On an ascending scale of violence, mass atrocities constitute the apex. They are often preceded by lesser atrocities, which are omens – though not always recognized as such – of worse things yet to come. If Anfal – a 1988 Iraqi military campaign that involved the rounding up of all civilians found in the Kurdish countryside, their deportation via transit camps to execution sites far from their homes, and the systematic murder of 70-80,000 men, women and children – was a mass atrocity (indeed, a “genocide in part”), the Iraqi regime arguably was able to mobilize the necessary skills and resources to carry it out owing to its earlier successful, if less fully executed, experiments: in 1975, when a Kurdish rebellion collapsed, Kurdish men were shipped off to camps in the south, then released after a few years; and in 1982, after a perceived treasonous act by one Kurdish faction, the regime rounded up several thousand men of the Barzani tribe, deported them (leaving the impression they would be held in camps, as in 1975), and disappeared them.

Another example: The regime began using chemical weapons in 1983, or possibly even earlier, invariably targeting Iranian soldiers at the front. In June 1987, having also started targeting Kurdish guerrillas (peshmerga) in the countryside with poison gas, it chemically attacked an entire town in Iranian Kurdistan, Serdasht, causing the deaths of over a hundred civilians. Having faced no international opprobrium for this heinous act, it then carried out an even larger chemical assault on the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan in March 1988, killing thousands.

If Saddam Hussein went through a learning process, experimenting with new methods and testing international resistance (seeking to determine what he could get away with), the observed potency of his weapons and tactics, matched with the absence of a meaningful international response, must have given him strong encouragement. Could early intervention (of the diplomatic variety) have acted as an effective deterrent in the escalation to mass atrocity?


Ever since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation by Britain and France of a set of nominal nation-states in the Mashreq, the region’s Kurds have been locked in a battle for greater rights, if not statehood, with the new states’ regimes: in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. In Iraq this has taken the form of a decades-long cyclical insurgency/counter-insurgency.

During this time, Iraq metamorphosed from a British-led UN mandate, to a UK-supported Hashemite monarchy, to a republic led by a succession of autocrats, the most recent of whom was Saddam Hussein, who came to power in 1968 (formally as president in 1979). He presided over a highly repressive regime with totalitarian aspects, as well as (as a result) a closed society that actively discouraged free access, in which loyalty to the leader was the only somewhat sure path to survival. In its repression, the regime was mostly color-blind from an ethnic and sectarian perspective: Saddam was an equal-opportunity killer of those who did not readily declare their undying love for him or who gave even the subtlest hint of dissent. His was not a Sunni regime but a personality cult based on him and a small Mafioso-type gang that at its core hailed from a geographically small area that happened to be located in the Sunni (Arab) heartland.

Meanwhile, the Kurds produced a number of leaders for their burgeoning national liberation movement. This movement was usually riven by splits, however, and party bosses often were tribal leaders, whose notions of loyalty, and their subjects’  need to declare it, were not dissimilar to Saddam’s, even if they tended to enforce fealty with a less cruel hand.

The regime’s loyalty test became acute during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when the regime felt threatened in its survival, especially when its domestic enemies – Kurdish nationalists and some Shia Islamists – sided with the enemy. They were branded “traitors” and “agents” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which had emerged from the popular uprising against the Shah in 1979. Fighters (peshmerga) of the Kurdish parties and of one of the Shia Islamist groups, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, fought alongside Iranian forces in major battles of the war, especially in the north.

The war took place in the overall context of the Cold War, which was slowly coming to an end (with Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1986), but unlike in most other post-WWII conflicts, the US and USSR found themselves more or less on the same side. The Soviets had enjoyed a strategic relationship with Baath (self-professedly Socialist)-ruled Iraq since the early 1970s and deeply distrusted Islamist Iran. For the US, the overthrow of its ally the Shah and subsequent hostage crisis defined its outlook on the Khomeini regime. While officially neutral, the US sidled up to Iraq despite the latter’s alliance with the USSR and tried to nudge it into its own camp.


