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Iraq: 25 years of Baath Party Horror in Kurdistan

Jamal Ameadi
Iraqi Researcher and Writer
September 7, 2020
After the Iraqi army withdrew from northern Iraq in 1991, over 18 tons of archives documenting Saddam Hussein’s hideous crimes against the Kurds stayed behind. We publish the incredible story of how the files were uncovered, saved and stored.

In the spring of 1991, Barham Saleh, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), received a phone call from party leader Jalal Talabani asking him to quickly return from Washington to Iraqi Kurdistan.

As soon as Saleh arrived in Sulaymaniyah, he learned that his return was related to tons of Baath documents seized by Kurdish parties, following the withdrawal of Saddam’s army and security forces from Kurdish cities, against the backdrop of the March 1991 uprising. Since Saleh was the party’s representative in the United States, Talabani asked him to handle those documents. Upon his return to Washington, he asked to meet the well-known Iraqi-American academic Kanan Makiya.

“I went to meet Saleh and listened as he told me the story of the documents,” said Makiya, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. “I got a sample, a long register decorated with flowers named: The Record of Removed Villages. The register, which looked similar to what used in schools, described the processes of removing villages in one sector of Iraqi Kurdistan and provided detailed information on the followed procedures. Saleh invited me to visit Kurdistan and see the documents myself, and promised to provide all necessary protection measures”

“When I left, I thought I’d meet Bill Grimm, Head of the Middle Eastern Studies department at Harvard University, and Roy Mottahedeh, who worked in the same department,” Makiya added. “I told them about the documents and that I intended to travel to Kurdistan to look at them. I discussed with them the possibility of Harvard hosting those documents, if it was possible to transfer them to the US, and I received their full support.”

Makiya traveled to London to meet Hoshyar Zebari, who represented the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Britain. Zebari told him there were tons of documents in his party’s custody and offered him the same invitation to travel to Kurdistan. Makiya also met with Kurdish leader Latif Rashid, who arranged for him to meet with photographer Quinn Robert. Makiya suggested Robert to accompany him to Kurdistan to make a film that would shed light on the documents, their contents and significance. When Robert proved willing to go through with the adventure, Makiya asked the BBC if they could cover the trip. He received approval to cover tickets to Istanbul, as well as land transportation between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

In November 1991, Makiya and Robert began their two-month journey, which was documented in the award-winning film The Road to Hell, broadcast by the BBC in January 1992. On March 21, 1992, the film was aired in the US under the title Saddam’s Killing Fields, with 30 added minutes featuring testimonials and information not present in the first version.The film includes interviews with survivors of the infamous Anfal Campaigns, which were later covered by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The film also highlights the importance of the Kurdish documents as resources in exposing the arbitrary actions of the Iraqi government, not to mention their value for future scientific research. In addition, the film draws attention to the importance of collecting the documents and transfering them out of the country, to protect them from the many dangers looming at the time.

18 Tons of Baath Party Archives 

In the first episode of this series, we pointed out that the Baath Archive is divided into two main sections. One dates back to 1991, and includes the Kurdish and Kuwaiti archives, while the other goes back to 2003, and includes the American archive, the National Leadership archive, the Jewish archive, and other smaller archival collections.Kurdistan slowly uncovers a quarter a century of Baath horrors. The mass graves found every day in various parts of Kurdistan provide irrefutable evidence to the killing of some 182,000 Kurds.

The Kurdish archive or what became known as the North Iraq Dataset, refers to all documents collected by the Kurds after the defeat of Saddam’s regime in the first Gulf War. March 1991 saw the outbreak of a major uprising involving 14 out of 18 provinces in Southern, Central and Northern Iraq in an attempt to break free from the stranglehold of Saddam. In the northern regions, the uprising began from the Kurdish town of Rania on March 6, 1991. It quickly swept through the three Kurdish provinces: Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk.

As the uprising spread, local residents besieged Baath Party branches and local police stations, as well as intelligence interrogation and torture centers. The public anger then spread to oil-rich Kirkuk. Peshmerga fighters from the KDP led by Massoud Barzani, the PUK led by Jalal Talabani, as well as smaller groups of Kurdish factions, descended from their mountain hideouts and joined the uprising. The fighting was often fierce, and ended with the withdrawal of the last remnants of the Baath regime in northern Iraq, allowing the rebels to seize vast amounts of records. More than 18 metric tons of Baath archives found their way to remote hideouts in the mountains, before Saddam Hussein’s forces were able to quell the uprising and send some 1.5 million Kurds on a desperate journey to the borders with Iran and Turkey.

