The Crimes of Saddam Hussein

By Dave Johns

1988 The Anfal Campaign

Middle east urban sprawl

Al–Anfal, which is Arabic for “the spoils of war,” is the name of the eighth sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an. It tells a tale in which followers of Mohammed pillage the lands of nonbelievers. Some say the government chose the term for its campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq because it suggested a religious justification for its actions. Saddam’s Anfal was a mammoth campaign of civic annihilation, displacement and mass killing. The Anfal was unleashed against the Kurds from February through September 1988, and was tied to Saddam’s goals in the final phase of the Iran–Iraq war.

After the war with Iran began in 1980, Iraqi troops stationed in the north were transferred to the frontline, allowing Kurdish peshmerga forces to gain in strength and numbers. At the time, Kurdistan, as the area is often called, simmered with revolt, led by the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In the war, both parties actively sided with Iran. By 1987, although Kurdish cities were still controlled by Iraqi troops, the villages of the vast interior were safe havens for the Kurdish rebels. That year, Saddam tapped his cousin, Ali Hassan al–Majid, a man well–known for his brutality, to take charge of northern Iraq. Al–Majid quickly deployed military resources to, in his words, “solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs.” He ordered Iraqi aircraft to drop poison gas on PUK and KDP targets and civilian villages, killing hundreds indiscriminately. The Iraqi regime had become the first in history to attack its own civilian population with chemical weapons. Al–Majid came to be known as “Chemical Ali.”

The Anfal began in earnest in early 1988. A directive from Baghdad ordered commanders to bomb rural areas of the north day or night “in order to kill the largest number of persons present.” The same directive declared that “[a]ll persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services, and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them.” There were eight Anfal attacks in all, each following a similar pattern. First, air attacks dropped chemical weapons on both civilian and peshmerga targets. Next, ground troops surrounded the villages, looting and setting fire to homes. Then townspeople were herded into army trucks and taken to holding facilities, the largest being Topzawa, an army camp near Kirkuk. At these camps, men and boys deemed old enough to carry a weapon were separated from women, the elderly and young children. Routinely and uniformly, these men and boys were taken to remote sites, executed in groups, and dumped into pre–dug mass graves. Many women and children were also executed, especially those from areas that supported the Kurdish resistance.

The Anfal military campaign ended in September 1988 when Saddam’s regime announced a general amnesty for all Kurds (although they were not permitted to return to “prohibited zones”). In any case, 90 percent of Kurdish villages had essentially been wiped off the map, and the countryside was strewn with land mines to discourage resettlement. The response from the international community was muted, as many nations, including the United States, had supported Hussein with money and arms during the Iran–Iraq war.

Charges and evidence

Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed during al–Anfal; Kurdish officials have put the number as high as 182,000. When presented with this figure, “Chemical” Ali Hassan al–Majid took exception. “It could not have been more than 100,000,” he said. Since the fall of Saddam, mass graves related to al–Anfal have been found in Hatra, near Mosul, and in Samawa, southeast of Baghdad. In some cases, audiotapes document meetings of Ba’ath leaders discussing the campaign. Soil samples taken from bomb craters in northern Iraq show evidence of the use of chemical weapons. Observers expect that Saddam will be tried for his role in al–Anfal following the Dujail trial. He may be charged with genocide.

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