The Kurdish Genocide in Iraq (Al-Anfal Campaign)

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  • 0:00 Genocide in the Middle East
  • 0:43 Causes of the Campaign
  • 2:05 Beginning of Genocide
  • 3:42 Aftermath of the Campaign
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Though the Kurdish genocide called the al-Anfal campaign officially occurred in 1988, it was actually the culmination of decades of oppression at the hands of a brutal regime in Iraq. Read this lesson to learn about the causes and effects of this genocide.

A Genocide in the Middle East

War is never pretty, but it's particularly ugly when a government starts to kill its own people as part of its war effort. In the 1980s, this is what the Iraqi government did to the Kurds, a semi-autonomous ethnic group with ancient origins in the Middle East who lived in northern Iraq at the time. In 1988, the assault on the Kurds escalated into a full-blown, government-run, genocidal extermination called the al-Anfal campaign. By the end of the al-Anfal campaign, up to 182,000 Kurdish people had died and 90% of Iraq's Kurdish villages had been completely obliterated.

Causes of the Al-Anfal Campaign

What drives a government to take such brutal actions against its own people? In the case of the al-Anfal campaign, the systematic extermination of the Kurds was the effect of a war, an extremist ideology, and the brutal tactics of a dictator.

Between 1980 and 1988, the Iran-Iraq War raged between the two neighboring countries over territorial disputes. Many Kurds in northern Iraq actually sided with Iran during the war, hoping to gain the independence they had long sought. Iraqi president or, more appropriately, Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein wanted to keep the Kurds from stirring up any trouble during the war. So, Hussein decided to fight the Kurds just as harshly as he was fighting Iran.

Hussein had a political and ideological motivation to fight the Kurds. Hussein was part of the Ba'ath political party, which controlled Iraq from 1968 to 2003. The Ba'ath party advocated socialist policies in order to create a unified, ethnically homogenous Arab nation. In practice, the Ba'ath party was intolerant of any non-Arab peoples, including the Kurds, and the regime oppressed minority groups often. Hussein thought that cleansing Iraq of non-Arabs would ensure Iraq's success not only in the war, but in the world.

The Genocide Begins

In order to accomplish this goal, Hussein enlisted his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid to organize counter-insurgency strikes against the Kurds. Al-Majid's solution to the Kurdish 'problem' was the al-Anfal campaign. It was named this because 'al-Anfal', which means 'spoils of war', is a reference to a story from the Quran depicting the glory of plundering an enemy's land. The Iraqi regime used this image to justify its extermination of the Kurdish people. Though al-Anfal was supposedly designed to squash the Kurdish rebels siding with Iran, it turned into an outright genocide.

The al-Anfal campaign lasted from February to September 1988 and consisted of 8 stages of carefully designed attacks against Kurdish settlements. Usually, each of the 8 stages began with chemical attacks from the air. Al-Majid earned the nickname 'Chemical Ali' for his propensity to use chemical weapons on his own people. The deadliest chemical attack was on the town of Halabja. Those who were lucky enough to survive the initial attacks were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. Most of the men and boys were then killed in mass executions, and the women and children were left to starve to death.

Meanwhile, back at the abandoned Kurdish villages, Iraqi crews would come in and demolish the towns. Businesses, cultural centers, and homes were ransacked, and farms were burned. By the end of the al-Anfal campaign, it was as if the Kurdish communities had never existed.

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