A Kurdish proverb states that “the pain of a dagger is easy, the pain of a heart is heavy.” During the period of Saddam Hussein al-Majid’s reign in Iraq, the Kurdish people certainly endured both the pain of the dagger and pain of the heart. Saddam, during his twenty-four year reign, killed many people and is generally considered one of the most oppressive dictators of the twentieth century. The West supported him due to his opposition of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, the West’s greatest enemy in the Middle East. He is perhaps most infamous, however for his systematic genocide of the Kurdish people during his rule of Iraq. At the time of the genocide, the world ignored Saddam’s heinous actions, choosing instead to turn a blind eye and support Hussein’s supposedly lesser evil regime. Later, during and after the invasion of Iraq, the United States and her allies used the genocide as the crux of their justification to topple the regime, pursuing justice after the fact and only managing to partially attain it.
The military actions undertaken by Saddam in Kurdistan against the Kurds constituted genocide, even though the world did not take notice until later. Kurdistan has long been a powder keg the Middle East, being the largest nationless state in the world, and as such has a history of being under siege from those that have ruled it. Modern-day Kurdistan is typically defined as an area in Northern Iraq that spills over into Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The highest concentration of Kurds, and the most vocal, are from northern Iraq. In the past decade, the population of Kurds living in the Kurdistan region has grown to over 25 million people, making Kurdistan the largest nationless state in the world. Despite its large size, Kurdistan has not received much attention from countries outside of the Middle East, yet the region has been disputed since ancient times. The Kurds are not a religious group, but rather an ethnic group that is composed mostly of Sunnis, but there also are Shiite, Christian, and Jewish Kurds. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, from the fourteenth century until the end of World War I, Kurdistan was granted a level of autonomy from the empire. They were allowed cultural freedom and also maintained a local government that was made up of Kurds responsible to the Kurdish people and not the state. That semi-autonomous freedom, however, ended when the Ottoman Empire was divided up after its defeat in the first world war.. Although the Kurds were promised their own nation-state by Woodrow Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles and the other treaties signed at the end of the war give the land in the region to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, once again denying the Kurdish people their own country. In the face of such an international snubbing, the Kurds have always maintained a strong ethnic identity. The reason their land has been fought over for millennia is their abundant supply of fresh water, but in the past century Kurdish oil reserves have made the land that much more desirable (Kurdish Conflicts). In 1963, the Ba’ath party staged a coup and took over Iraq’s national government. A young man named Saddam Hussein was placed on the Regional Command, and he began his career in politics by attacking the Kurds. Even though his party was overthrown in under a year, 1963 proved a taste of what was to come in Northern Iraq (Saddam). Given their unique situation, it is not hard to see why Kurdistan has been fought over, and why the Kurds have naturally moved to protect themselves from foreign invasion.
Saddam and his cousin, Chemical Ali Hassan al-Majid, systematically killed Kurds in the Al-Anfal Campaign and the chemical attack on Halabja, among other incidents. When the Ba’ath Party resurfaced in 1968, Saddam Hussein’s cousin Bakr took control of the country. In 1975, Hussein led an effort to defeat Kurdish armed resistance and allow Iraq to take proper control of its northern regions. The expedition was resoundingly successful, routing all organized Kurdish resistance and further dividing a people who already were deeply split. In July of 1979, Saddam became President and de facto dictator of Iraq (Saddam). Within five years, Saddam began a genocidal rampage that targeted the Kurds, a rampage that lasted approximately twenty years. In 1983, Hussein’s Iraqi Army killed all of the male Barzani Kurds, who number around 8000 (Hassanpour). Many people to this day claim that a large portion of the Barzani killed were actually buried alive along the Saudi border, a claim that all authority figures have denied due to the severe implications that admitting it would carry. At a trial for the disappearance of the Barzani, it was ruled on May 3, 2011 that those in the regime were responsible for ordering genocide to be carried out. Court documents claim that soldiers fired guns into the air and into large groups of people to specifically frighten women and children, who were all scared that their deaths would swiftly follow those of their husbands and fathers (Iraqi). Perhaps the single worst operation conducted under Hussein’s regime was the gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja, in northeastern Iraq. The regime used chemical weapons, in a flagrant violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, against Iranians and Kurds alike (Hassanpour). Human Rights Watch’s authoritative book Genocide in Iraq details Saddam’s widespread campaign to systematically murder Kurds in Operation Anfal. The Iraqi Army interrogated all of the men, women, and children that it captured, tortured civilians who stayed behind in their homes, and was responsible for the disappearance of tens of thousands of civilians who were simply never seen again. Towns in the path of the army were bombed constantly, and chemical munitions brought panic and confusion, along with deadly payloads (Human Rights Watch). In total, Saddam killed over one hundred thousand Kurds, among his other targets (Hassanpour). No matter what action the Kurds under attack took, nothing could save them from the genocidal rampage that Saddam’s regime carried out against them.