The killing and torture of tens of thousands of Kurds provided an unprecedented opportunity for Iraqi officials involved in these crimes to be brought before an international tribunal under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

The plight of the Kurds prompted the US and its allies to create a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, enabling refugees to return home and fend off further Iraqi attacks. The external intervention approved by the UN Security Council in Resolution 688 on 5 April, 1991, was the first of its kind. The establishment of a no-fly zone and a humanitarian buffer zone led to the withdrawal of Iraqi ground forces in October 1991, enabling the establishment of a government in the Kurdistan region in 1992.

News of the atrocities in Kurdistan and the documents seized by Kurdish parties also attracted the attention of Peter Galbraith, who specialized in Iraqi affairs at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). He also visited Iraqi Kurdistan in March and April of 1991 to explore the situation. After Galbraith arrived in Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani informed him that his fighters had seized tons of secret Baath files, during the first hours of the uprising. Galbraith learned many more documents were in the possession of the KDP and the Kurdish Socialist Party (KSP led by Mahmoud Othman.

Ali Hassan Al-Majeed at Anfal Court

The Anfal Campaigns

The initial Kurdish interest in the documents focused on identifying informants working in Iraq’s repressive agencies, particularly the intelligence service. However, they soon realized the documents were of far greater importance, as they contained evidence of the genocide during the Anfal campaigns supervised by Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid. The Anfal campaigns were the military operations that took place between 1987 and 1989 with the aim of punishing the Kurds for their alliance with Tehran during Iraq’s 8-year-war with Iran, and their resistance to Baath power for decades. What began as an operation to “counter insurgency and regain control over Northern Iraq” quickly escalated into a series of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The killing and torture of tens of thousands of Kurds provided an unprecedented opportunity to bring the Iraqi officials involved in these crimes before an international tribunal under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.

With support of the US SFRC and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Galbraith obtained permission to negotiate the transfer of documents to the US for storage and analysis. The PUK agreed to transfer its share of the files in 1992, provided they were recognized as Kurdish heritage. This condition also governed Galbraith’s transfer agreement with the KDP and the KSP. Their files arrived in the US in 1993.

Peter Gilbert in Kurdistan in 1992

Once on US soil, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations took legal custody over the documents and entrusted them to the National Archives and Records Administration, which deposited them at one of its facilities located in College Park, Maryland.

After returning from north Iraq at the end of 1991, Makiya produced two briefs on the Kurdish documents, one written, the other oral. The written brief was a 3-page letter he addressed to the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, summarizing the results of his visit to Kurdistan, his view on the documents, their importance and the actions that can be taken. Makiya suggested that all documents distributed among the various Kurdish parties should be combined in one place and preserved as a collection of great historical and academic value. This is what sparked the Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP), which Makiya founded at Harvard University in 1992.

The oral brief was presented to Arya Nayyar, former director of HRW, and Andrew Wheatley, director of the organization’s Middle East Watch section, in which he repeated the points of his written brief. Following the meeting, Wheatley made a formal offer to the relevant authorities suggesting that his organization analyzes the documents to launch a possible lawsuit against the Iraqi regime for genocide.

Wheatley’s proposal was accepted, creating an unusual partnership between HRW and the US Defense Intelligence Agency, which provided logistic support in reading, processing and scanning the millions of documents. However, HRW’s arduous task of sorting, examining and analysing the piles of documents, with a focus on preparing a genocide case against the Iraqi regime, proved beyond its capabilities.

HRW therefore had to accept the US Department of the Interior’s offer of logistic assistance. However, it did demand that the department’s unit tasked with document analysis be supervised by HRW. Based on extensive interviews with survivors and victims, as well as the analysis of the documents collected between 1992 and 1994, HRW concluded that Saddam’s regime was guilty of serious humanitarian crimes, including the crime of genocide.

On Cruelty

Meanwhile, the Iraqi opposition, then under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), also showed interest in prosecuting Saddam and his regime. Makiya says in his book On Cruelty, released by Al-Jamal Publications in Beirut, that he received an invitation from Ahmed Al-Jalabi in March 1993 to attend a meeting with Martin Indyk, National Security Adviser in the government of Bill Clinton. 

The topic of the meeting was the possibility of trying Saddam Hussein and his regime in absentia, in a special international tribunal established for this purpose. Indyk told Makiya and Al-Jalabi that the US was not ready to have its name attached to this, but was willing to support the Iraqi opposition if it took the lead. When Al-Jalabi asked to write an expanded report covering the initiative, Makiya agreed on the condition that the opposition parties demand: “The prosecution of a very small elite of the regime’s highest officials, a general amnesty that includes all, and that the report would be on behalf of the INC and the parties it includes.” 

Makiya led the team writing the 216 page report, published on behalf of the INC on June 25, 1993, under the title: Crimes Against Humanity and the Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy in Iraq. The report was distributed in Iraqi Kurdistan and reached many other parts of the country.

Following the release of the report by the Iraqi opposition, the US supported the efforts of HRW and other human rights organizations working on the project to prosecute Saddam’s regime. Despite efforts to rally international support for the trial, and the willingness of two governments in the Americas to support the case in principle, HRW was not able to muster the support of any major European government. 

