Mass Graves, Saddam Hussein’s Legacy In Iraq

Identification papers (L) of a baby Kurdish girl found at a mass grave site  Faded ID papers of a Kurdish man (R) killed in the Anfal campaign. Photo

Identification papers (L) of a baby Kurdish girl found at a mass grave site Faded ID papers of a Kurdish man (R) killed in the Anfal campaign. Photo: (Evidence Technology Magazine).

Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq through a carrot and stick approach. With various groups within the country he would offer positions within the government, development funds, and conduct personal visits to their communities. On the other hand, he had a vast array of security agencies that would detain, interrogate, torture, and kill anyone that was considered a rival or threat to his regime. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kurdish parties in the north and young Shiites in the south challenged Saddam’s authority and were met with his fist. Tens of thousands were killed, many having “disappeared” after being picked up by Saddam’s forces. Many of the regime’s victims were dumped in dozens of mass graves spread throughout Iraq. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, both the Americans and the Iraqis made a concerted effort to find these sites, and detail the crimes contained within them. This history has left a lasting legacy. Many of today’s politicians had to flee in the face of threats by Saddam or lost friends and family members. It has also created a sense of victimization and mistrust, which makes it hard for Iraq’s parties to agree upon many things. Iraq’s mass graves are Saddam’s living legacy within the country.

The Kurds were a prime target of Saddam’s repression. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the two leading Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of current Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by today’s president of Iraq Jalal Talabani fought on the Iranian side. At the beginning of the war, the KDP had closer relations with Tehran, and immediately aligned with them in the conflict. The PUK was threatened by the benefits Barzani was gaining from this relationship, and decided to open talks with Baghdad. This provided a perfect chance for Saddam to play his divide and conquer strategies. At the same time, he decided to retaliate against the KDP.

In early 1983, the KDP and Iranian forces led an offensive in northern Iraq. In response, Saddam ordered the round up of the Barzani clan in August. Around 8,000 men and boys, some as young as eight years old, were arrested by the security forces in Erbil. Massoud Barzani lost 37 families members as a result. They were then sent to Nugra Salman prison in Muthanna province, southern Iraq where some died of hunger or torture. The survivors were relocated to more remote locations further south where special execution squads killed them in the desert. After 2003, 512 Barzani men were found in a mass grave by the Kuwait and Saudi border. When talks went nowhere with Baghdad, the PUK joined the Iranian side as well. As the war was winding down in 1988, Saddam decided to destroy all the KDP and PUK cadre in northern Iraq with the Anfal campaign. The offensive was broken up into six parts lasting from February to September, and included artillery, bombing, and troop assaults, supported by the use of chemical weapons. The survivors were rounded up and sent to special prison camps created for them. These were spread out between Duhok, Sulaimaniyah, Ninewa, Tamim, Salahaddin, Diyala, and Muthanna governorates. There, hundreds were executed. By the end of it, the Anfal campaign had broken the back of the Kurdish resistance. The PUK and KDP bases had been rolled up, and thousands were forced into Iran and Turkey as refugees. The regime had shown its ruthlessness, and the length it was willing to go to destroy its opponents.

Bones of a Kurdish victim of the Anfal campaign unearthed in 2003 in Hatra, Ninewa. Photo: Science Photo Library

Bones of a Kurdish victim of the Anfal campaign unearthed in 2003 in Hatra, Ninewa. Photo: Science Photo Library

In the next decade, after the 1991 Gulf War came to an end, returning soldiers and young men took up the gun against Saddam. The precursors were a radio station set up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Saudi Arabia that called for Iraqis to revolt against the government, and a message by President George Bush broadcast in February saying that Saddam should be overthrown. In March, soldiers straggling back from the frontlines decided to start an uprising in Basra. That quickly spread to other southern cities such as Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, Diwaniya, Hillah, Amarah, Nasiriyah, Kut, Samawa, Zubayr, Kumait, and Qalat Saleh. This became known as the 1991 Shiite Uprising. The leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayid Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei even gave his approval. Within a few days, Saddam responded by sending in the Republican Guards, which had largely escaped the Gulf War. In Basra, the security forces shelled the city, and went from house to house taking away any young men they found. The revolt didn’t have a chance, because it was unorganized, had no outside support, and did not have the arms to counter the government. Within a few days the whole thing was over. Some stragglers fled into the southern marshes, where Saddam would later carry out a campaign of destroying the echo system there to root out the rebels. The uprising put a scare into the regime, but it had weathered through, and exacted its revenge upon all those that had opposed it. Like in Kurdistan during the Anfal campaign, thousands of young Iraqis went missing after 1991, taken to various locations throughout southern Iraq where they were executed.

