1936 to 1959 Arab Nationalism rises from the ashes of imperial Iraq PLANTING SEEDS
1959 to 1963 First Ba’athist coup sees ‘Arabisation’ mass ethnic cleansing programmes implemented in Iraq PLANTING SEEDS
1963 Arabisation stalls in Kirkuk as Ba’ath Party is banished from government PLANTING SEEDS
1963 ‘The process of Arabisation the Ba’ath started in the early 1960s continues to this day’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
1968 Second coup establishes Ba’ath Party as dominant political force in Iraq PLOUGHING FIELDS
1968 New era of ethnic cleansing commences in Iraq with Kurdish and Turkman citizens displaced by Arab settlers in Kirkuk PLOUGHING FIELDS
1968 ‘This place has never enjoyed peace because of oil’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Arabisation in Syria More than 120,000 Syrian Kurds made stateless by Syria’s bogus census in al–Hasaka province SETTING THE FRAMEWORK
Arabisation in Syria Syria implements ‘Arab Belt Project’, redistributes 1.4 million acres of Kurdish agricultural land to Arab farmers SETTING THE FRAMEWORK
1968 to 1970 Iraq accelerates radical ethnic cleansing programmes and KDP retaliates with raid on oil installations in Kirkuk BREAKING GROUND
1969 ‘It was the first time such a massive operation had been executed, inflicting great damage to the Iraqi economy’ SPECIAL FEATURE: THE WARRIORS OF HALGURD
1970 Autonomy Agreement grants Kurds self-rule, but Ba’ath break terms BREAKING GROUND
1970 to 1975 Kurds offered money to change their ethnic identity in new Iraq national census BREAKING GROUND
1975 to 1980 Saddam Hussein seizes power and Ba’ath Party redraws official boundaries of Kirkuk region BREAKING GROUND
1976 ‘Within three days the Iraqi army had deported 86 families to Iran’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
1980 to 1987 KDP and PUK ally with Iranians in Iran–Iraq War and Saddam seeks immediate vengeance DEADLY FLOWERS
1987 Ali–Hassan al–Majid attempts to destroy all villages in rural Kurdistan and complete Kirkuk ‘Arabisation’ project DEADLY FLOWERS
1987 to 1988 Saddam Hussein demands completion of northern Iraq Arabisation programmes, orders mass genocide DEADLY FLOWERS
1988 ‘They jumped into the spring to wash off the chemicals, but the water was poisoned’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
1988 to 1990 Between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurds killed and over 4,500 Kurdish villages destroyed by Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaigns DEADLY FLOWERS
1990 to 1991 USA invites Kurds to rise against Ba’ath Party in the Gulf War, abandons them when they do so FRESH SEEDS OF GENOCIDE
1991 ‘Our area is rich in agriculture, oil and gas, but economically we were pushed back below zero’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
1992 to 2001 Iraq retains control of Kirkuk but concedes 10% of ethnically cleansed lands FRESH SEEDS OF GENOCIDE
2002 to 2007 New Iraqi constitution outlines three stage mechanism to resolve Kirkuk’s status, but promised referendum does not take place FRESH SEEDS OF GENOCIDE
2008 to 2020 Tensions rise as Iraqi government refuses to pay Kurds their share of national oil revenues PLANTING SEEDS
2016 ‘We won’t tolerate injustice – this is our land’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Arabisation in Syria Syrian civil war brings chaos and bloodshed, as Turkey resurrects ‘Arab Belt’ project PLANTING SEEDS
2020 The legacy of 90 years of ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing in Iraq PLANTING SEEDS

Early 20th Century sees formation of nation-states in the Middle East

AREF QURBANI is a leading expert on Iraq’s mass ethnic cleansing of northern Iraq, commonly known as ‘Arabisation’. The respected Kurdish historian explains how the process began in the 1920s.

Throughout the 20th Century, Arab nationalist movements within Iraq and Syria sought to assert control over Kurdish lands through mass ethnic cleansing. This systematic, brutal process of population removal came to be known as ‘Arabisation’ and continued into the 21st century.

The long history of ‘Arabisation’, which is not widely recognised or acknowledged outside of the Middle East, is rooted in the post-imperial history of the region.

In the aftermath of World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman and Persian empires led Kurdish activists to seek either autonomy or the formal formation of a Kurdish nation-state. These national aspirations were apparently secured by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which liquidated the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire and divided them between the victorious Allied Powers of France, Britain and Italy.