There were two main reasons behind the failure: one related to the records themselves, and the other to governments and their vision of the future. The records were not able to paint a complete and detailed picture of the crimes committed at the time, owing to the lack of useful documentation thereof. One third of the documents were administrative files related to the management of a large bureaucracy, including daily updates on such things as promotions, marriages, leave, retirement and transfer of staff. 

About half of the documents dealt with requests for information at different levels of the Baath Party’s chain of command. This is likely because the peshmerga managed to capture only a limited number of important records in Kirkuk, having been forced to withdraw hastily, before Saddam’s forces regained control of the city in March 1991. As the headquarters of the Baath Party’s North Office, Kirkuk was the center of management of Ali Hassan Al-Majid’s Anfal campaigns, which meant that it was a center for important documents. 

To make up for the shortage, HRW offered forensic evidence collected by Doctors For Human Rights from its work on mass graves, as well as testimonies of Kurdish survivors of ethnic cleansing campaigns. With that HRW was confident the documents proved a clear case of genocide committed by the Iraqi government. Yet, the HRW’s project failed for another reason related to the international community, which lacked political will, as some researchers pointed out. 

Events have shown that the international community was more inclined have UN sanctions imposed on Iraq to slowly undermine Saddam’s regime. Moreover, the main diplomatic actors capable of dealing with the issue were either heavily implicated in the construction of Iraq between the 1970s and 1980s, which included assistance in the establishment of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, or were more concerned with creating a favourable political climate for Baghdad, which would enable them to obtain oil and reconstruction contracts once the sanctions against Saddam’s regime were lifted.

The leader in the PUK, Araz Talabani stands before the documents of the year 1991

The Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP)

After the arrival of the North Iraq Dataset to the US, Makiya began thinking about a research project to analyze the digital copies of the Kurdish archive, as well as the archive coming from Kuwait. He had only three types of documents at the time. The first was the register of removed villages he received from Saleh, the second “a bag of documents he obtained from Kurdish parties during his visit to Kurdistan at the end of 1991,” and the third concerned the video and audio files he captured while working on the film Saddam’s Killing Fields, which did not find their way into the film.

All these were later turned into archived and indexed text files. A fourth part was later added to this collection, which according to Makiya also came from northern Iraq.

“I was visiting Ahmed Al-Jalabi during his stay there in the mid 1990s, and during these visits I recorded some 50 long interviews with fleeing Iraqi army soldiers and officers residing in Kurdistan, with the aim of including them in a book I was planning to write about the 8-year war, which I believe was the biggest event in Iraq’s history,” he said. “But this project did not see light because I was unable to conduct similar interviews with Iranian soldiers. I did not get the approval of the Iranian authorities, because of the fear that I would be a spy from Harvard working for the CIA.” The testimonies, however, were also turned into text files and were added to the archives of the IRDP.

“I was visiting Ahmed Al-Jalabi during his stay there in the mid 1990s, and during these visits I recorded some 50 long interviews with fleeing Iraqi army soldiers and officers residing in Kurdistan, with the aim of including them in a book I was planning to write about the 8-year war.”

Based on these collections of documents, Makiya in 1992 founded the IRDP at Harvard University. The project received a major boost when, on July 21, 1994, Makiya received a promise from Senator Claiborne Pell, then Chairman of the US SFRC to obtain a digital copy of the North Iraq Dataset, while another opportunity to obtain a copy of the Kuwait Dataset loomed in the horizon.

According to Makiya the project received “exceptional support” from history professor Roy Mottahedeh, who succeeded Karim as Head of the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Harvard. “There I met a colleague, Hassan Munaimna, and together we started working to preserve, classify and analyse the Kurdish and Kuwaiti archives, and offer them to the public through the project’s website,” he said. “We also received support from the Iraq Foundation in Washington, particularly from Mrs. Rend Al-Rahim, who embraced the project during its transition, until it moved to Baghdad.”

However, the date of delivery of the digital version of the North Iraq Dataset was delayed, according to Makiya. “Until the fall of 1998, and we did not receive the full copy,” he said. “Despite that, we embarked on the technical analysis and preliminary design phase of the data handling system, which was completed in the summer of 1999. Then a team of researchers who received special training on handling the contents of the archive started the phase of adding necessary explanatory comments in autumn of the same year”.

In the meantime, the US Department of State provided the IRDP with a number of CDs containing the Kuwait Dataset, totaling “over 720,000 pages, on which the Project performed a similar process of technical analysis, conversion, and preparation of materials for publication on the project’s website. These projects were completed by a grant of the Bradley Foundation which we received in 1993, and the Bridge grant from the National Endowment for Democracy in 1994.

