Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: Investigator Describes Anfal Campaign

Gravestones at a monument to the victims of the Anfal campaign (epa) PRAGUE, August 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Joost Hiltermann was a key figure in the investigation by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) of the Iraqi government's Anfal campaign in 1987-88, which is believed to have killed some 100,000 Kurds. RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke with Hiltermann, now with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan, on July 19, 2005, on the HRW's report, titled "Genocide in Iraq."

RFE/RL: If we go back to this report, you wrote there that Saddam Hussein did not hide any details of the Anfal operation. Why was it important for human rights groups to make this investigation at that time?

Joost Hiltermann: Well, the investigation was undertaken in 1992 until 1994, the biggest undertaking of its kind by Human Rights Watch, in order to uncover the truth. It is true that the regime made no secret about the Anfal campaign, it was announced in banner headlines in the Iraqi newspapers at that time, in 1988.

At the same time there were many aspects of it that were unknown, especially the fate of those who were detained apparently for security reasons. And it turned out at the end that these people, never, none of them came back, and that they were killed in mass executions.

RFE/RL: How many people?

Hiltermann: The estimates differ. The best estimate that we could come up with at that time was close to 100,000. The Kurds use a different figure of 180,000, which we think is an exaggeration.

RFE/RL: Who was involved from the government side in staging this campaign?

Hiltermann: The person in charge of undertaking the campaign was Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is colloquially known as Chemical Ali, who was given the full authority of the Revolutionary Command Council by Saddam Hussein for a two-year period from March 1987 until April 1989. And within this period he carried out the Anfal campaign and other aspects of the counterinsurgency campaign using all military and special forces at his disposal in the north.

RFE/RL: When did it become known that the regime used chemical weapons there?

Hiltermann: Well, the regime started using chemical weapons in 1983 in the war against Iran. And this was known at that time to everyone because it was very difficult to hide. The victims were available in Iran and visited by international teams. And the Iraqis also were quite clear about it. Because Iraq was not stopped by the international community, it continued to escalate its use of chemical weapons against Iranians, using most sophisticated chemical agents, and eventually started targeting its own Kurdish population in 1987 with chemical weapons.

This was not immediately known other than to the Kurds, of course, who were the victims, because of the difficulty of access to that particular terrain. But soon victims started showing up in Iranian hospitals and were, again, visited by the United Nations teams and other international chemical experts.

RFE/RL: But still during your investigation you were trying to prove the use of chemical weapons, and there was a team from Physicians For Human Rights working with Human Rights Watch, as I understand?

Hiltermann: Well, yes at one point there was definitely a group of Physicians For Human Rights and Human Rights Watch that looked into a particular case of the village of Bijini in Badinan area, and found irrefutable hard evidence of the use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent. And according to the villagers (and all the testimonies are consistent on this) the attack took place on August 25, 1988. It was the first day of the final stage of the Anfal campaign, which covered that particular area of Iraqi Kurdistan.

RFE/RL: Going back to those days when you completed this report, what was the biggest revelation for you?

Hiltermann: Well, we knew that people had disappeared, we just did not know what had happened to them. And I think that the biggest revelation was the highly organized nature of this campaign.

Clearly, this required a huge logistical effort that could only have been ordered from the very top, in this case Ali Hassan al-Majid, who had been given full authority by Saddam Hussein to carry it out. These were not errant operations, carried out by some junior officers, this was a high-level, highly coordinated campaign that aimed to stamp out once and for all the Kurdish insurgency in Iraqi Kurdistan by draining the swamp, i.e. by killing civilians.

And one particular salient aspect of it is that the killing of women and children occurred particularly in the rural areas around the Kirkuk region, which is rich in oil. It was a particularly lethal and gruesome incident of Arabization that was taking place there: ethnic cleansing in order to ensure the future control of the oil areas by the regime.

RFE/RL: You also give the structure of this campaign: first defining who is going to be the target [during the census of 1987], then seize the target, and then eventually eliminating it. At that time, when you made this investigation, how did you figure out that that was the case? Did you find any documents, or [Ba'ath] Party directives, or something?

Hiltermann: Yes, the evidence that we have about the nature of the Anfal campaign comes in three types. We have hundreds of witness testimonies taken in 1992-93 by myself and colleagues. We have forensic evidence in the form of corpses found in mass graves at that time in some places but really only in the last couple of years in Iraq's western desert, now that the areas became accessible to us.

And thirdly and the most importantly, in the form of 18 metric tons of Iraqi secret police documents that were captured by the Kurdish parties in 1991 during the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and transferred to the United States for safeguarding where Human Rights Watch was given exclusive access to these documents for the purpose of research on human rights crimes. These documents establish beyond the shadow of a doubt the nature of the Anfal campaign and who coordinated it, who was in charge of it, and who carried it out.

RFE/RL: They say that the Anfal campaign is the most clear case for the [Iraqi Special] Tribunal to look into. Do you think that it is really such a clear case to present to Saddam Hussein?

Hiltermann: Well, I think that the Anfal campaign as a crime is something that is easy to prove in terms of particular command responsibility of Ali Hassan al-Majid, whose signature appears on key documents. But through him, of Saddam Hussein, who gave Ali Hassan al-Majid the full authority of the Revolution Command Council to carry out the counterinsurgency campaign in the north.

And so, yes, because of the research that Human Rights Watch conducted at that time on these documents, the fact that these documents were available, will make the case relatively easy. At the time, Human Rights Watch attempted to have certain neutral governments bring a case against Iraq in the International Court of Justice in The Hague -- a case of genocide against the Iraqi government. No governments were politically prepared to do this. But legal advice that Human Rights Watch received at that time was that such a case was winnable before the International Court of Justice and that certainly the evidentiary basis was sufficient for that.

Iraq's Kurdish Region

Iraq's Kurdish Region

KURDISH AWAKENING: The ethnic Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq has struggled in recent years to reestablish its cultural and political identity after decades of oppression under the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In December, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled to this area and filed several reports:

Relative Peace Underscores Issue Of Kurdish Region's Future

Kurdish Culture Begins To Flourish In Kurdistan Region

Kurds Ponder How To Strengthen Autonomy After Elections

Irbil’s Kurds Live On A Hill Of Undiscovered Treasures

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.