Two Decades Later, Partial Justice for the Kurds
Two Decades Later, Partial Justice for the Kurds
Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants
Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Two Decades Later, Partial Justice for the Kurds

Chemical Ali has been condemned to die and Kurds rejoice. More than anyone, perhaps even Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan al-Majid personifies the horrors visited on the Kurds two decades ago. As overlord of the North, he sent his minions to suppress the Kurds' growing rebellion against his boss's tyrannical rule. Now his power has come crashing down, and this man without morals was reduced to stammering "Thank God" when the verdict was read.

Chemical Ali's reign lasted two years, long enough to crush the Kurdish revolt, level the countryside, and seek to prevent a viable Kurdish national movement from ever arising again. Appointed by Hussein, his cousin, in March 1987, Chemical Ali, who headed Iraq's security police, the Amn, wasted no time in sending a message to the Kurds that their time was up. "Jalal Talabani asked me to open a special communications channel with him," he said later in a chilling speech to Baath party faithful, referring to the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who today, in vindication of his long struggle, is president of Iraq. "That evening I went to Suleimaniya and hit them with special ammunition."

"Special ammunition" was the regime's euphemism for poison gas. In 1987, chemical attacks on guerrilla strongholds multiplied, extending to villages and, in a horrifying climax, an entire town: Halabja, in March 1988. Thousands died in Halabja, and the overpowering fear this attack instilled ensured that when Chemical Ali launched his counterinsurgency campaign, called Anfal, a few days later he caused mass panic by deploying gas at the outset of each of the operation's eight stages.

Terrified villagers ran straight into the Iraqi military's arms, who handed them over to the Amn. They in turn hauled tens of thousands of men, women, and children to areas far from Kurdistan, where execution squads completed the job. The affair was over in six months. Some 70,000 to 80,000 (the numbers are uncertain and disputed) never returned home.

Much of this was known to the Reagan administration, according to government documents and interviews with some of the principals. But knowledge is only half of it. Spooked by the specter of an Islamic revolution radiating throughout the Gulf from Khomeini's Iran, the administration threw its weight behind Hussein's unsavory regime in its eight-year war with Iran, providing it with millions of dollars in credit guarantees as well as diplomatic cover, satellite intelligence, and, indirectly, weapons.

US intelligence was fully aware of Iraq's chemical weapons use, but the administration didn't do anything about it. When it did go so far as to condemn it, in 1984, it did so with a wink and a nod, sending Donald Rumsfeld as envoy to Baghdad to appease the Iraqis by offering to restore diplomatic relations.

Encouraged by Washington's tolerance, the regime escalated its use of poison gas, chemically bombing Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians alike. To preempt rebuke, Hussein trotted out Iraqi chemical warfare casualties, blaming their injuries on Iran. Although there was little evidence of Iranian chemical weapons use and plenty of evidence of accidental blowback on Iraq's own troops, many observers soon accepted the line that Iran and Iraq were gassing each other. In Halabja, this claim was extended to argue that both countries shared responsibility for the atrocity; both were condemned by the UN Security Council. Using this critical breathing space, the regime launched the Anfal campaign on the heels of the attack, using its demonstration effect to flush villagers from their homes -- and to kill them.

The Anfal trial has now ended and although Chemical Ali's sentence will be reviewed on appeal, he is likely to follow his cousin in death by hanging. This means that neither man will be present at the Halabja trial later this year. This is a pity, as their absence will reduce the trial's impact and may deprive the Kurds of information that could help them understand the circumstances that prompted the regime to order the devastating attack.

Absent from the courtroom also, but casting an enormous shadow on the proceedings nonetheless, will be the Reagan administration that condoned if not encouraged its proxy's chemical weapons use and, when Hussein's behavior proved too embarrassing, in Halabja, did its best to defuse the fallout through cover-up and deceit.

The Kurds may be rejoicing, but justice has not been done.

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