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Putting Saddam Hussein on Trial

Though only a fraction of the captured Iraqi documents have thus far been examined and translated, the evidence so far is extremely damning. An order signed by Ali Hasan al-Majid and dated June 3, 1987, names parts of the Kurdish countryside in which there had been more than a thousand villages and authorizes summary execution of anyone found in them. “Within their jurisdiction,” the order says, “the armed forces must kill any human being or animal present within these areas. They are totally prohibited.” Other directives, issued over the next few days, relay this order, word for word, down the chain of command. An order from Ali Hasan al-Majid on June 20, 1987, provided more detailed instructions, including the following:

  1. The corps commanders shall carry out sporadic bombardments using artillery, helicopters and aircraft, at all times of the day or night in order to kill the largest number of persons present in those prohibited zones, keeping us informed of the results:

  2. All persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information had been obtained from them, of which we should be duly notified.

The document states that copies were to go to a large number of officials,5 each of whom was told that it was “For information and action within your respective fields of jurisdiction. Keep us informed.”6

As the list of people who were sent Ali Hasan al-Majid’s directives makes clear, and as we know from Raul Hilberg and other historians of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, a large bureaucratic organization may be required to carry out genocide, not least to dispose of the bodies. At Auschwitz, the Nazis used crematoria. Several survivors described to Middle East Watch how the Iraqis used a desert site to which many thousands of Kurds were transported and then murdered with machine-guns; their bodies were dumped in trenches which were then covered over by bulldozers. This was the method used by the Iraqis during their 1988 campaign against the Kurds called “Anfal,” a word in the Koran that means booty seized from the infidels (although most Kurds, like their persecutors, are Sunni Muslims).

One survivor of the death trenches is Faraj, who was forty-two years old when Middle East Watch interviewed him in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992.7 His story is typical of those of the men who were taken to the site where the mass executions took place and, by chance and circumstance, lived to tell the tale. Faraj lived with his wife and children in a village in the vicinity of Qader Karem. He dodged the draft when he became eligible in 1968 but was included in a general amnesty in 1975 following the defeat of the two-year-long revolt led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, a famous Kurdish leader backed by Iran, the United States, and Israel. In April 1987, his village was one of seventy to one hundred Kurdish villages destroyed in an army campaign. He moved to another village about two and a half hours away by car and built a new house there rather than move to a town or one of the resettlement complexes where his family could have obtained compensation for the destruction of their house. The village to which he moved was under the control of Kurdish guerrillas known as pesh merga.

The troops carrying out the Anfal campaign came to the village on April 9 or 10, 1988. Since Faraj and his five brothers heard the government was announcing an amnesty in Qader Karem, they surrendered to Kurdish troops who were part of the Iraqi armed forces. The army held them, along with thousands of other men—members of pesh merga, deserters, draft dodgers, and civilians from controlled villages—in a camp at Aliawa. Then the army brought in a fleet of civilian minibuses and took them to Chamchamal, where they were questioned about their connections with the guerrillas but were not given anything to eat or drink. After two or three hours, they were driven on to Topzawa—the main holding center on the way to the killing site where they saw many large halls filled with the elderly, women, and children, as well as men. After being questioned again, they were put in a large hall where they received no food or water.

Late the next night, guards came and read out the names of many of the men and ordered them to go to yet another hall. Faraj was one of those whose name was called, while his five brothers, whom he never saw again, stayed behind. The next morning, they were put into large green vehicles, holding fifty or sixty men, without windows; a guard was in the back, separated from the prisoners only by a railing. Some of the men were put in smaller white vehicles. They drove from morning to dusk, most of the time on paved roads, but on a dirt road at the end. Then the vehicle stopped, the guard inside jumped out and two or three guards came in and started pulling out prisoners. Faraj was pulled out without his shoes, which he had taken off because of the heat. He could hear gunfire nearby. The guards used the men’s waist scarves to tie their hands behind their backs; they blindfolded them with their head scarves and told them to walk. Certain he was to be executed, Faraj recited from the Koran.