During the Iran-Iraq war, the regime pursued the Iran-allied Kurdish rebels with a vengeance, focusing on both towns (arrests, deportations) and countryside (attacks on, then destruction of, villages); targeting insurgents but then also the civilians who – willingly or not – gave them shelter; and using at first conventional weapons (rockets, air-dropped bombs), but then also poison gas. The assault on the Kurds was one long escalation from 1982 (the first turning-point in the war) onward.

The assault was accompanied by a certain anti-Kurdish animus, fed by a virulent strand of Arab nationalism. The regime’s overlord in the north in 1987-1989, Ali Hassan al-Majid (a Saddam cousin), painted the Kurds as mountain goats and provided other choice – in fact, deeply racist – characterizations. Yet the counter-insurgency campaign appeared not to target all Kurds, but only those in the countryside; this is also where it had its most devastating impact (with the wholesale destruction of village life and the agrarian economy); here the regime targeted the rebels, their relatives, and their sympathizers, without discrimination. Most affected were the Kurd-populated areas east of the oil center of Kirkuk, where the military effort took on the appearance of ethnic “cleansing” (literally referred to as tațheer, “purification”, by the regime) during the 1988 Anfal campaign, with the killing of everyone found living there.

Chemical weapons were a key instrument in the regime’s attempt to hold back the zealous Iranian irregular/volunteer fighters at the front and suppress the Kurdish insurgency. It experimented with crude chemical weapons in 1982, soon graduated to the insidious mustard gas, and then to the highly lethal nerve agents tabun and sarin. It also expanded its target group from Iranian soldiers to Kurdish insurgents to anyone living in the Kurdish countryside. The apex was the March 1988 gas attack on the town of Halabja, which had been occupied/liberated by a combined force of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) and Kurdish peshmerga some days earlier. Some 5,000 civilians were killed and many injured. In the Halabja attack’s immediate aftermath, poison gas demonstrated its power as an implement of terror more than as a weapon of mass destruction: the regime deployed it on the first day of every stage of the eight-stage Anfal campaign, flushing a terrified population out of the countryside, gathering them up, and transporting them to mass execution sites in the western desert, where they mowed them down – men, but also many women and children – with automatic rifles. Close to 100,000 civilians and insurgents lost their lives this way. Human Rights Watch termed it “genocide in part” (of rural Kurds) under the definition of the 1948 Genocide Convention.


Could the mass killings have been prevented? The political context in which these atrocities took place militated against effective internal or external intervention. Cold War superpower rivalries divided the UN Security Council, rendering it an ineffective instrument for conflict resolution. (We are seeing a reflection of this in the crisis over Syria, as a sort of Cold War relic.) This meant that while both the US and the USSR opposed Iran and courted Iraq, they were not ready to seek common responses to serious international issues such as chemical weapons use. (They were, however, able to find a way to end the war in 1987-1988, as Gorbachev started making nice with the US, and Iran became overstretched, exhausted, and demoralized.)

It was because the Security Council was unable to take effective action that UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar took the initiative to investigate Iran’s insistent claims that Iraq was using chemical weapons. The outcome of these independent investigations left little doubt as to the culprit, but did not produce any concerted effort to bring Iraq to task.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Western and Arab nations were selling weapons to Iraq. They did so because their fear of the possible export of the Islamic Revolution (to the oil-rich Gulf states, some of which had – and have – significant Shia populations) exceeded their extreme distaste of Saddam Hussein’s odious regime, or their fear that, after Iran, Saddam might turn his guns on someone else in the region.

 For its part, the Reagan administration played a double game for a while, tilting toward Iraq while secretly shipping weapons to Iran in an effort to gain the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. Its official position was that it was not taking sides. Indeed, some of its policies, such as the 1983 Operation Staunch, which sought to halt weapons transfers, were aimed at both Iran and Iraq – even to the point of absurdity: in condemning the use of chemical weapons, the administration accused both regimes, even though there was no credible evidence that Iran had used chemical weapons. Any condemnation of Iraq’s wartime behavior, such as chemical weapons use, was offset by increased US material and diplomatic support, including the successful effort to restore full diplomatic relations. Following the collapse of the Iran-Contra effort, the US began providing more weapons and intelligence support to Iraq, with administration officials openly declaring they did so while holding their noses.


