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“Genocide in Iraq - The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds”

Report Summary

Human Rights Watch´s comprehensive report “Genocide in Iraq - The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds,” originally published in July 1993, details the systematic and deliberate murder of at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Kurds. The killings occurred between February and September 1988. “Genocide in Iraq” shows that the Kurdish victims were targeted on the basis of their ethnicity.

Related Material

Genocide in Iraq - The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds
Report, July 1, 1993

Give Iraq Justice, Not Vengeance
Commentary, October 18, 2005

Drawing on extensive interviews with eyewitnesses and analysis of Iraqi government internal communications, the report meticulously documents Baghdad’s eight-stage military campaign as it moved systematically from the southeastern part of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to the northwestern corner over six months. This campaign, under the leadership of the then secretary of the Ba’ath Party’s Northern Bureau, Ali Hassan al-Majid, was directed against the Kurdish guerilla organizations known as peshmerga, as well as civilians living in what the government had declared “prohibited zones.”  
The Anfal campaign was the culmination of a long-term strategy to solve what the government saw as its “Kurdish problem.” Since the Ba’ath Party coup in 1968, the Iraqi government had deemed the Kurds as a threat to the nation. Baghdad forced many Kurds to leave their homes and relocated them in the Kurdish “Autonomous Region.” It then “Arabized” the formerly Kurdish areas by enticing Arab tribespeople there with offers of relocation benefits. “Genocide in Iraq” shows that in the mid-1980s the government began to demarcate special areas within the Autonomous Region that it declared to be off-limits. The residents of these “prohibited zones” were, with very minor exceptions, Kurds who after the October 1987 census were defined as non-Iraqi nationals and traitors. In 1988, they were marked for destruction.  
The “prohibited zones” were large areas that covered most of rural Iraqi-Kurdistan. The government had lost control of these regions because it had deployed so many troops to fight the war with Iran. By declaring these areas off-limits, Baghdad sought to regain control over them. Although the “prohibited zones” did not include all Iraqi Kurds, they were home almost exclusively to Kurds. The report shows that the vast majority of residents were civilian men, women and children. Many of the villages in the “prohibited zones” were rarely visited by Kurdish guerillas. The Ba’ath Party government simply treated all persons present in the zones alike without distinguishing between combatants and civilians.  
After the 1987 national census, Baghdad portrayed the population’s refusal to leave its ancestral lands and “return to the national ranks” as an act of collaboration (probably with the insurgency, possibly with Iran). This “collaboration” was categorized as a betrayal of the Iraqi war effort which, according to Ba’athist ideology, was a pan-Arab cause. This assessment was especially sensitive at a time when Iraq, supported financially and logistically by most Arab countries, was fighting against Iran. In official pronouncements, national boundaries dissolved and age-old ethnic identities were recycled. Government propaganda alleged that “the Kurds” had allied themselves with “the enemy Persians” against “the Arabs.”  
The treatment of those who were loyal to the government was no different, which shows that the official policy was based not on political loyalty but on ethnicity. Even pro-government tribes and/or members of the pro-government Kurdish militia, the National Defense Battalions, were warned that they and their families would not be spared if they chose to remain in their villages in the “prohibited zones.”  
After declaring the areas to be off limits, the government imposed an economic blockade on the “prohibited zones” to make life there difficult to sustain. In a policy of escalating repression, the government then resorted to force. Iraqi troops shelled and bombed thousands of villages, where Kurds had lived for generations.  
The pretext for the policy was the presence of the Kurdish guerilla organizations, which had been using some of these sectors as bases for their insurgency. But what had begun as a counter-insurgency effort against rebels became a murderous campaign against a distinct part of the Kurdish population. “Genocide in Iraq” shows that the repression against the Kurds of the “prohibited zones” escalated from economic embargo to air and artillery bombardments to the systematic slaughter of everyone present.  
The Anfal occurred at a time when the Iraqi government believed that Iran would soon agree to a cease-fire which would have freed the Iraqi military to redeploy troops to the north. In February 1988, the Iraqi military launched the Anfal with an assault on the headquarters of one of the Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The armed forces, meeting little or no resistance, then began moving through the “prohibited zones.” Residents were swept up in the Anfal dragnet, detained in temporary camps for identification and registration and then driven off to execution sites outside the Kurdish region. There they were summarily shot and buried in the desert by bulldozers. Those few who managed to avoid the dragnet and sought refuge in the towns and housing complexes were hunted down, arrested, and also executed.  
The mass killings of rural Kurds ended in September 1988, but those who surrendered during an amnesty announced that month (after Iraqi troops had regained full control over all the “prohibited zones”), were never allowed to return to their land and homes. These people were thereafter treated as second-class citizens without any rights. They were consigned to housing complexes or dumped on barren tracts; they were not permitted to change residence; and they were forbidden to return to their villages in the “prohibited zones.” For the agriculture-dependent Kurds, this treatment denied them their means of subsistence. This policy remained in place until the 1991 uprising.  
“Genocide in Iraq” also gives a detailed background on the history of the relationship between the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi Kurdish population. One chapter provides a vivid description of the registration and identification processes in the camps where the displaced Kurds were held before being dispatched for execution. Another section deals with the experiences of a few Kurds who managed to escape the firing squads.  
The complete report is available at:  


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