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