The United States only took action after its vital interests were under siege, and where protecting the Kurds was a byproduct of a symbolic warning to Hussein. The United States had always known about Baghdad’s deployment of chemical weapons and their use against Saddam’s own people, especially during the Iran-Iraq War. What did the United States government do about it then? Nothing, until ‘gassing his own people’ became a catchy slogan to demonize Saddam. It suddenly became de rigueur for United States officials to say, “Saddam Hussein gassed his own people.” They evidently referred to the Iraqi military’s use of chemical weapons in the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Halabja in March 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, and then in the area controlled by the Teheran-backed Kurdish insurgents after the cease-fire in August. Since Baghdad’s deployment of chemical arms in war as well as peace was known at the time, the question is: What did the United States government do about it then? Nothing. Worse, so strong was the hold of the pro-Iraq lobby on the Republican administration of President Ronald Reagan, it succeeded in getting the White House to frustrate the Senate’s attempt to penalize Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons, which it had signed. This led Saddam to believe that Washington was firmly on his side–a conclusion that paved the way for his invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, the full consequences of which have yet to play out (Hiltermann). The United States once again demonstrated its characteristic Cold War unwillingness to help people in need if it couldn’t be linked directly to money, oil, or national security when they abandoned the Kurds in the summer of 1991. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States resisted direct military aid to countries that we viewed as peripheral to our interests. Even allowing for the fact that we did risk soldiers’ lives on the ground to protect the Kurds, it was a classic case of too little, too late. When genocide was actually occurring in the northern region Iraq home to many of the nation’s Kurds, international involvement was nowhere to be found. About two years following the devastating Anfal Campaign, in which Saddam gassed his own people, the United States was ready to move out. The dark horse in the room is the question over why foreign intervention came so long after Saddam began his genocidal campaign, and the answer is not a pretty one for the Bush administration: Kuwait. The United States was all too happy to stay out of Iraq until vital oil interests in Kuwait were threatened by Hussein’s invasion of that tiny nation. The occupation of Kurdistan was to serve as a slap in the face to our former ally, and the withdrawal of troops while Saddam still holds the reins is a sure sign that protecting the Kurdish people was never our priority, but merely a byproduct of sanctions against their oppressor (Safire).
Although Saddam and his henchmen have been convicted for crimes against humanity in Iraq, justice has not completely fulfilled with specific regards to the Kurdish genocide. The United States helped to organize an Iraqi Court in the wake of Saddam’s downfall to try the members of his regime for their crimes, especially war crimes, of which the United States had been gathering evidence of since 1990. On December 13, 2006, Saddam was captured in a foxhole by invading United States troops. Immediately following his apprehension, President Bush emphatically declared that Iraqis would try Saddam in order to achieve their own justice against their former oppressor. Bush said that trial would serve as an important moment of closure for a wounded Iraqi people, which is why the United States always wished for the Iraqis to try him for crimes against humanity, the United States reserving the right to try him only if weapons of mass destruction were actually found in Iraq. International groups were afraid that, regardless of the composition of a war crimes tribunal, there would be an outcry over such a widely covered trial (Landesman). A video produced at Saddam’s trial shows the aftermath of a chemical attack carried out during Anfal. Taken by an unnamed western news organization present in one of the devastated towns, the video depicts carnage that surprised many who saw it entered as evidence at the trial. It was most likely an attempt to demonize Saddam and remind the people what their leader had done (CBS).
Saddam was sentenced to death, but not for his role in the killing of the Kurds, and was unable to be tried for his role in their extermination. Under Iraqi law, once a man is executed by the state he cannot be held accountable for any other crimes he may have committed (Howard). Human rights organizations harbored fears that a tribunal composed completely of Iraqi judges would not be able to fairly mete out justice, they feared that too many Iraqis were hell-bent on revenge to allow for a trial based solely on the merits of evidence. Some Iraqis stated that they would not resist to a hybrid tribunal, much like the one employed by the ECCC in Cambodia. Such an opinion, however, was not vocally supported and the United States, who maintained physical custody of those to be tried, wanted to get trials underway quickly and believed that a purely Iraqi panel of judges would be better received by the Iraqis (Landesman). The Kurds were exuberant at the news that Saddam, the man who tried to wipe them off the map, met his end at the bottom of a noose. The crime for which Saddam was executed, however, had nothing to do with his ethnic cleansing of Kurds. Saddam was hanged for his role in ordering the murder of some two hundred Shiites in Southern Iraq. President Barzani voiced the opinion of millions of Kurds when he said that justice could never be complete because Saddam could never be convicted of the genocide of his people (Howard).
Iraq focused more on getting revenge against Saddam than achieving justice. As was feared before the trials began, the Iraqi judges that presided over the tribunals were more interested in exacting revenge on their former oppressors than achieving justice up to a Western standard (Landesman). When Saddam Hussein was hanged on December 30, 2006, Iraq experienced its most triumphant moment in recent history. The trial included gruesome evidence that was used as propaganda to turn the country against its former leader, who was despised by many even during his reign. Even though many, including President Barzani, want to receive just compensation for the damage Hussein caused the Kurds and others, most Iraqis are just happy that the pain of the dagger is over, and that the pain of the heart has begun to heal.