In early 1988, Iraq opened its Anfal Campaign against the Kurdish opposition. Right at the beginning of that offensive government forces launched a chemical attack upon the town of Halabja killing thousands. Since the two happened during the same time, histories have conflated them together. In fact, Anfal and the Halabja assault were two separate events. The latter was an attempt to destroy the rural base of the Kurds, while the former was a retaliatory strike against an Iranian-Kurdish peshmerga offensive in northern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.
In the beginning of 1988, the Iran-Iraq War was waning, which allowed Baghdad to focus upon the Kurds. With the backing of Iran, the Kurdish peshmerga militia was able to rest control of most of rural Kurdistan from the government by 1986. In 1987, Saddam Hussein had enough with the northern rebels, and put his first cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid in charge of the region. He began more intensive military campaigns, which sometimes involved chemical weapons, to destroy Kurdish villages, and issued a series of repressive orders taking away the rights of Kurds in areas not controlled by the authorities. By early 1988, Iraq could free up some of its forces from the southern part of the country that had been fighting Iran, and redeploy them to Kurdistan. Al-Majid put them to work in his Anfal campaign, which was a massive military assault upon the popular base of the Kurdish parties.
The first Anfal offensive began in February 1988. It was characterized by the deployment of massive military formations against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. Hamlets were destroyed, chemical weapons were used, and thousands of people fled to the Iran-Iraq border. The plan was to push the peshmerga and civilian population out of the region’s hamlets, then destroy all the buildings and farms, capture the fleeing refugees, and relocate them to government controlled areas. This was meant to destroy the Kurdish opposition.
The PUK decided to retaliate against these attacks, supported by Iran. In March, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and peshmerga forces swept into Sulaymaniya province capturing a large number of villages. By March 13, they were outside of Halabja, a town of 40,000-60,000 people, and began shelling it. The Iraqi forces eventually gave way and the Iranians and Kurds were in control of Halabja by March 15. It looked as if the drive was going to be a success as the Iranians and Kurds had not only captured a large swath of the countryside, but a government held hamlet as well.
On March 16, Iraq counterattacked. At first, the security forces used air strikes and artillery. The assault drove many residents into their bomb shelters, which were common throughout Kurdistan because of all of the conflict there. Later that day, Iraqi aircraft flew overhead and dropped chemical bombs on Halabja. Many of those in their underground redoubts got the worse of it. Others were able to flee. On March 17, around 6,000 refugees fled to ruined villages outside of Halabja, and then to the Iranian border. The Iraqi forces then entered the town and began leveling it. The soldiers then left, and conceded the area to Iran and the peshmerga. Afterward, Tehran bused in journalists to report on the massacre. It was immediately seen as a propaganda tool Iran could use against Iraq. Halabja seemed to follow the pattern of the Anfal operation with shelling, bombing, the use of chemical weapons, and then the town being destroyed, but in fact it was part of the Iran-Iraq War.
Halabja became a poster-child for the Iraqi government’s use of weapons of mass destruction against the Kurdish population. An estimated 5,000 people died in the attack, and thousands were displaced. The story was broadcast around the world, thanks to Iran, who wanted to exploit it for all that it was worth to tarnish the image of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Since it occurred during the Anfal campaign, many thought it was part of it, but it was not. Halabja was a major town that was in government hands before the peshmerga and Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured it. Anfal largely involved small towns out in the countryside. The attack upon Halabja was aimed at the Iranians, and their PUK allies. Anfal was mostly about driving civilians out of the rural regions to deprive the Kurdish parties of their support. That in no way lessons the brutality of the raid or the massive loss of life, but Halabja was retaliation for the PUK and Iranians capturing it, and not part of the Anfal. The two together will go down in history as one of the most brutal acts committed by Saddam Hussein during his 24-year rule of Iraq.
Human Rights Watch, “Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds?” 3/11/91
Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Colorado, Oxford: Westview Press, 2004
Middle East Watch – Human Rights Watch, “Genocide In Iraq, The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds,” July 1993
Tripp, Charles, A History Of Iraq, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2008