How did the mass killing of Kurds, facilitated by chemical weapons use, end? By the rebels’ utter defeat, which came less than a month after Iran and Iraq, guided by strong international mediation, reached what turned out to be a lasting ceasefire in the war (August 1988). Iraq outlasted Iran, using heavy amounts of poison gas on the first day of every stage of the five-stage Tawakkulnaa aala Allah counter-offensive in the preceding spring and early summer, forcing Khomeini to “drink from the cup of poison” and sue for solace.

(There is little doubt that what was hurting the Iranian war effort the most was the loss of civilian morale because of constant, staggering battlefield losses with no tangible political or territorial gain. Conventional wisdom in the English-language literature on the war seems to hold that the trigger that convinced Khomeini to desist was the accidental shooting down of an Iranian civilian jet airliner in July 1988 by US guided missiles, an incident that could be interpreted (despite being an accident) of decisive US support for the Iraqi war effort. This is a West-centric view that ignores factors that affected the Iranians more. In my view, the proximate cause for Khomeini’s decision to end the war was the massive and highly effective (for utterly demoralizing) use of chemical weapons during the – what turned out to be final – battles in 1988, Iraq’s first offensive since the start of the war.)

With their ally put back in its box, the Kurdish parties abruptly lost their wartime ally, as they had in 1975 (when the Shah withdrew his support from their rebellion overnight after making a deal with Saddam). Even with Iran’s help they had not shown any ability to withstand the Iraqi onslaught, fleeing (once again) into Iranian exile. Iraqi forces swept through the abandoned Kurdish countryside, destroying any structure they found left standing and detaining (and killing) the odd shepherd and any other stragglers. The regime also razed to the ground several towns, including Halabja, placing their inhabitants in “complexes” (mujamma’aat), far from their lands and employment opportunities, and providing only the most basic services. It had truly succeeded in “draining the swamp.” When it declared a one-month amnesty in September 1988, it did so to ease tensions by allowing refugees to return from Turkey and Iran, but its policy toward the Kurds, and their prohibited countryside, remained firmly in place, with further destruction of villages and towns until the 1990 Kuwait invasion.

For the regime, this was “mission accomplished”. It had accomplished its primary goals: holding its mortal Persian/Shia enemy at bay and defeating its internal Kurdish insurgency. When, belatedly, in the Fall of 1988, the Reagan administration saw fit to condemn Saddam for using chemical weapons against his own population, his forces had already stopped using them, as there was no enemy left to use them against. The dictator’s pledge no longer to use them was therefore an easy one to make.

While the regime failed to extinguish Kurdish aspirations, the insurgency was no more. If it was resurrected, this happened fortuitously as a result of Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the successful US-led campaign to oust his forces. In the ensuing vacuum, Iraqis in the north and south rose up, divested themselves of the state’s repressive organs and agents, and came to enjoy freedom for a brief period. The regime struck back with a vengeance, but in the north was forced to accept a Kurdish safe haven under US-Turkish protection (designed to keep Kurdish refugees out of Turkey more than to provide security for them, and to keep the Kurds under tight Turkish control). From then on, a Kurdish entity – de facto independent but held in an economic chokehold by Iraq’s northern neighbors, each with its own Kurdish population – existed side by side with the rest of Iraq, still under Saddam’s reign.

The 2003 US invasion put an end to the regime and brought erstwhile Kurdish rebel leaders to senior government positions in Baghdad, including the presidency. Saddam Hussein was put on trial on various charges but, in a blow to the Kurds, was hanged before the trials most important to them – concerning Anfal and Halabja – had come to a conclusion. Nevertheless, there now no longer was a need for a Kurdish insurgency. Yet the struggle for Kurdish autonomy and independence continued, now channeled through politics, with the Kurds pressing their advantage. Reversing the Arabization of the Kirkuk region and other disputed territories, Kurdish leaders settled large numbers of Kurds in these areas (many returning home from Saddam’s resettlement camps), earning accusations of Kurdicization from local Arab and Turkoman populations. The battle always was, and remains, an ethnically-based zero-sum game.  


