraqi troops had violently suppressed the revolt, again causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. In early April of the same year, the United States, Great Britain and France, allies in the war with Iraq during the First Gulf War, intervened to establish a “safe haven” for Kurds in the northern Dohuk Governate. Iraqi troops subsequently withdrew from most of the Kurdish areas (excluding Kirkuk). Elections in May 1992 brought to power a Kurdish regional government.[xxix]


We coded this case as ending through a process of normalization after the Iraqi government carried out its policies ‘as planned.’

Works Cited

Hiltermann, Joost R. 2008. “The 1998 Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, Sciences Po, February. Available at:

Hiltermann, Joost. 1994. Bureaucracy and Repression: The Iraqi Government in its Own Words. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch 1995. Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Human Rights Watch. 1993. “Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds,” July.

Human Rights Watch. 1991. “Whatever Happened to the Iraqi Kurds?” March 11.

Middle East Watch & Physicians for Human Rights 1992. “Unquiet Graves: The Search for the Disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan,” February.

Nezan, Kendal. 1991. “Saddam’s Other Victims–the Kurds,” The Washington Post, January 20.

The Observer. 1989. “Hitler-Style Genocide Threatens the Kurds,” May 7.

O’Keeffe, Isabel. 1989. “Flanders Fields Revisited: They Were Slow and Painful Deaths,” New Statesman and Society, March.

Rogg, Inga and Hans Rimscha. 2007. “The Kurds as Parties to and Victims of Conflicts in Iraq,” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 89, no. 868. December 2007.


[i] Rogg and Rimscha 2007.

[ii] Hiltermann 2008, 3.

[iii] Middle East Watch & Physicians for Human Rights 1992, 5; Human Rights Watch 1993, 5.

[iv] Human Rights Watch 1991.

[v] Human Rights Watch 1993.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Hiltermann 2008, 4.

[ix] Human Rights Watch, 1993.

[x] Hiltermann 2008, 4.

[xi] Middle East Watch & Physicians for Human Rights 1992; Human Rights Watch 1993, 96, 143-145; Hiltermann 2008, 7.

[xii] Human Rights Watch 1993,143-145.

[xiii] Ibid. 191.

[xiv] Hiltermann 2008, 7.

[xv] Human Rights Watch 1991; and Human Rights Watch1993.

[xvi] Human Rights Watch, “Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds.”

[xvii] Rogg and Rimscha 2007, 827-8.

[xviii] Rogg and Rimscha 2007, 828.

[xix] Hiltermann 2008, 6.

[xx] Human Rights Watch 1995, xivv.

[xxi] Hiltermann 2008, 6.

[xxii] Hiltermann 2008, 7.

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch1991.

[xxiv] Nezan 1991; O’Keeffe 1989; and The Observer 1989.

[xxv] Human Rights Watch 1991.

[xxvi] Human Rights Watch 1993.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Human Rights Watch 1993.

[xxix] JHiltermann 1994, 1.

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