After they hobbled for about sixty feet down a slight incline, the guards told them to lie down on their backs. He could hear a bulldozer. Then he heard automatic weapons fire and could tell by a heavy groan that the man next to him had been hit. Faraj pulled his hands loose and moved his blindfold to find that he was in a shallow trench filled with dead bodies, many lying on top of each other. When the guards moved away, he climbed out and began to run. Dogs followed him, but he chased them away with stones.

In the morning, he found a dirt road and started heading toward what seemed a city. When he passed a military base, he saw soldiers waving him away and pointing in the direction of another dirt road. He met an old shepherd, an Iranian Kurd it turned out, who told him he was in a place called Ramadi, where the shepherd lived in a large housing development. He asked why Faraj had no shoes; Faraj said he had been in a car accident and that all his papers were in the car. The shepherd told him how to get into the development without passing a check-point. Once there he found a family that gave him food and told him how to go to Baghdad. When he arrived in the city he found a neighborhood frequented by Kurdish truck drivers and, with their help, he reached safety in territory controlled by Kurdish guerrillas.

The forensic scientists who went to the region for Middle East Watch and Physicians for Human Rights were not able to go to Ramadi, the site survivors like Faraj have identified as where they escaped from trenches filled with bodies. Ramadi remains under the control of the Iraqi government. Bodies could be exhumed only in the territory that is now under Kurdish control Though many Kurds were killed by Iraqi forces in Kurdistan, the available testimony indicates that the numbers killed in groups were much smaller than those at Ramadi.

In May and June 1992, scientists exhumed bodies in Koreme, a village in the far north of Iraq about fifty kilometers from the Turkish border. Before 1988, the village had about 150 families, or about 750 people, who lived in houses of mud brick, concrete brick, and limestone, some of them with electricity. The village had a two-room school and a mosque and, because the land nearby was rich, Koreme was prosperous. Today, the survivors who have returned to the village live in lean-to shelters and tents. The many remaining land mines make farming difficult.

The villagers of Koreme were sympathetic to the pesh merga and at times provided them with food and other support, and some Koreme men served fifteen-day stints of active duty and then returned to tend their fields; but there was no military base in the village, either for the guerrillas or the government. Nevertheless, the Iraqi army made a number of attacks on the village, which was nearly burned to the ground in 1963, long before Saddam Hussein came to power. It was attacked again in the late 1960s; Koreme suffered artillery and air bombardment in 1986 and 1987, forcing the villagers to seek refuge in caves in the banks of nearby ravines. These caves were their homes by day; at night, they ventured out to farm in the fields.

By August 8, 1988, when the Iraq-Iran War came to an end, the Anfal campaign forces were getting close to Koreme and, having heard what had happened elsewhere in the region, some families began to walk toward the Turkish border, a desperate decision since they knew they would not be welcome as refugees in Turkey. They were particularly frightened by reports of Iraq’s poison gas attacks. The bombardment of Koreme itself began on August 23 and 24, 1988, and another 250 of Koreme’s residents who remained in the caves decided to flee. They set off on the morning of August 27 and soon encountered many others from nearby villages who were also trying to reach the Turkish border, including some who had escaped gas attacks on their villages.

The people from Koreme did not get very far. The Iraqi army encircled them and cut off the road to the border. By the evening of August 27, with rumors circulating that an amnesty was to take effect, the villagers turned back. They reached the outskirts of Koreme by the afternoon of August 28, and were immediately captured by Iraqi troops. Some of the men and boys were separated from the others and made to form a line, squatting on their heels while the rest of the villagers were led away over a hill. One boy was allowed to go free when an argument broke out over whether he was twelve or thirteen, and another boy who was carrying his baby sister was also released.

