Future generations may well conclude that from the depths of tragedy a new Kurdish nation was born. Following Iraq’s 1991 defeat in Kuwait, the defeated and demoralised Kurdish national movement gained a new lease on life. It has made every effort since then to parlay the monstrous history of Halabja and Anfal into the foundations for its claim to independence from an Iraq that, in their view, had disqualified itself by its extreme cruelty from ruling this non-Arab population. With the support of the international community, the Kurds set about rebuilding their villages, and in May 1992 they held elections that yielded a government in which the PUK and KDP agreed to a 50-50 power-sharing arrangement, allocating ministerial posts accordingly. Their effort at nation building was complicated, however, by an internecine KDP-PUK war that raged from 1994 until a Washington-brokered cease-fire in 1998. Although the two parties have continued to view each other with mistrust, their respective leaderships became convinced of the need to forge a common front against the regime in preparation for its collapse.
The regime’s removal in 2003 brought new power to the Kurds and precipitated a vision of cohabitation with Arab Iraq as a transitional phase before formal secession, a development that – Kurdish leaders acknowledge – only a future changed regional environment will enable. Through Kurdish weight in drafting the new Iraqi constitution, Halabja and Anfal took pride of place in the lexicon of the ousted regime’s outrages enumerated in its preamble, which refers to “the massacres of Halabja, Barzan, Anfal and the Fayli Kurds”. These massacres, Kurds contend, were committed because of their tenacious quest for nationhood and Kirkuk. Without oil-rich Kirkuk, its presumptive capital, the new nation would lack the resources it needs to survive (International Crisis Group, 2004).
To commemorate these events, the Kurds have built, inter alia, a torture museum in the old security police headquarters in Suleimaniyeh, as well two memorials in Halabja to the victims of the gas attack: one outside Halabja on the road to the Anab resettlement camp, where many Halabjans found their deaths, the other at the entrance to Halabja from Suleimaniyeh, which also houses a small museum. The latter memorial was inaugurated in September 2003 by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, accompanied by Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq, and the two Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani. Visitors receive background materials, including booklets, posters and postcards with photos of the attack and its victims, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. At a yearly commemoration on 16 March, Kurdish dignitaries, townspeople and visitors – including sometimes foreign delegations – have paid homage to the dead and reinforced the claim to an independent Kurdistan. The reburial of bodies found in local mass graves, many of which have yet to be unearthed, has provided a symbolic occasion to remind the world of the atrocities it allowed to take place.
Yet, the Anfal campaign and Halabja gas attack remain shrouded in ignorance outside Kurdistan. The region was closed off to the world for so long and the infrastructure has been so uninviting of foreign visitors that few have made the trek to share with the Kurds their memories of suffering. The Kurds, moreover, have been the victim of their war-time alliance with Iran, which has been in the international doghouse ever since the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s. Iraqi propaganda, backed by its ally the United States, either denied Anfal and Halabja, played down their significance, or distorted it beyond recognition. Relying on the “fog-of-war” argument, Iraq was largely successful in doing so (Hiltermann, 2004). The canard that Iran shared responsibility in the chemical attack on Halabja and possibly caused most of its fatalities (Pelletiere, 1992) is but one example of this.
This has made it particularly difficult for the Kurds to find international recognition for the tragedies of Anfal and Halabja. Until this day, for example, Arab and Turkoman community leaders in Kirkuk contend that at most 60,000 Kurds were displaced during Arabisation, and some claim that no more than 15,000 Kurds were displaced. They can do so because they arbitrarily confine the Arabisation policy to the town of Kirkuk during the 1990s and thereby conveniently elide the earlier destruction of the Kurdish countryside of Germian (International Crisis Group, 2005). Likewise, whereas Anfal was publicly known as a counter-insurgency campaign at the time, its true nature remained concealed to all but those who had intimate involvement in its execution. It can only be hoped that full accountability for these crimes, through a public judicial process in which all the evidence is laid out and scrutinised, will convince the nay-sayers, while providing compensation and a measure of closure to the survivors.
Efforts to play up the past through annual commemorations (Anfal, for example, is remembered throughout Kurdistan on April 14 each year) were complicated in 2006 when, on March 16, events in Halabja took a different turn. For some time, townspeople, headed by university students, has complained about the regional government’s exploitation of the gas attack. Rather than investing in the town, they said, the PUK was keeping the funds it collected from foreign sources for itself. Each year they witnessed visits of foreign dignitaries, who were whisked from memorial to memorial but were carefully shielded from the town itself, its hospitals or its people. They pressed for material assistance, even meeting the PUK’s prime minister, Omar Fattah, in the days before the commemoration.
Unpersuaded by the PUK’s pleas to desist, Halabjans staged a demonstration in the centre of town on March 16 in which they raised their grievances. Provocation by armed PUK guards created anger, as did the detention of several of the demonstrators. Things then got rapidly out of hand, with demonstrators converging on the memorial at the town’s entrance. Throwing rocks at the PUK guards who had found refuge there, they were met with bullets. At that point, the crowd surged forward and put the monument to the torch, utterly destroying it. Deeply embarrassed, the PUK ordered an investigation while pointing an accusing finger at Iran, which in the past had not shrunk back from sending warning signals to the Kurds’ secular leadership via the Islamist parties that are particularly strong in Halabja (Hiltermann, 2006). Whatever the original impetus to the memorial’s destruction or the demonstrations leading up to it, few doubt that the annual commemoration will forever have lost its lustre.