What if “genocide in part” could have been prevented? Arguably, Iraq could not have successfully prosecuted the Anfal campaign without the help of chemical weapons, building on the terrifying demonstration effect the Halabja attack provided. That attack itself was the culmination of five years of steady increases in the number and lethality of chemical attacks – in clear view of the world, or at least of US intelligence agencies, which reported them on an ongoing basis. It also came nine months after an earlier frightening chemical attack on a town, Serdasht, in Iranian Kurdistan.

What if the US had drawn a red line under chemical weapons use early on? And what if the Reagan administration had acted more on the need to strengthen multilateral peace-and-security instruments to which the US was party, such as the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons use in international armed conflicts, than on its fear of an Iranian revolution being exported to unreceptive Shia populations in the Gulf?

What if the US and others (including the UN) had had better access to Iraq, Iran, and the frontlines; as a result had received more accurate, time-sensitive intelligence on what was taking place; and had engaged in far better analysis of these events? Arguably, a more level-headed, dispassionate understanding of the Islamic Revolution and its limitations, and of the proliferation dangers inherent in Iraq’s steady escalation of chemical attacks, might have produced a more robust diplomatic response to Iraq’s chemical weapons use when the Iranians first reported it.

Likewise, arguably, a better understanding of the true nature of the Anfal campaign (mass killings instead of just mass deportations – echoes of WWII) might have triggered the kind of strong condemnation that could have deterred Saddam from proceeding (at least with the killings). The disappearance of the Barzanis in 1982 should have served as a warning, as should the village destruction campaign that escalated sharply in 1987. Instead, the Reagan administration waffled – quite deliberately – and pinned responsibility for the Halabja attack (based on misinterpreted and possibly manipulated evidence) on both Iraq and Iran, thereby diluting the international rebuke that followed (delivered via the UN) and enabling the Anfal campaign’s success.

What if the Reagan administration had succeeded in reaching a deal with Iran as part of the Iran-Contra hanky-panky? The war might have taken an entirely different course. What if Iran had succeeded in using the weapons it obtained as part of the Iran-Contra affair to press its advantage on the southern front – in Faw – and brought the Iraqi regime to its knees in April 1986? What if the US, shunning too intimate an embrace of its Iraqi ally in what turned out to be the last year of the war had refused to share satellite intelligence of Iranian troop (and Kurdish rebel?) formations, which improved the Iraqi military’s accuracy in targeting them with chemical weapons?

Joost Hiltermann is the Chief Operating Officer for International Crisis Group and was formerly the  Director of Iraq Documents Project with Human Rights Watch.

Continued Reading

For my earlier writings on Anfal and Halabja, see:

A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

“Deep Traumas, Fresh Ambitions: Legacies of the Iran-Iraq War,” Middle East Report, no. 257 (Winter 2010).

 “Elusive Justice: Trying to Try Saddam,” Middle East Report, no. 215 (Summer 2000).

 “The Men Who Helped the Man Who Gassed His Own People.” In Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf, eds., The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (New York: Touchstone, 2003), pp. 41-44.

“Outsiders as Enablers: Consequences and Lessons from International Silence on Iraq’s Use of Chemical Weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.” In Lawrence G. Potter and Gary G. Sick, eds., Iran, Iraq and the Legacies of War (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), pp. 151-166.

“To Protect or to Project? Iraqi Kurds and Their Future,” Middle East Report, no. 247 (Summer 2008).

See also the Human Rights Watch studies on Anfal to which I contributed:

Bureaucracy of Repression: The Iraqi Government in Its Own Words. New York: HRW, 1994.

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


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2 Responses to Iraq’s Assault against the Kurds

  1. john van sickle says:

    Consulted your history of Anfal after seeing new film about the difficulty of making a film about it: Memories in Stone.

  2. Arthur Lanee says:

    A very informative piece of historical relevance and certainly a contribution to understanding today’s issues.

    Thank you.

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