Most notably for the Kurds, the Sèvres agreement declared that Kurdish regions previously controlled by the Ottoman Empire were to be liberated under ‘a scheme of local autonomy’.

In the aftermath of World War I a new cultural ideology of nationalism came to define the brutal politics of the Middle East’s post-imperial era

However, a revived Turkish nationalism, the shifting imperial ambitions within the Middle East of the Great Powers of Europe, and ever present political divisions within factions of Kurdish society combined to thwart what would have been a major step towards Kurdish independence.

Kurdish aspirations for self-determination were conclusively undermined when the Treaty of Sèvres was superseded in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no provisions for any form of Kurdish statehood. The Kurds’ homeland of Kurdistan was now divided amongst four nation-states: Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

From this arbitrary division of ethnic populations, a new cultural ideology of nationalism flourished and came to define the frequently brutal politics of Middle East’s post-imperial era.

The governments of the fledgling nation-states that the Kurds now found themselves within – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – worked to forge a concept of common national identity to cement their control over their citizens under the newly established order.

Oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1909, near the country’s border with Iran. The oil fields were first exploited commercially in 1923 by a British Petroleum (BP) subsidiary, the Khanaqin Oil Company. The workforce was largely drawn from local Kurdish tribes.

The Kurds, whose emirs, sheikhs and tribal leaders had negotiated with the emissaries of Sultans and Shahs for centuries under the imperial era, were now viewed not as assets, but as an obstacle whose very identity challenged national unity.

Subsequently, throughout the 20th Century the ruling governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran sought to limit Kurdish political activism and cultural expression, implementing policies of suppression whose impact continues to reverberate to this day.

Viewed through this emerging ideological lens of nationalism, the ethnic cleansing of Kurdish regions and the manipulation of legal and demographic boundaries within Kurdistan came to be considered as an effective, albeit brutal tool of empowerment by the governments of these newly founded nations.

The Kurds, whose emirs, sheikhs and tribal leaders had negotiated with the emissaries of Sultans and Shahs for centuries, were now viewed as an obstacle to national unity

Arab Nationalism rises from the ashes of imperial Iraq

Kurdish historian AREF QURBANI, recounts how the Iraqi government conducted a land grab in the mid 1930s. They resettled Kurdish territory in the Hawija district, west of Kirkuk, forcibly replacing locals with Arab tribespeople from the centre and south of Iraq.

In Iraq, attempts to ethnically cleanse Kurdish regions date back to the 1930s.

From 1936 the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq resettled large numbers of Arabs – mainly from the al–Obeid and al–Jibbur tribes – in Kurdish lands in the Hawija plains west of Kirkuk.

Nomadic Kurdish tribes were forcibly displaced from their traditional pastures, and the Iraqi government distributed the rich agricultural lands amongst the imported Arab settlers.

This process continued for a further 20 years, with Kurdish estimates suggesting that as many as 1,000 Arab families were resettled in the Hawija district of Kirkuk in this period.

The Arab Ba’ath party’s ideology was principally shaped by Michel Aflaq, a Syrian intellectual whose political theories were greatly influenced by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler

However, the real catalyst for the mass scale ethnic cleansing programmes that took place in Iraqi Kurdistan was the rise of the Arab Ba’ath Party in Syria and Iraq following World War II.

Founded in 1947 in Damascus by the Syrian intellectuals Michel Aflaq, Salah al–din al–Bitar, and Zaki al–Asurzi, the Arab Ba’ath Party presented itself as the vanguard of a new Arab generation fighting against the fragmentation of an Arab ‘homeland’.

Declaring itself ‘The Party of Arab Unity’, the party’s ideology was principally shaped by Aflaq, an intellectual whose political theories would later come to be recognised as ‘Ba’athism’.

Aflaq, like al-Bitar and al-Surzi, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the late 1920s, and his political ideology, which derived its name from the Arabic term ‘al-Ba’thiyah’, meaning ‘resurrection’, was greatly influenced by the secular nationalist movements reshaping Europe at that time.

Al–Qadisiya is an Arab nationalist propaganda movie funded by the Iraqi regime of SADDAM HUSSEIN. The film depicts a decisive battle during the era of the early Islamic conquests, when Arab warriors defeated the Persian empire. Released in 1981 during the first year of the Iraq-Iran war, the movie was intended to mobilise sentiment in the Arab world against Ayatollah KHOMEINI’s forces.

