Operation Anfal or simply Anfal, was a genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people (and other non-Arab populations) in Northern Iraq, led by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid in the final stages of Iran-Iraq War. The campaign takes its name from Surat al-Anfal in the Qur’an, which was used as a code name by the former Iraqi Baathist regime for a series of systematic attacks against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq, conducted between 1986 and 1989 and culminating in 1988. The campaign also targeted other minority communities in Iraq including Assyrians, Shabaks, Yazidis, Jews, Mandeans, and many villages belonging to these ethnic groups were also destroyed. Writer Joost R. Hiltermann has said the United States government and US State Department was particularly important in helping their then ally the Saddam Hussein government in avoiding any serious censure for the campaign and in particular the attack on rebels and civilians in the city of Halabja. Hiltermann writes; “The deliberate American prevarication on Halabja was the logical, although probably undesired, outcome of a pronounced six-year tilt toward Iraq, seen as a bulwark against the perceived threat posed by Iran’s zealous brand of politicized Islam.”
Al-Anfal is the eighth sura or chapter of the Qur’an which explains the triumph of 319 followers of the new Muslim faith over almost 900 pagans at the battle of Badr in 624 AD. Al Anfal literally means the spoils (of war) and was used to describe the military campaign of extermination and looting commanded by Ali Hassan al-Majid. His orders informed jash (literally “donkey’s foal” in Kurdish) units that taking cattle, sheep, goats, money, weapons and even Kurdish women was legal.
The Anfal campaign began in 1986 and lasted until 1989, and was headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid (a cousin of then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit). The Anfal campaign included the use of ground offensives, aerial bombing, systematic destruction of settlements, mass deportation, firing squads, and chemical warfare, which earned al-Majid the nickname of “Chemical Ali“.
Thousands of civilians were killed during the anti-insurgent campaigns stretching from the spring of 1987 through the fall of 1988. The attacks were part of a long-standing campaign that destroyed approximately 4,500 Kurdish villages in areas of northern Iraq and displaced at least a million of the country’s estimated 3.5 million Kurdish population. Independent sources estimate 1,100,000 to more than 2,150,000 deaths and as many as 860,000 widows and an even greater number of orphans.[disputed – discuss] Amnesty International collected the names of more than 17,000 people who had “disappeared” during 1988. The campaign has been characterized as genocidal in nature. It is also characterized as gendercidal, because “battle-age” men were the primary targets, according to Human Rights Watch/Middle East. According to the Iraqi prosecutors, as many as 182,000 people were killed.[1
In March 1987, Ali Hassan al-Majid was appointed secretary-general of the Ba’ath Party’s Northern Region, which included Iraqi Kurdistan. Under al-Majid, control of policies against the Kurdish insurgents passed from the Iraqi Army to the Ba’ath Party itself. It would be known as al-Anfal (“The Spoils”), in a reference to the eighth sura of the Qur’an.
Anfal, officially conducted between February 23 and September 6, 1988, would have eight stages altogether, seven of them targeting areas controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Kurdish Democratic Party-controlled areas in the northwest of Iraqi Kurdistan, which the regime regarded as a lesser threat, were the target of the Final Anfal operation in late August and early September, 1988. For these assaults, the Iraqis mustered up to 200,000 soldiers with air support — matched against Kurdish guerrilla forces that numbered no more than a few thousand.
Military operations and chemical attacks
On March 16, 1988, there was a genocidal poison gas attack on the city of Halabja in which four to five thousand Kurdish people were killed, most of them women and children.
