The physical remains of the General Security Directorate’s victims are strewn throughout Iraq, buried anonymously in common graves. It is hard for anyone outside the Baath’s inner circle to estimate how many young men went before firing squads after summary trials, or sometimes no trial at all, between the Baath Party coup of 1968 and the fall of 1991, when the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, backed by Western air power, took control of a northern enclave. Conservatively, 100,000 men, women and children were “disappeared” during the seven month long Anfal campaign in 1988. Tens of thousands of others perished during the routine political killings that preceded, and followed, ‘Ali Hasan al-Majid’s paroxysm of anger. Perhaps somewhere in the Directorate’s Baghdad headquarters there is a master tally of the dead. Judging by the truckloads of security archives captured by the Kurds during their 1991 intifada, and transferred to the US for safekeeping, the record-keeping was meticulous to the point of obsession. In the Badinan hills of Dohuk governorate, the village of Koreme was one of hundreds of Kurdish communities lying in rebel-controlled territory to feel the scourge of the Anfal. Near the end of the campaign, 27 male villagers — none of them fighters — were summarily executed on a hill outside Koreme, after returning from a fruitless attempt to escape into Turkey. In late spring 1992, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights exhumed their bodies and conducted a forensic examination to determine the cause and circumstance of their death. Clyde Snow, the forensic anthropologist renowned for his work documenting the trail of right-wing Latin American death squads, led a team of Latin American specialists to work with local Kurds on the task of unearthing, literally, the facts. As all the dead were positively identified, one by one, the notion of international technology transfer took on new meaning.
To have been able to exhume the victims of a genocidal campaign like the Anfal, take oral testimony from the survivors and from relatives of the deceased, and read the government’s own account of how and why it committed such gross abuses is probably unique in the annals of human rights work. To have done all this while that government was still in power, its security apparatus yet to be defanged, its armies waiting only a few kilometers away across an undeclared ceasefire line, was remarkable.
Since late 1991, Human Rights Watch has been compiling the facts about the Anfal and, more broadly, examining the fearsome machinery of repression deployed by the Baath — not just against the Iraqi Kurds, but against suspected dissidents of any stripe. What remains is to elicit from Baghdad a full accounting for its victims, just as the regime was compelled to divulge its nuclear secrets. Even though the facts should by now be clear, political (and, for some, economic) considerations are giving some members of the UN Security Council pause for thought.