Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pres. Bakr, Saddam, And Iraq’s Kurds Before The Anfal Campaign

Relations between the Baathist run government of Iraq and the Kurds was always characterized by mistrust and violence. President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr fluctuated between talks and going to war with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mustafa Barzani, the main Kurdish opposition group within Iraq. It was during this time that the government started its Arabization program in northern Iraq to move out Kurds and replace them with Arabs. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and Saddam’s rule, the KDP and the breakaway faction the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani joined the Iranian side, which led to a new round of conflict. These years would all set the stage for the later Anfal campaign, as the government destroyed Kurdish villages, used chemical weapons, and designated Kurds as non-Iraqis.

President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr unsuccessfully attempted to co-opt the Kurds. In 1968 the Baathists took power in a coup. President Bakr appointed three Kurdish ministers, two from Mustafa Barzani’s faction of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and one from Jalal Talabani’s. The President then tried to play Barzani off of Talabani to keep the Kurds divided. Within a month, the Kurdish ministers quit, and Barzani would launch a military campaign by the end of the year. As the new leader of Iraq, Bakr tried to create the image of a national unity government by including the Kurds. There was nothing substantive behind the move, as the President just wanted to split the Kurdish groups.

In January 1969, Baghdad appeared to change its tone as it offered a new autonomy deal to Barzani. The KDP wanted to push for as many concessions as possible, so it aligned with Iran, and launched an attack upon the Kirkuk oil field in March. In the summer, the government retaliated militarily, while opening secret talks with Barzani at the same time. Bakr appointed Saddam Hussein as his emissary to the Kurds. In March 1970, the government offered to recognize the Kurds’ national identity and language, allow them political representation, and control of the local government in northern Iraq. That did not include defense, oil or finances. Barzani appeared to take the offer seriously, and ended his association with Iran, called off his military attacks, and started negotiations with Baghdad. Again, the Baathist regime carried out a two-track policy. While talks were going on, it moved Arab families into the Kirkuk area to secure its oil reserves, and there were several assassination attempts upon Barzani in 1971, which many thought Saddam was behind. By early 1972, the KDP was fed up, and went back to being under the patronage of Tehran. Bakr again proved to be a tricky character. On the one hand, he appeared to be willing to give the Kurds some of their long promised rights in Iraq. At the same time, he tried to shore up his control of Kirkuk, and might have tried to kill Barzani. That led the KDP to return to armed struggle, rather than deal with Baghdad anymore.

That proved to be a bad choice, as the Kurds became pawns in a regional struggle during the mid-1970s. The Shah of Iran did not like the new Baathist government in Iraq because of its socialist and pan-Arab rhetoric, and began pushing boundary issues. In 1972 Iraq also signed a strategic treaty with the Soviet Union. Together this led to the United States and Iran to back the KDP against President Bakr. Barzani then returned to fighting. By the summer of 1974 there was outright war in northern Iraq. Suddenly in March 1975, Iraq and Iran cut a deal over the border, and Tehran and Washington dropped the Kurds. The KDP could no longer withstand the government’s forces without outside support, and the military tide turned in the favor of Bakr. He then offered an amnesty, which led to thousands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters to surrender, while Barzani and his followers fled to Iran. Baghdad then began a resettlement program to move Kurds away from the Iranian-Turkish border area. Some 500,000 families were moved either to the large cities and towns of northern Iraq or to the southern part of the country. At the same time, the authorities settled more Arabs into Kirkuk province to try to shore up their control of this important, oil-rich area. By the middle of the 1970s it appeared as if the central government had won a decisive victory against the Kurds. They were used by Iran and the United States, and when they lost interest, their aid was suddenly cut off, and the KDP was forced to abandon Iraq. It appeared as if the Kurdish resistance had been taken care of.

Flush with its victory, the Iraqi government started its Arabization program in 1975. The security forces tried to clear the border areas with Iran and Turkey, and built military outposts throughout the region. More importantly for the future, it started destroying some Kurdish towns along the Iranian border, and placed their residents into government run camps. Those areas not under central control were marked as restricted, and constantly shelled. Occasional military raids were conducted, and several Kurdish tribes were co-opted, and turned into the Jahsh militia. Baghdad was not content with simply driving the KDP off. It wanted to establish its control over the north by moving the population, and using military force against those who remained.

The Iran-Iraq War offered the Kurds another opportunity to make a return. In 1979, the KDP was able to forge good ties with the new revolutionary Iranian government. When the war broke out the next year, the Kurds were still in disarray, and the various Iraqi factions spent most of their time arguing and fighting with each other. In October 1983, however, the KDP assisted Iran in launching an attack into northern Iraq, which was able to seize a few villages. Baghdad rounded up 8,000 males of the Barzani clan in retaliation, who were never seen again. The Iranian-KDP foray also scared the newly formed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, who was afraid of being overwhelmed. It opened talks with the government, but those went nowhere as Iraq’s new leader Saddam Hussein was unwilling to offer any serious concessions. The PUK was then forced to make a peace treaty with the KDP in 1985, and Tehran pushed them to cooperate more closely militarily. With the aid of Iran, the Kurdish peshmerga were able to make large advances in northern Iraq, while most of the security forces were caught up fighting Iran in the south. In October 1986 for example, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the PUK’s militia were able to launch an attack upon the Kirkuk oil fields. This was part of Iran’s plan to increase military operations in the north to relieve pressure off the south. By late-1986, the Kurds had been so successful that the government was left in control of only the cities, large towns, pipelines, and major roads, while the countryside and villages were conceded to the PUK and KDP. As seen in the past, the Kurds fell back upon Iran when they wanted to take up arms. This time however, it allowed the government to rally support against them, by claiming that the Kurdish parties were Iranian puppets. The sudden loss of territory, and the presence of Iranian forces in northern Iraq were unacceptable, and Saddam was determined to do something about it.