Concentration camps and extermination
When captured Kurdish populations were transported to detention centers (notably Topzawa near the city of Kirkuk), adult and teenage males viewed as possible insurgents were separated from the civilians. According to Human Rights Watch/Middle East,
With only minor variations … the standard pattern for sorting new arrivals [at Topzawa was as follows]. Men and women were segregated on the spot as soon as the trucks had rolled to a halt in the base’s large central courtyard or parade ground. The process was brutal … A little later, the men were further divided by age, small children were kept with their mothers, and the elderly and infirm were shunted off to separate quarters. Men and teenage boys considered to be of an age to use a weapon were herded together. Roughly speaking, this meant males of between fifteen and fifty, but there was no rigorous check of identity documents, and strict chronological age seems to have been less of a criterion than size and appearance. A strapping twelve-year-old might fail to make the cut; an undersized sixteen-year-old might be told to remain with his female relatives. … It was then time to process the younger males. They were split into smaller groups. … Once duly registered, the prisoners were hustled into large rooms, or halls, each filled with the residents of a single area. … Although the conditions at Topzawa were appalling for everyone, the most grossly overcrowded quarter seem to have been those where the male detainees were held. … For the men, beatings were routine. (Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, pp. 143-45. ISBN 0-300-06427-6)
After a few days in these camps, the men accused of being insurgents were trucked off to be killed in mass executions.
In its book Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, Human Rights Watch/Middle East writes: “Throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, although women and children vanished in certain clearly defined areas, adult males who were captured disappeared in mass … It is apparent that a principal purpose of Anfal was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan.” (pp. 96, 170). Only a handful survived the execution squads. Even amidst this most systematic slaughter of adult men and boys, however, “hundreds of women and young children perished, too,” though “the causes of their deaths were different — gassing, starvation, exposure, and willful neglect — rather than bullets fired from a Kalashnikov.” (Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, p. 191.) Nevertheless, on September 1, 2004, U.S. forces in Iraq discovered hundreds of bodies of Kurdish women and children at the site near al-Hatra, believed to be executed in early 1988 or late 1987.
The focus of the Iraqi killing campaign varied from one stage of Anfal to another. The most exclusive targeting of the male population occurred during the final Anfal (August 25-September 6, 1988). This was launched immediately after the signing of a ceasefire with Iran, which allowed the transfer of large amounts of men and matériel from the southern battlefronts. The final Anfal focused on “the steep, narrow valleys of Badinan, a four-thousand-square mile chunk of the Zagros Mountains bounded on the east by the Great Zab and on the north by Turkey.” Here, uniquely in the Anfal campaigns, lists of the “disappeared” provided to Human Rights Watch/Middle East by survivors “invariably included only adult and teenage males, with the single exception of Assyrians and Yezidi Kurds,” who were subsidiary targets of the slaughter. Many of the men of Badinan did not even make it as far as “processing” stations, being simply “lined up and murdered at their point of capture, summarily executed by firing squads on the authority of a local military officer.” (Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, pp. 178, 190, 192; on the fate of the Christians and Yezidi Kurds, see pp. 209–13.)
On June 20, 1987, directive SF/4008 was issued under al-Majid’s signature. Of greatest significance is clause 5. Referring to those areas designated “prohibited zones,” al-Majid ordered that “all 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, of which we should be duly notified.” However, it seems clear from the application of this policy that this referred only to males “between the ages of 15 and 70.” Human Rights Watch/Middle East takes this as given, writing that clause 5’s “order [was] to kill all adult males,” and later: “Under the terms of al-Majid’s June 1987 directives, death was the automatic penalty for any male of an age to bear arms who was found in an Anfal area.” (Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, pp. 11, 14.) A subsequent directive on September 6, 1987, supports this conclusion: it calls for “the deportation of … families to the areas where there saboteur relatives are …, except for the male [members], between the ages of 12 inclusive and 50 inclusive, who must be detained.” (Cited in Iraq’s Crime of Genocide, p. 298.)
“Arabization,” another major element of al-Anfal, was a tactic used by Hussein’s regime to drive pro-insurgent populations out of their homes in villages and cities like Kirkuk, which are in the valuable oil field areas, and relocate them in the southern parts of Iraq. The campaign used heavy population redistribution, most notably in Kirkuk, the results of which now plague negotiations between Iraq’s Shi’a United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Kurdistani Alliance. Hussein’s Ba’athist regime built several public housing facilities in Kirkuk as part of his “Arabization,” shifting poor Arabs from Iraq’s southern regions to Kirkuk with the lure of inexpensive housing.
Iraq’s Kurds now strongly resent Arabs still residing in Ba’ath-era Kirkuk housing, and view them as a barrier to Kirkuk‘s recognition as a Kurdish city (and regional seat) in an increasingly sovereign Kurdish Autonomous Region.