A monument in Halabja pays tribute to the victims of the chemical attack. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the attack. File photo: Rudaw
Thirty years ago this week thousands of Kurds were murdered by Saddam Hussein’s mustard gas and sarin in the town of Halabja. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the wider ‘Anfal’ genocide across Kurdistan in which up to 200,000 people were killed and thousands of villages razed to the ground.
At the entrance to the cemetery in Halabja with its mass graves and many still unidentified bodies, there is a defiant sign which states “Baath not allowed.” This refers to the party of Saddam, who decided to eliminate the Kurds as a people.
I saw this after taking part in a Commons debate which formally recognised Saddam’s attacks as genocide. As with other genocides, we all argued that recognition is a vital part of ensuring “Never Again” means something, although it wasn’t long before the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons there.
The Kurds in Iraq picked up the pieces after Anfal and looked after the maimed, mentally impaired, widowed and orphaned. They also rebuilt their shattered villages but have not yet recovered their full agricultural potential as the breadbasket of Iraq.
They also opened museums to document Saddam’s toxic mixture of Hitlerism and Stalinism, including the Red House Museum in Sulaimani, which I will never set foot in again. Its recreation of torture chambers, rape rooms, incinerators for babies, and the later genocide against the Yezedis is graphic and would make me ill. The Kurds are people who learn from the past but don’t live in the past.
The Kurds also managed to create a largely decent near-state which aspires to democracy – with recent backward steps that are now being remedied. Their political DNA enthusiastically extols religious pluralism, secularism, women’s rights, and a more dynamic economy to replace their state-heavy and overly oil-dependent model. The Kurdistan Region has been steadily turning itself into a beacon of moderation in the Middle East, which needs such examples of co-existence.
And their army, the Peshmerga, proved to be resilient allies despite chronic under-equipping. Iraq as a whole would not be largely free of the scourge of the fascistic and genocidal ISIS today had the Kurds and their Peshmerga run away, as sadly the Iraqi Army did when ISIS took Mosul and then advanced towards Kirkuk and Baghdad and later the Kurdistan Region itself. The Peshmerga did so much at so much cost to resist and then roll back the so-called Islamic State by offering to work with the Iraqi Army that had in another age committed genocide against them.
Thanks to this, the Kurds were widely hailed, but are now in a perilous and diminished position thanks to the distinctly ungrateful and mean policies of Baghdad. While the Kurds are not currently facing genocide, they are effectively imprisoned by a new government in Baghdad whose methods reek of the centralising and sectarian playbook of pre-genocide Saddam.
Following years of broken Iraqi promises to a federal settlement with equality and fair revenue sharing, the Kurds clearly endorsed independence in a peaceful referendum last year and wanted to negotiate that with Baghdad over several years, rather than declaring an immediate unilateral declaration of independence.
Baghdad’s reaction was swift, harsh, violent, and unconstitutional. Kurdish airports were closed. The agreed Kurdish share of national revenues is being whittled down in a spiteful attempt to twist the knife and keep the Kurds in a subordinate position. It is hardly the hallmark of a government willing to treat the Kurds equally and persuade them to remain part of Iraq. One day, the Kurds will escape and they will have my full support so they can themselves defend their people, prevent further genocide, and encourage reform in the Middle East.
Robert Halfon is a Conservative MP and a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The address for the all-party group is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.