From 1986-1987, the Iraqi government launched a new campaign against the Kurds. First, Baghdad ordered the Baath Party leader for the north in 1986 to regain control of the area in six months. When he failed, Saddam decided on a more severe crackdown on the Kurds the following year. The authorities decided to empty the border region of the Kurdish opposition and destroy them. This was to be accomplished by wiping out towns, villages, and farms, and cutting off all government services and trade. The emphasis would be upon the rural areas of northern Iraq, which was the basis of the PUK and KDP’s support. To carry out this new policy, Saddam placed his first cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid in charge of northern Iraq. His appointment meant that the Baath Party, not the Iraqi Army would be in charge of the campaign. Majid was known for his ruthlessness, and was eventually given authority over two army corps, the Republican Guard, the Special Forces, commanders, Emergency Forces, the Baath Party militia, and the Kurdish Jahsh to wipe out the KDP and PUK. This was not just a regular military operation, but would have the full backing of the government, and the attention of Saddam.

In April 1987, an offensive launched by the PUK brought quick retaliation, and showed the lengths to which al-Majid was willing to go to combat them. At the beginning of the month, Talabani’s peshmerga started new operations in northern Iraq. On April 15, the security forces responded by shelling two villages with chemical artillery shells in the Balisan Valley. That same day, the PUK headquarters in the mountains of Sulaymaniya were bombed. The next day, two more villages were shelled, followed by the Army and Jahsh moving in to destroy them on April 17. The inhabitants were rounded up and imprisoned. The men were eventually taken away and never seen again. The remaining women and children were later dumped in a field and left to their own devices. In three days, 225-400 people were killed. The government was not done however, as five more villages in the Malakan Valley were gassed on April 20. These were the first times that Iraq had used chemical weapons against civilians, which was almost a year before the infamous Anfal campaign of 1988. Although future operations would be much more brutal and widespread, April’s attacks showed that the people would be the main targets, and that the authorities were willing to use weapons of mass destruction to achieve their goals.

In late April 1987, the government launched its spring campaign against the Kurdish opposition. The security forces swept into rural Irbil and Sulaymaniya provinces to destroy villages. The authorities warned the inhabitants about what they were doing beforehand, leaving them unharmed otherwise. Some families were even given compensation for having to move. The locals were told they had a choice to make, either side with the government or the peshmerga. Where they chose to live afterward, would determine their loyalties. In total, 730 villages were dynamited and bulldozed. The government was attempting to draw the line with the rural population, telling them that they would be considered enemies in the future if they did not side with the authorities. The population had little idea what would happen to them next, as only buildings were being attacked, and not individuals. The Kurds had fled before, and they probably thought this was no different from past actions.

Al-Majid had other ideas. From April to June he issued a number of orders that would lay the foundation for the coming Anfal campaign. On April 6, he signed a decree saying that all peshmerga were to lose their property. On April 10, residents that lived in banned areas lost all their legal rights. On May 1, the first relatives of peshmerga fighters would begin to be executed. On May 14, any wounded civilians who were caught and determined to be with the Kurdish opposition were to be killed. Finally, on June 3, the military was authorized to kill anyone found in restricted areas, which covered 1,000 villages. To top it all off, the Iraqi air force bombed the PUK headquarters and the surrounding 25-30 villages with chemical weapons from June to July. Al-Majid was telling the security forces and government that it was to ruthlessly deprive and kill any opponents. This would be done by denying the Kurdish parties of their popular support by killing them and destroying their hamlets,

The next step in this process was the October 1987 census. Everyone answering the survey was told to identify themselves as being either an Arab or Kurd. Anyone could sign up as an Arab, but if an individual registered as a Kurd they would be deprived of government services, and be eligible for deportation, and their house being destroyed. Anyone who did not sign up with the census was also no longer considered Iraqi. After the survey was conducted, the government started a largely ineffective economic embargo of restricted areas not under its control. The Baathists were very bureaucratic and kept meticulous records. The census was a way to collect some rough data on just how many people were living in the contested Kurdish region. Baghdad also used the survey as a political tool to see who was for and against the government.

From 1968 to 1987, Baghdad and the Kurdish opposition constantly upped the ante against each other. There would be talks, followed by fighting as Baghdad proved to be an unreliable party to negotiate with. The peshmerga ended up being the main way the KDP and PUK tried to influence events in Iraq, and this in turn, pushed them into the arms of Iran for military support. That would backfire each time, as it solidified the image of the Kurds as traitors in the eyes of Iraq’s leadership. By the 1980s, Baghdad was unwilling to tolerate this threat any longer, and its policies set the stage for the later Anfal campaign. Ali al-Majid saw the remote rural villages as the root of the problem as they were the backbone of the Kurdish resistance. With the forces and authority he had at his disposal he began targeting these areas, while depriving their inhabitants of their legal rights to even life eventually. All these early elements would be amplified, and taken to new levels of brutality in the Anfal campaign. This highlighted the extent to which the Baath Party and Saddam were willing to go to eliminate anyone that stood in their way.


Hayes, Harry, “Genocide in Iraq: Further Reasons for a Criminal Tribunal,” International Review, 1/14/03

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

Polk, William, Understanding Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006

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