In late 2003, I spent some time in Baghdad with the Iraqi Christian community. I had agreed to do a sort of assessment of the Iraqi Christian non-governmental aid organizations to determine if they could absorb a large grant of financial aid from a charity in Canada, so I spent a few weeks visiting different projects and community groups.
During my time with them, our conversations naturally turned to politics quite often. Iraq was going through huge changes with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the scramble to build a new political structure to replace it. The Iraqi Christians hosting me provided accounts of their current worries with al-Qaeda in Iraq and other radical Islamists targeting them. They also told me of a few Christian villages near Kirkuk destroyed under Saddam’s regime and previous ones.
When the conversation turned towards the Kurds, however, I found myself taken aback. While those of my Christian hosts from Erbil and Duhok (which are in the Kurdistan region) showed no ill will towards the Kurds, the same could not be said for many of those from Baghdad. They felt that the Kurds were getting more than they deserved in the post-Saddam political structures that were taking shape. More alarmingly, several dismissed the Anfal
campaigns which systematically and methodically killed up to 180,000 Kurdish men, women and children in 1987-88. “They were disloyal and rebelling against the state,” one told me, “so of course Saddam had to put them down.”
At first I wondered if I was speaking to a group of Tariq Aziz hopefuls. Tariq Aziz, of course, was Saddam’s Iraqi Christian Foreign Minister and a loyal Ba’athist until the bitter end. But then it occurred to me that these people were simply from Baghdad, born and raised in the propaganda capital of a regime that dehumanized and demonized the Kurds for decades. Despite their own identity as an Iraqi minority that often had to grapple with xenophobia and intolerance, many of them identified with and believed in a narrative that justified the worst imaginable crimes against the Kurds.
As Kurds in Iraq commemorate the Anfal
this week, it may thus prove useful to reflect on some of the pre-conditions for genocide. One of the first preconditions is that the target victim group be excluded from the rest of society. In Saddam’s case, this involved branding the Kurds as rebels, Iranian agents and even “infidels.” In this vein, Saddam famously asked Muslim scholars in Iraq to issue fatwas against the Kurds branding them as non-believers – a request that many Sunni Imams obliged, while Shiite imams by and large refused to do so. Some of the Baghdadi Christians hosting me in 2003 also apparently accepted this narrative, not realizing how dangerous such a precedent would be for them later when others decided to brand Iraqi Christians as enemies as well.
Another precondition for genocide rests on the presence of a dictatorial state. When no checks on the power of the ruling elite exist and where rule of law simply depends on the whims of the dictators, humanity’s worst impulses and nightmares become possible. Iraq under Saddam was such a state, of course, to the point that even Kurdish tribes recruited to help carry out the Anfal
against their kin could not refuse for fear that their villages would be next if they did.
A third precondition revolves around the existence of a crisis or opportunity that makes genocide possible. The Iran-Iraq war, especially as the tide turned against Baghdad in the latter years of the conflict, provided just such a crisis. When Kurdish parties in Iraq cooperated with Iranian forces against their long-time enemy in Baghdad, Saddam’s wrath did not differentiate between Peshmerga and Kurdish civilians. Even last week, yet another mass grave from this period, filled with the remnants and bones of innocent Kurdish women and children, was discovered in southern Iraq. Iraqi forces in 1987 and 1988 would systematically round up villagers, move them to detention centers, separate men, women and children in Nazi style, and bus them to killing fields in the south of the country.
A fourth and final precondition for genocide merits the most attention, however. For genocides to really unfold on a large scale, bystanders – other members of society in places like Baghdad and abroad, as well as other states – need to do nothing. The Kurds remember this all too well: Few in the international community said a word as the Anfal
unfolded. Saddam used European and American-supplied weapons and chemicals to eliminate whole swathes of Iraqi Kurdistan, but the Kurds could not even get a hearing in the United Nations about it. Saddam remained an ally of Europe and Washington because he was useful against Iran, and only a few intrepid and independent souls outside Kurdistan spoke up about the atrocities at the time. Only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 were the reports of Halabja and other Anfal
atrocities retrieved from the filing boxes and shelves where they had lain for the past two years.
If commemorations such as that of the Anfal
are to mean anything, then people should remember these lessons about what preconditions make genocides possible.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.