Thirty-three men and boys were left in the line. No identities were checked. After a lieutenant used his portable radio to call for instructions, the soldiers were ordered to shoot. Several soldiers fired additional shots as coups de grâce as the bodies lay on the ground, and then left without burying the dead. Astonishingly, six of the men and boys survived, possibly because some of the soldiers deliberately missed. Some were wounded, but managed to crawl away when the soldiers left. The villagers who had been ordered to walk over the hill heard the shots but were unable to return to bury the dead: they were taken away to a fort at the nearby town of Mengish, where many people from other villages were also held, and from there to a fort at Dohuk. Some died at these places from lack of food or water or from beatings and, along the way, another twenty-six men and boys from Koreme were separated from the rest of the villagers, loaded onto trucks, and never seen again. These included a number of boys who had seemed too young for the initial execution line.

The bodies of those killed by the firing squad at Koreme were apparently buried by troops between one and three weeks after they died. Their remains were dropped in shallow pits where they were exhumed four years later; with the help of information from surviving relatives, they were identified by a seven-member team from Middle East Watch and Physicians for Human Rights.

Though no government has yet come forward to act as the plaintiff or lead plaintiff against Iraq in a genocide case before the International Court of Justice, the chances seem good that such a suit will be filed before the end of 1993. The evidence that a government would have to rely on to prove to the court that genocide took place is only now being assembled in a form that can be submitted to the potential plaintiffs.

Previous efforts to find a plaintiff for a genocide case against the Khmer Rouge did not succeed; but the argument for a suit against Iraq for the slaughter of the Kurds is stronger in at least one crucial respect. Under the 1948 convention, the crime of genocide requires an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Though the scale of killing by the Khmer Rouge was far greater than Saddam Hussein’s in Kurdistan, it was never clear in Cambodia that the intent of Pol Pot and his associates was to wipe out a particular racial, religious, or ethnic group. It is true that the Khmer Rouge wanted to destroy the urban intelligentsia, a category with which the Genocide Convention does not deal. But Saddam Hussein, Ali Hasan al-Majid, and their associates unmistakably intended to murder an ethnic group, the Kurds, because they were Kurds. That they succeeded in killing—according to Kurdish estimates—no more than about 180,000 Kurds during the Anfal campaign does not mitigate the genocidal intent of the campaign; and to have slaughtered that many persons appears to meet the test of magnitude that is implicit in the concept of genocide.

A central concern of the human rights movement in recent years has been the difficulty of holding accountable the officials who have been responsible for crimes against humanity. During the transition from military dictatorship to civilian democratic government in Argentina, for example, local and international human rights groups took part in the effort to identify and prosecute those responsible for more than 9,000 abductions by the armed forces, the murder of the victims, and the clan-destine disposal of the bodies. The struggle for accountability concentrated first on truth—that is, disclosure and acknowledgment of such crimes; and second, with only small success so far, on justice—that is, judicial condemnation and punishment of those responsible at the highest level for the most serious crimes.

Though we cannot be optimistic about the prospects for convening an international criminal tribunal to bring Saddam Hussein, Ali Hasan al-Majid, and their henchmen to justice, we should not underestimate the value of showing that they deserve to be brought to trial. In compiling the evidence against them, and publishing a careful and scrupulous report on their crimes against humanity, and in framing indictments against twenty-seven officials, the Iraqi National Congress has advanced the cause of truth. That cause will advance further if an appropriate plaintiff takes up the case of the Kurds before the International Court of Justice and the evidence allows the court to rule that the Iraqi regime committed genocide. A determination of genocide by the World Court would be a historic event in the quest to establish international standards of justice.


Genocide & the Khmer Rouge February 17, 1994

  1. 5

    Those listed include the chairman of the Legislative Council; the chairman of the Executive Council; the chief of Party Intelligence; and the chief of the Army General Staff among dozens of other officials.

  2. 6

    See “Genocide in Iraq,” for a discussion of these and other Iraqi security documents translated to date.

  3. 7

    Faraj’s testimony was taken by Middle East Watch researcher Joost Hilterman.

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