Ali Hassan Al-Majid during his supervision of the Anfal campaigns at the end of the 1980s

The Mystery of the Missing Documents

The IRDP started its own indexing of documents with the aim to make the documents searchable by adding names, places and dates to the keywords. The project then started expanding on the research that HRW has completed on the period of the Baath rule of Iraq and the atrocities committed by the Saddam regime. Rend Al-Rahim was in charge of fundraising, while Hassan Munaimna organized the research.

The project employed a team of 8 researchers between 2000 and 2003. Project Manager Robert Rabel, one of Makiya’s students at Brandeis University, personally viewed 60,000 pages of the North Iraq Dataset, while his team studied and catalogued up to 700,000 pages. In addition to supervising the research team in the project, Rabel wrote a number of studies that he based on the records, and was interviewed by the media prior to the war with Iraq in 2003.

In the course of the archiving and cataloguing process, Munaimna discovered a clear gap in the number of documents when comparing the initial estimates of 4 to 5.5 million individual pages, and the digital version received by the Project, which contained only 2.4 million individual pages (the contents of 1,575 out of 1,842 cardboard boxes). Munaimna believed that other copies received by HRW and the University of Colorado Boulder archives likely suffered the same defect. This gap remains an unsolved mystery to this day, which has led Munaimna and other researchers to present a number of hypotheses to explain it.

While HRW attributed this gap to the Kurdish parties’ reluctance to transfer the documents related to informants to the United States, as well as parties resorting to burying or burning documents near the Iranian border. Munaimna also added the possibility of unintentionally losing a number of documents while they were being moved away from the war zone.

Moreover, it can be assumed that the US military withheld a number of other documents, because they contained intelligence that could be used to bring a case against Saddam’s regime, although such an action to withhold document would require explicit authorization from the US SFRC and a request for such was never filed. According to Munaimna, he discovered the gap when he compared the digital records index, which was 40,825 pages, with the attached digital copy documents, as this index sometimes referred to paper documents that were not there.

Based on this obvious gap, Munaimna deduced that “the missing documents tend to be interesting documents”.Along with the North Iraq Dataset, the IRDP was working on a digital copy of a number of records from Saddam’s regime, the paper originals of which were seized by US forces after the Iraqi army withdrew from Kuwait in February 1991. These records, called the Kuwait Dataset, comprise 720,000 pages and have undergone procedures similar to the Kurdish archive documents.

According to Munaimna, the IRDP in 1991 briefly made available on its website some 3.1 million combined pages from the Northern Iraq and Kuwait Datasets, but soon after took them down due to privacy concerns.

With the withdrawal of the last remnants of the Baath regime in the north, the rebels seized vast amounts of Saddam’s records. More than 18 metric tons of Baath archives found their way to remote hideouts in the mountains

Monument of the Martyrs of Halabja southeast of Sulaymaniyah.

The Iraq Memory Foundation

By April 2003, the Iraq war and the demise of the Baath regime overshadowed the efforts of the IRDP, especially after Makiya transferred the digital copies of the Kurdish and Kuwaiti archives, and the results of their archiving, cataloguing and studying, to Baghdad to form the nucleus of the Iraq Memory Foundation (IMF).

When Makiya transferred the National Leadership archive to the US in 2005, the digital archives of north Iraq and Kuwait were among the transfered assets. All the original and digital Baath archives in the IMF’s custody were then settled at the Hoover Institute through the temporary deposit agreement we talked about in the previous two episodes. If we exclude what Makiya wrote in his 1995 book Cruelty and Silence, he did not publish anything on his study of the Baath archives and documents until his new book On Cruelty, in which he speaks about his experience with the IRDP and then the IMF.

With regard to the North Iraq Dataset, Makiya came to a conclusion on the Anfal campaigns and their purpose, which contradicted the Kurdish parties’ account. According to Makiya, no one knew exactly what they campaigns were, including the Kurds themselves. Were they a continuation of the war with Iran, since they were contemporaneous? Or were they a separate campaign of extermination that took advantage of the ongoing war? On what ideological or legal basis did the operations take place? Was it a purge of the Kurds as a nationality? Or was it a campaign of extermination in “security-restricted areas,” as official military intelligence documents suggest, without having a primarily nationalist purge motive?

What was important for Saddam and his security apparatus, according to Makiya, was the battle of existence in those restricted areas, which explains the extermination of some Assyrian villages, for example, among the thousands of targeted Kurdish villages. This finding showed Makiya the urgent need for scientific field research and a more in-depth examination of the Anfal campaigns in order to understand their root causes, as well as to shed light on the depth of harm caused by them.

In the next episode, we will present Galbraith’s efforts to analyze and describe the contents of the North Iraq Dataset, the circumstances of its transfer to the US, the discussions it raised, and its return to Baghdad in 

This article was translated from Arabic to English by Lara Almalakeh.

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