No one knew or was willing to talk about where all the victims of the Anfal campaign and the 1991 Uprising were until after the fall of Saddam in 2003. As soon as he was overthrown, reports began to emerge of mass graves. By 2004, 270 sites were allegedly found, and out of those, 53 were confirmed. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) set up a special investigative team to find, categorize, and document each place. There were estimates that 50,000-180,000 Kurds died in the Anfal campaign, and 100,000-180,000 Shiites were killed in the 1991 Uprising. By 2005, graves were found in Mahawil in Babil, Hatra in Ninewa, and one near Samawa in Muthanna with around 10,000-15,000 bodies in them. In Mahawil, 200-300 people were discovered, thought to be from the Shiite Uprising. It appeared that groups of men were shot in the back of the head. At the site near Samawa, almost all the victims were Kurdish women and children who were gunned down by AK-47s.

The work of the CPA team went on to help convict Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. There are so many of these killing fields that they are still turning up to this day. In March 2011, Kurdish peshmerga found trenches south of Kirkuk with around 2,300 people in them. In July, another 1,100 bodies turned up in a mass grave near Shanafiya, Qadisiya. In June 2012, a ceremony was held for 730 of them in Chamchamal, Sulaimaniyah that was attended by President Barzani. Each of these sites attests to the brutality of the former regime. Saddam used an iron first to maintain his hold upon the country. His actions left a deep scar, which is still felt today. There are thousands of people in Iraq that lost their family members and friends in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of them were never seen after the security forces took them away, and they ended up in these mass graves. The process of identifying all the bodies has been slow, and will probably never be complete. That means the hole in the lives of the survivors will never be filled as they do not know what ultimately became of their loved ones.

The history of Saddam Hussein created widespread mistrust amongst the public. Today’s politicians share many of those feelings, and have also exploited them for their own personal gains. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for instance, fled Iraq in 1979 fearing assassination by the government. Kurdish President Barzani lost thousands of members of his clan, and immediate family. Moqtada al-Sadr’s father and brothers were murdered by the regime. It’s those fears of Saddam’s legacy that allows the government to round up suspected Baathists and use the deBaathification laws to ban people from politics or public sector jobs. It’s the reason why the leading Shiite and Kurdish parties would never allow a Sunni to become prime minister again out of the suspicion that they could bring back the Baath Party. It’s the reason why politicians like Iyad Allawi and Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq are held into question by others such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, because both were former Baathists, and the latter has even praised the message of the party, while condemning its excesses.

The mass graves themselves have even been hurled about in disputes to condemn political rivals. Iraq is unlikely to overcome these fissures and move on until this generation of leaders passes. Their past still lives deep within them, and shapes how their interact with other elites to this day. This often times hampers compromises, and moving ahead with important issues. Instead of addressing them, they are being pushed down the road. This is what happens in many post-conflict countries, especially ones like Iraq that suffered through decades of brutal dictatorship.


Agence France Presse, “Iraq unearths mass grave of 900 bodies,” 7/6/11
Associated Press, “Expert: 300,000 in Iraq’s Mass Graves,” 11/8/03
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and Bureau of Public Affairs, “Mass Graves of Iraq: Uncovering Atrocities,” U.S. State Department, 12/19/03
Burns, John, “Uncovering Iraq’s Horrors in Desert Graves,” New York Times, 6/5/06
Johns, Dave, “1983 The Missing Barzanis,” PBS Frontline, 1/24/06
Knickmeyer, Ellen, “113 Kurds Are Found In Mass Grave,” Washington Post, 4/30/05
McEvers, Kelly, “Mass Grave Discovery In Iraq Could Fuel Divisions,” NPR, 4/20/11
Moon, Ban Ki, “Second report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 6 of resolution 1936 (2010),” United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, 3/31/11
Sackur, Stephen, “In Saddam’s killing fields,” BBC, 5/14/03
Satkunanandan, Shyamali, “Tears, Grief and Waiting at Chamchamal Burial Ceremony,” Rudaw, 6/1/12
Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, 2008
U.S. Agency for International Development, “Iraq’s Legacy of Terror Mass Graves,” 2004
UNAMI Human Rights Office and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Report on Human Rights in Iraq: 2011,” May 2012

Joel Wing, with an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent. You may visit his Blog Musings On Iraq at

Copyright © 2012  


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