Where Germany’s national socialists dreamed of resurrecting an imaginary golden age, in which a Teutonic Aryan empire and its virtues would be revived through a ‘triumph of the will’ and purification of the blood, Aflaq’s Ba’athist movement sought to model its future rebirth on the Arab Muslim empire that swept the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia in the seventh century.

Reborn in its full pomp and grandeur this revived Arab nation, as envisioned by the Ba’athists, would be built upon ethnic purity and modernised by the tenets of national socialism, forming a new and great secular society.

Secular, for although he greatly admired Islam as an Arab political project Michel Aflaq was himself brought up a Christian, and consistently advocated against fundamentalist Islam.

The Ba’athists concluded the elimination of non-Arab minorities – Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and other groups – was necessary to achieve their grand revolutionary goals

At the heart of Ba’athist ideology was the belief that without the unification of a consolidated Arab nation, Arab culture, values and thought would never fulfil its true potential.

The Arab Ba’ath Party envisioned a sovereign nation governing a vast stretch of territory covering the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of West Asia, encompassing modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, southern Turkey, western Iran, parts of the Arabian Peninsula and lands in northern Africa.

Achieving such a grand political goal was, of course, no small feat. So the Ba’athists quickly concluded that the subjugation or eradication of non-Arab minorities in Arab majority countries such as Iraq and Syria – the Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and other groups – was necessary to achieve their grand revolutionary goals.

Doubling down on extreme rhetoric, emphasising a need for violent struggle and setting themselves in opposition to French and British colonialism in the Middle East, the Arab Ba’ath Party rapidly established itself in Arab populated countries beyond Syria, setting up branches in Jordan in 1948, Lebanon in 1949 and Iraq in 1952.

The first Kurdish Republic was established in Mahabad in western Iran in 1946. It lasted just 11 months and was savagely put down by the Iranian government.

First Ba’athist coup sees ‘Arabisation’ mass ethnic cleansing programmes implemented in Iraq

As a child, Mayor of Dibs HADI HAMA MUSTAFA witnessed Iraqi militia men executing a Kurdish man near his home village of Qara Dara. He explains how the Iraqi government replaced Kurdish families in his area with Arab settlers over three decades.

In Iraq, the Arab nationalists quickly grew as a political force, and by the late 1950s Ba’athists within the Iraqi government and military had become a powerful faction and a thorn in the side of Abdul Karim Qasim, Iraq’s Prime Minister.

In 1959, Qasim attempted to purge the Ba’ath partisans from his government and military, after Ba’athist agents who had infiltrated the Iraqi military provoked civil disorder in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, clashing with Kurds and followers of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).

Qasim moved forcefully against the Kurds after they petitioned the Iraqi government for greater autonomy in northern Iraq. He ordered the Iraqi Airforce to bomb Kurdish villages.

The Ba’ath Party executed President of Iraq Abdul Karim Qasim and broadcast images of his bullet-ridden corpse on national television

Responding to the aggression, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), urged his followers to take up arms against Baghdad.

Barzani’s uprising came to be known as the Aylul Revolution (‘September Revolution’). But Qasim’s time in power was short lived: in February 1963 the Ba’ath Party ousted him from government in a violent coup.

Following his execution the Ba’athists displayed his bullet ridden corpse on Iraqi television. Although not himself a member of the Ba’athist faction in government, Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, who had previously conspired with Qasim in the 1958 Iraqi Revolution, was installed as President of Iraq.

ABDUL SALAM ARIF was a co-conspirator in a military coup which toppled the Iraqi monarchy on 14 July 1958. The bodies of Iraq’s King FAISAL II, Crown Prince ABD ABD AL-LLAH, and Prime Minister NURI AL-SAID were subsequently dragged through the streets of Baghdad and then burned.

In reality, Abdul Salam Arif adopted a largely ceremonial role: the Ba’ath Party’s Secretary General Ali Salih al-Sadi, who controlled the National Guard, and Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who served as Prime Minister, wielded the true political power in Iraq.

The new regime’s brutality was evident from its earliest days. More than 3,000 ICP members were killed by a newly mustered paramilitary force of 30,000 men, which the Ba’ath named the ‘National Guard’.

In the aftermath of the coup, Mullah Mustafa Barzani attempted to negotiate a peace agreement with President Arif, but the talks foundered.

The Ba’ath Party declared war on the Kurds, ramping up their mass ethnic cleansing project in the Kirkuk region, a Kurdish ancestral homeland

Subsequently, on 10 June 1963 the Iraqi government announced a resumption of military warfare against the Kurds and soon afterwards ramped up a programme of ‘Arabisation’ in the oil-rich and strategically important Kurdish region of Kirkuk.

Thus an era of mass ethnic cleansing took shape.

The ‘Arabisation’ measures the Ba’ath introduced in Kirkuk were of an unprecedented dimension. Kurds working in the local oil industry were dismissed or forcibly expelled from the governorate, and Arab patrolled security zones were established around Kirkuk’s oil fields.

In 1963 Arab militia drove Kurds and Turkmen off their lands near Kirkuk. TAHSIN OMAR BEG, a Turkman from Kutan village, remembers how they stole his father’s livestock, looted his family home and executed his neighbours.

The Ba’ath demanded that untrained Arab workers be transplanted into the oil industry, creating a headache for the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), a consortium of Western oil companies which ran the oil fields in Kirkuk. If IPC managers failed to follow orders, or disciplined Arab workers, they would regularly face arrest or worse at the hand of the National Guard.

In a September 1963 memo, the American embassy in Iraq reported the observations of the IPC’s General Manager in Kirkuk, a Scottish–Italian named George Tod, who complained to the American embassy that the Arab workforce only “turned out for work when it pleased”.

“In [Tod’s] opinion, Iraq is an almost ungovernable entity, will lack stability indefinitely, and will suffer from an exacerbated Kurdish problem for a long time no matter what the Iraqi army achieves,” the memo went on to report.

In July 1963 Iraqi government militia executed four Kurds from Halaw Mahmoud village, northwest of Kirkuk. This was part of a wider campaign to ethnically cleanse the region of its Kurdish and Turkmen populations.

The American embassy concluded that the Ba’ath could not modernise Iraq, which was “headed for disaster in the [oil] industry because of its labour and staff personnel policies [of Arabisation].”

Subsequent reports to the US embassy suggested the Ba’athists were using Kirkuk’s oil facilities as makeshift prisons and torture chambers.

Meanwhile, in April 1963, British diplomats in Baghdad were reporting back to London that the Iraqi regime intended to drastically reduce the Kurdish population in the north and replace them with Arab settlers.

American embassy reports suggested the new Ba’ath government was using Kirkuk’s oil facilities as makeshift prisons and torture chambers

“There is no doubt at all of the government’s deliberate destruction of villages… in the interior of Kurdistan,” a diplomat noted.

Despite the concern, the British continued to supply Iraq with advanced weaponry such as tanks, rockets, artillery and fighter aircraft.

British diplomats at the UN worked hard to ensure that efforts by the Mongolian Government to raise the issue of genocide against the Kurds of Iraq at the General Assembly were not successful.

SHAHAB AHMAD AWAD, an Arab farmer from Shernaw village north of Kirkuk, witnessed the expulsion of his Kurdish and Turkmen neighbours from their homes by Iraqi government militia in 1963.

Arabisation stalls in Kirkuk as Ba’ath Party is banished from government

After the discovery of a vast petroleum reservoir in Kirkuk, Iraq became a major exporter of oil from the mid 1930s onwards. Historian AREF QURBANI describes how Kurdish workers were excluded from the oil fields and war subsequently broke out between Kurds and the Iraqi regime in 1961.

Following their violent 1963 coup and ascension to power in Iraq, the Ba’ath Party focused their efforts on a mass ethnic cleansing project in the Kirkuk region.

Within the city of Kirkuk itself, Arab militias worked to raze Kurdish neighbourhoods. National Guards were deployed in rural regions outside the city, driving Kurdish farmers from their lands in 42 villages.

Kurdish and Turkman schools and streets were given Arabic names by the Iraqi government, and a curfew was imposed on Kurdish towns

MOHAMMED AMIN RAHMAN ALI was driven off his farm in Chalistan village in 1963 when the Ba’ath Party ‘Arabised’ large tracts of land north of Kirkuk. His neighbours from surrounding villages were captured and imprisoned.

Many of these villages were completely destroyed, and where the settlements remained upright the Iraqi government confiscated property owned by their Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants, along with entitlement deeds for their land.

The repossession of Kurdish and Turkman assets did not end there: schools and streets were given new Arabic names, and a curfew was imposed on Kurdish towns.

Yet within months of the new Iraqi regime unleashing its programme of mass scale ethnic cleansing in Iraqi Kurdistan, the administration had descended into chaos.

‘My family were the original inhabitants of Mama village,’ says ABDUL QADIR ABDULRAHMAN. ‘Now Arabs live on our land.’ As a child he watched in horror as Iraqi militia burst into his home and shot his father dead.

Ba’athist efforts to create an international union between the nations of Iraq and Syria had provoked the conservative military faction within the Iraqi government. They subsequently attempted a coup, which failed.

However, in November 1963 President Abdal Salam Arif seized the initiative and banished the Ba’athists from his government: Ali Salih al–Sadi was exiled to Spain, and Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was jailed.

Consequently, the process of Arabisation in Kirkuk and other Kurdish regions of Iraqi Kurdistan stalled.

Yet mere months after a programme of mass ethnic cleansing had been unleashed upon Iraqi Kurdistan, the Ba’ath Party administration had descended into chaos

‘Iraqi militia burned our house and took our things,’ says FAKHRADIN KAKASHEEN MOHAMMED. ‘They were merciless.’ He was only five when his family were forced to flee their home village of Qara Dara.

‘The process of Arabisation the Ba’ath started in the early 1960s continues to this day’

Askar, which lies east of Kirkuk, is widely acknowledged in Iraqi Kurdistan as ‘the cradle of the Kurdish Revolution.’ Frequent visits by Kurdish rebel leaders made this small village a prime target for the Iraqi military. AHMED ASKARI was attending his local primary school at the time of the first bombing in 1962.

Ahmed Askari’s earliest memories of growing up in Askar village are happy ones. As a child, he saw celebrated Kurdish leaders visit his family home.

He would play with his friends outside in the street while they sipped tea with his family.

Askar, northeast of Kirkuk, is well known for its support of the Kurdish cause and is widely described as the ‘cradle of the Kurdish Revolution.’

In the late 1950s Askar housed a peshmerga base. For this reason, Ahmed’s small village became a target for attack by successive Iraqi governments.

In 1961 Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim accused the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of fomenting a separatist rebellion.

He ordered the bombing of Kurdish villages in an attempt to quash the revolt. These attacks marked the beginning of an uprising the Kurds call the Aylul Revolution (‘September Revolution’).

In the late 1950s the small village of Askar housed a peshmerga base, making it a target for attack by successive Iraqi governments

Qasim’s harsh policies against rural Kurdistan soon impacted Ahmed’s life.

In 1962 he was a young boy studying at his local primary school when Iraqi planes dropped bombs on his village. There were 150 of his fellow pupils present in school when the attacks happened.

‘I was in my classroom and our teacher was with us. Suddenly we realised the planes were bombing,’ he says. ‘We’d never experienced that before. We were scared and began to cry. The other children were screaming and hiding under their desks.’

Local informers had briefed Baghdad that there was a Kurdish revolutionary base in Askar, where political leaders such as Jalal Talabani met frequently.

‘The first bomb they dropped struck my house and then more bombs hit other houses,’ recollects Ahmed. ‘They targeted the entire village and did not spare women, children, nor animals.’

Ahmed’s school friends escaped injury during the first attack, but many other villagers died in the pandemonium.

The bombing attacks gave his family, friends and neighbours no option but to flee to the nearby mountain caves of Chemi Razan, where Ahmed’s father had once served as a peshmerga resistance fighter.

“I was in my classroom with our teacher when we realised the planes were bombing us – the other children began screaming and hiding under their desks”

Ahmed’s family wanted to rebuild their lives from the bombed ruins of the village. Months later, they and the other villagers of Askar returned to what remained of their former homes. They attempted to resettle, but were soon forced to flee again.

In 1963, following a short lived coup that saw the Ba’ath Party seize power in Iraq, the new government in Baghdad launched an even more aggressive military campaign to ethnically cleanse the Kirkuk region of its Kurdish inhabitants.

Kurds were in the demographic majority in Kirkuk, and so the Ba’ath wished to displace them. In so doing, they felt they could assert Arab control over a Kurdish region that was economically important to the Iraqi state for its abundant oil production.

Following Ba’athist orders, an Iraqi state sponsored militia known as the National Guards attacked Askar village once again and burned it to the ground. This would not be the last time the village was punished by the Ba’ath, however.

The Ba’athist rule of Iraq was short lived, beginning in February and ending in November 1963. Yet the Arab Nationalists returned to the seat of power in July 1968 and remained there until April 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell to American-led forces.

Throughout this 35 year period, Askar was razed on multiple occasions.

‘Over the years, Askar sacrificed a lot and more than 200 people were killed,’ says Ahmed. ‘Fifty peshmerga died and the rest were killed by bombs, chemical weapons, and throughout the Anfal genocide of 1988.’

Visiting his old school in Kirkuk, AHMED ASKARI explains how studying there was a challenge, because the lessons were taught in Arabic, not Kurdish, the language used in his home village of Askar. His family had been forced to flee the village once again in 1966 after it was attacked by the Iraqi army.

Second coup establishes Ba’ath Party as dominant political force in Iraq

After the second Ba’athist coup of 1968, AHMED AL-BAKR (left) assumed the position of President of Iraq, with SADDAM HUSSEIN (right) appointed his second-in-command and chief interlocutor with the Kurds. AHMED ASKARI, who was living in Kirkuk at the time, explains how the new Iraqi regime aggressively accelerated ethnic cleansing policies in the city and wider region.

Ahmed al–Bakr became President of Iraq in 1968 and his second-in-command, the notoriously brutal Saddam Hussein, was appointed as his chief interlocutor with the Kurds

The forces of Arab nationalism were only briefly quelled by the banishment of the Ba’ath Party leadership from Iraq’s government in 1963.

Upon being deposed from the Iraqi government, where he had briefly served as Prime Minister, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was imprisoned twice. But he returned to lead a successful second Ba’athist coup on July 1968, toppling President Abdul Rahman Arif.

Abdul Rahman had become President in 1966 after his brother Abdul Salam was killed in a helicopter crash that was suspected of being an act of sabotage by Ba’athist elements in the Iraqi military.

This time the revolution was bloodless, however, with the Ba’ath Party sparing his life and exiling him to Turkey.

Ahmed al–Bakr subsequently assumed the role as President of Iraq in 1968, with Saddam Hussein appointed his second-in-command and chief interlocutor with the Kurds.

Already an influential figure in the party, Saddam was notorious for his brutality: in 1959, while in his early twenties, he was said to have personally murdered members of President Abdul Karim Qasim’s entourage.

In Kirkuk the Iraqi authorities refused to register babies with Kurdish names

Now assuming a central role in the implementation of government policy, Saddam relaunched the Ba’ath Party’s ‘Arabisation’ programme even more aggressively than in 1963.

As before, the goal was to transform the ethnic character of the governorate of Kirkuk by ethnically cleansing it of non-Arab inhabitants.

The Ba’ath Party’s new Arabisation policies were severe.

Kurds in Kirkuk were banned from buying property and told they could only sell their land to Arabs. Furthermore, they were offered financial inducements to leave the city for towns in central and southern Iraq.

Those Kurdish civil servants, schoolteachers and oil company employees who had escaped the previous expulsions were ordered out of Kirkuk and replaced by Arabs.

Elsewhere, schools, neighbourhoods, mosques, and streets were stripped of their Kurdish or Turkic designations. The Iraqi authorities even refused to register babies with the Kurdish names their parents had given them.

New era of ethnic cleansing commences in Iraq with Kurdish and Turkman citizens displaced by Arab settlers in Kirkuk

The Iraqi government signed its Autonomy Agreement with Kurdish leaders in 1970, but failed to honour the terms of the accord. Fighting broke out in March 1974 but the Kurds were betrayed when their principal allies, Iran and the United States, withdrew support. Historian AREF QURBANI explains how the Kurdish uprising collapsed in 1975 and the ‘Arabisation’ of Kirkuk intensified.

With the Ba’ath Party’s return to power in 1968, and Saddam Hussein’s aggressive presence increasingly to the fore within the Iraqi government, the city of Kirkuk was subjected to a fresh programme of ethnic cleansing.

Outside the city, the Iraqi military evacuated villages that contained predominantly Kurdish populations. Kurdish families were forced to leave homes that were classified as being too close to Kirkuk’s oil fields or military bases, and banned from returning.

Kirkuk’s Turkmen community was also targeted: the Ba’ath government demanded that Turkish language schools teach Arabic exclusively.

Elsewhere, the Iraqi government ruled that Turkmen doctors, engineers and scientists were no longer permitted to work for non-governmental organisations.

They were ordered to relocate and offered jobs in the centre and south of Iraq, but only in regions where Arabs were in the majority.

As local Kirkuki Kurds and Turkmen were forcibly removed from their jobs and their homes, the Ba’ath Party offered work to Arabs from other parts of Iraq.

More than 1,000 houses were constructed to accommodate the new arrivals and their families.

Kirkuk’s Turkmen doctors, engineers and scientists were ordered to relocate to the centre and south of Iraq, where Arabs were a demographic majority

‘This place has never enjoyed peace because of oil’

Farmers from Kurdistan’s Makhmur region describe how Iraqi militia overran their villages in June 1963. They looted and destroyed houses, and in many cases killed neighbours and family members. Those who stayed witnessed their homes being occupied by Arab settlers.

Aziz Salim’s ancestors farmed their lands for 200 years in settlements around the town of Dibaga, 40 miles northwest of Kirkuk. But when the Turkish Petroleum Company struck oil in 1927, his family of agricultural workers discovered that what was then the world’s largest oil reservoir lay beneath their feet.

For its oil, the Makhmur district of Kirkuk thus became of major strategic importance to Iraq, and so successive Arab governments in Baghdad viewed the majority Kurdish demographics of the area as a threat to their political interests.

They therefore made Makhmur a target of a new ethnic cleansing programme that would later come to be known as ‘Arabisation’.

In 1929, the Turkish Petroleum Company renamed itself as the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) and by 1934 it was exporting crude oil from Kirkuk to Haifa and Tripoli, cities located in modern day Israel and Lebanon respectively.

By 1935, Iraq had shipped four million tons of oil and become a major international oil exporter, with Kirkuk its hub of operations.

Kirkuki Kurds living near the oil export apparatus were pressured to relocate. Seeking to limit a Kurdish presence in the IPC workforce, the Iraqi government recruited Arabs from central and southern Iraq to service the booming oil industry.

The process was slow at first, but then picked up momentum in 1963 with the arrival of the Arab Nationalist Ba’ath Party to power following a violent coup that saw the Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qasim, executed, and footage of his bullet-ridden corpse broadcast on national television.

The Ba’ath ordered a much more aggressive and systematic programme of ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk, organising the mass transfer of Arab tribes to the Kirkuk and bordering regions.

The Makhmur district grew in strategic importance for its oil, with successive Arab governments in Baghdad viewing the district’s majority Kurdish population as a threat to the national interest

Their aim was to change the ethnic composition of the Kurdish areas bordering Arab Iraq, which had previously been established in a reasonably well conducted Iraqi census of 1957 under the monarchy of King Faisal II.

This recorded Kurds as the majority ethnic group in the Kirkuk region, with Turkmen slightly predominant in the city of Kirkuk itself.

In the region of Kirkuk 48 percent of the population was recorded as Kurdish, 28 percent Arab and 21 percent Turkmen. Subsequently, the Ba’ath set about ethnically cleansing Kurds and Turkmen from the region.

‘From 1963 onwards the Iraqi government thought badly of the Kurds,’ says Aziz Salim. ‘That’s why they armed our Arab brothers from the south.’

For the Kurdish population in Makhmur’s three main sub-districts – Qaraj, Dibaga, and Gwen – the transition enforced by the Ba’ath was brutal to experience.

The surviving eyewitnesses to those cataclysmic events were only small children at the time but the events of the 1960s remain indelibly imprinted on their memories.

‘They attacked Kanawa village and moved on to Dibaga. They burned all the villages they passed through,’ says Aziz Salim.

Most of the villages Makhmuri Kurds like Aziz Salim spent their childhood years in now lie in ruins, having been razed by a government sponsored militia.

The Makhmur region, northwest of Kirkuk, lies on one of Iraq’s richest oil reservoirs and is reputed to host some 320 capped oil wells.

In 2017, Mala Rasul Bandiyan, who like Aziz Salim is a farmer from the region, spoke with interviewers from the Kurdistan Memory Programme about his experiences from this period.

He was only six years old when National Guard militia stormed his home village Demakar, and burned the houses of his family and his neighbours to the ground.

Kurdish males in the village who were older than 12 were captured by the National Guards and the transported to prisons in Kirkuk or even further afield, with some being taken to Musayib, a penal facility south of Baghdad.

Four members of Mala Rasul Bandiyan’s family were executed.

‘Everyone’s dead now,’ he says, visiting the rural cemetery where his close relatives are now buried. ‘All killed. This place has never enjoyed peace because of oil.’

He estimates the Arab militia razed 74 villages in total. Buildings were burned and livestock stolen.

Soon afterwards, the Iraqi government encouraged Arabs to move to the area and set up their lives in what was left of the Kurdish homesteads.

‘At this point, we were all just in hiding,’ says Aziz. ‘It was a terrible situation.’

Mala Rasul Bandiyan was only six years old when the National Guard stormed his home village Demakar, burning the houses of his family and his neighbours to the ground

Elsewhere in the Makhmur region, the Iraqi government helped Shammar tribesmen settle in many of the villages that had been ethnically cleansed.

These Arabisation policies continue for several years under the administration of President of Iraq, Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, after the Ba’ath were ousted from government in November 1963.

In 1966 Arif negotiated an agreement with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, which made provision for the Makhmuri Kurds to return to their home villages and for the Arab families who had displaced them to move back to their original homes in the south of the country.

In July 1968, the Ba’athists seized power in Iraq for the second time, and immediately relaunched their ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing programme in the Kirkuk region.

Makhmuri Kurds were presented with a stark choice: join the Ba’ath Party or their favoured militia, known as the Popular Army, or face violent consequences. As a result, many fled Makhmur, although many others stayed in order to wage an underground war of resistance.

It seemed there might be a break in hostilities when Iraq’s second-in-command Saddam Hussein flew to Kurdistan to negotiate a ceasefire with Mullah Mustafa Barzani in 1970.

The peace agreement signed by Barzani and Hussein granted the Kurds an autonomous region in northern Iraq with Kirkuk as its capital. But Saddam Hussein was not negotiating in good faith, the terms of the accord were never honoured, and the Iraqi government’s ethnic cleansing programme soon resumed, with the Ba’athists immediately redrawing the Kirkuk region’s official boundaries.

The idea was to decisively minimise the Kurdish demographics of the area through chicanery.

Facing new waves of Arabisation after the second Ba’athist coup of 1968, Makhmuri Kurds were presented with a stark choice: join the Ba’ath Party and their favoured militia or face violent consequences.

War later broke out between the KDP and the Iraqi government in 1974, but the Kurdish uprising faltered when Iran and the United States abruptly withdrew their support for the Kurdish cause in 1975.

This was a catastrophe for the KDP, as the Iraqi government rapidly took control of large areas of Kurdistan, and accelerated their ethnic cleansing programmes, notably in the oil-rich regions of Khanaqin and Kirkuk.

They captured rural Kurds and transported many of them to resettlement camps in southern Iraq. Meanwhile, the major Kurdish political parties and their loyal peshmerga fighters retreated to the Kurdish mountains, before slowly resuming their fight against Baghdad, covertly aided by the Syrian and Iranian governments.

In 1977, the Iraqi government moved to decisively weaken the Kurdish presence in the Makhmur region with more administrative trickery.

To create a ‘paper’ Arab majority, they detached 32 villages from the predominantly Kurdish sub-district of Dibaga, attaching them to a neighbouring, predominantly Arab municipality.

Numerous Kurdish villages were ‘Arabised’ in such a fashion, including Geshmaya, Telhalala, Shanagha, Prkanyan, Awlafat, Durban and Dustan. A so-called ‘security belt’ then was established and policed aggressively at the new borders of the region.

Any person found crossing the checkpoints without authorisation would be shot, with much of the gunfire being delivered from helicopter gunship patrols.

‘If you crossed the road between Mosul and Kirkuk the Iraqi planes would attack you,’ says Aziz Salim.

The terms of the 1970 “Autonomy Agreement” were never honoured and the official boundaries of the Kirkuk region were redrawn, with the Kurdish population minimised through chicanery

After the 2003 Iraq War, the comprehensive defeat and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government by an American-led coalition brought an end to the Ba’ath Party’s extreme ethnic cleansing activities in the Makhmur district.

However, the instability created by many decades of Iraqi ethnic cleansing policies rippled into the 2020s.

While the Makhmur district remained contested by the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Islamic state militants – