Did Saddam Gas the Kurds?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.

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In a recent New York Times op-ed, Stephen Pelletiere argued that the March, 1988, gassing of Kurds during the waning months of the Iran-Iraq war may have been perpetrated by Iran, not Iraq. This issue has taken on importance because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds is often given as one ground for the U.S. to go to war to effect regime change. As it happens, Pelletiere, a former CIA analyst, is just plain wrong and appears not to have kept up with documentation made available during the past decade.

As a result of the successful bid for autonomy of Kurds in northern Iraq under the U.S. no-fly zone, tens of thousands of documents from the Iraqi secret police and military were captured by Kurdish rebels from 1991 forward. These were turned over to the U.S. government. Some ten thousand of them have been posted to the World Wide Web at the Iraq Research and Documentation Program at the Center for Middle East Studies of Harvard University: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~irdp/.

The captured documents explicitly refer to Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Kurds, called "Anfal" (spoils) operations. Some documents were reviewed by Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s, which issued a report, entitled "Genocide in Iraq." Robert Rabil, a researcher with the IRD Program, has also published an analysis of the documents, in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

The documents under review never mention Iraqi authorities taking precautions against Iranian uses of chemical weapons, and there is no good evidence that Iran did so. Since Iran and the Kurds were allies, Iran in any case had no motive to gas thousands of Kurds. The Baath documents do frequently mention the Anfal campaign of February-September 1988, when high Baath officials in the north were authorized to gas the Kurds.

The Kurdish minority of northern Iraq speaks an Indo-European language very different from the Semitic language of Arabic, and has long sought greater autonomy from Baghdad. Largely farmers and pastoralists, they practice a mystical, Sufi form of Islam that is distinctive in modern Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, which Saddam Hussein launched against his neighbor, the Kurds sought Iranian support for their insurgency. The Baath regime, threatened, responded by destroying Kurdish villages in strategic zones, resorting to ethnic cleansing.

These brutal conventional measures failed to achieve their objective, and for that reason the Baath regime initiated its chemical warfare on the Kurds in 1988. The operation was headed up by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majid, the Secretary-General of the Northern Bureau of the Ba'th Organization. For this reason, Iraqis call him "Chemical Ali."

The Baath regime launched 39 separate gas attacks against the Kurds, many of them targeting villages far from the Iran-Iraq border. Beginning at night on Thursday, March 16, and extending into Friday, March 17, 1988, the city of Halabja (population 70,000), was bombarded with twenty chemical and cluster bombs. Photographs show dead children in the street with lunch pails. An estimated 5,000 persons died. Although some analysts say the gas used was hydrogen cyanide (not in Iraq's arsenal), others have suggested it might have been sarin, VX, and tabun. Iraq is known to have these agents. (Iran is not known to have hydrogen cyanide, in any case).

High Iraqi officials, including Vice-Premier Tariq Aziz, have since admitted using chemical weapons against the Kurds. Last year, Radio Free Iraq broadcast the allegation by a former brigadier general in Saddam's air force that the command to use "extraordinary" weapons against Halabjah came from the president himself.

The Anfal campaign deeply traumatized the Kurdish people, and its psychological effects are felt powerfully to this day. Kurds of Halabja recently protested against Western skeptics who questioned whether Saddam had and would use chemical weapons. They said they were living proof that he did and would.

There is no doubt that Saddam launched this chemical weapons campaign (which was also waged on the battlefield against Iranian troops, with devastating results). Persons may argue in good faith about whether his resort to weapons of mass destruction in 1988 justifies forcible regime change now. My own knowledge of the horrors Saddam has perpetrated makes it impossible for me to stand against the coming war, however worried I am about its aftermath. World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power.

ALSO IN HNN: "He Has Gassed His Own People" (July 16, 2002).

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John - 8/26/2004

subterrissole, way to demonize the whole thing. People are dying in a fight to remove a violent dictator from power, free the nation's people and get a government up and running, and you're worried that Big Business(tm) will make a profit. I'll leave it up to you decide the lesser of the two 'evils'.

Piotr Kraczkowski - 12/23/2003

Where is the difference between gassing of 5000 Kurds and killing (till today) about 350.000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs?

The USA have killed thousands of children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki thought the territory of the USA was not in danger. Hussein´s Iraq has been weakened by the eight years of war with Iran.
The USA have sold weapons to boath sides in this war and even formed an international coalition for helping Hussein to win this war. The USA have fighted against Iran in this war and killed several hundreds soldiers of Iran.

The USA have tried to blame Iran for gassing the Kurds, what means that the USA have gassed them together with Hussein.

Kurds wanted the secession and cooperated with the war-enemy Iran. 600.000 humans have died in the US-secession-war why should not Hussein kill 5000 in the similar situation?

Iraq does not thank its land to a holocaust as the USA do.
Hussein is an angel in comparison to such men as Washington and other US-presidents who has killed thousands of Indians in order to take their land. For example: President Jackson has killed thousands of Indians with his "Indian Removal Act" - the famous "track of tears".
In the year of the births of the USA the Indians have owned more than 50% of the todays US-territory. Has Hussein ever done something like that? No.

Could you state a crime of Hussein which has not been done by the USA on an even greater scale?

My cv: http://beam.to/ll

TW - 9/30/2003

HYPERBOLE-- n. A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in-- "I could sleep for a year" or-- "This book weighs a ton".

or--"how many countries the US has invaded since 1945, and how many people have died as a result. A little starter for him. 1,000,000 + in Vietnam alone"

Get some historical perspective why don't you?

Leo - 7/2/2003

So the US found evidence of the Iraqi gassing of Kurds. How convenient for the US, and how foolish of the Iraqis. And how gullible of Professor Cole. Another US red herring, and he can't resist it. Perhaps Prof. Cole would like to tell us how many countries the US has invaded since 1945, and how many people have died as a result. A little starter for him. 1,000,000 + in Vietnam alone.

Gregory - 4/30/2003

life is good, death isbad if you air this comment i will laugh. Die laughing

M. Richard - 3/18/2003

What if any evidence exists for the often made statement that the US government assisted Iraq in its use of chemical weapons on the Kurds? Specifically the assistance was referred to as targeting information.

clarence swinney - 3/2/2003

Common Dreams.org posted today March 2 an article from Toronto Star by Don Sellar. Good additional information.

subterrissole - 2/27/2003

the question i have for all supporters of another US us and them style war is , who do you suppose will be choosing the next major leader in Iraq? the Iraqi poulation as a whole, i think not. as far as i can see it will be a after dinner mint for big business appetite!

Thomas M. Ricks - 2/6/2003

Professor Cole's data is impressive and depressing regarding the Iraqi military/chemical operations in Northern Iraq against the Kurdish people.

I dissent from his opinion, however, in two instances: 1. having lived several years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iranian Kurdistan (Mahabad/SaujBulaq), I came to the conclusion long ago that Iran (as government) had and continues to have absolutely NO sympathy for the struggling Kurdish people or for any of their aspirations, and that Iran accidentally or not would not hesitate to use chemicals in a Kurdish area if it served Iran's purposes to do so (ie, a "warm and cuddy" Iran is not accurate, Professor Cole, when it comes to minorities, esp. the Kurds), and 2. Iraq has had and continues to have a very grisly history of anti-Kurdish policies including mass population transfers (eg. 30,000 Kurdish families to southern Iraq) and so an accidental/on purpose use of chemicals in Halabja is a real possibility.

Overall, Professor Cole, the gassing of Kurdish peoples as tragic as it was, is hardly grounds for the mass killing of Iraqi civilians (shi'i, sunni or Arab/Kurdish) which will occur with your "dirty little" war that you so long for! The latest bravado by US military experts of US inevitable victory is not a bunch of empty promises, but the real thing. The coming war will result in more than a Halabja, you can be sure. How ironic that you weep as many of us all do over Halabja and Iraq's poisonous relations with Kurdish and other Iraqi minorities while you herald the oncoming mass killings in the name of removing the hated Saddam! I believe you have been "bushized" and hookwinked into rightfully condemning one tragedy while wrongfully applauding another.

mark safranski - 2/5/2003

" World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power. "

Fortunately, unilateral action is not to be confused with " action taken with less than unanimous support". In addition to Britain and the seven other European nations voicing support for the US on Iraq, Secretary Powell's Security Council presentation has brought on board much of Eastern Europe. Australia's PM has given the United States the strongest support as well. The United States will be far from alone in facing Saddam's regime whether France blocks a UN resolution or not.

I second Juan Cole's comment - Saddam is indeed a genocidal monster who needs to be removed from power.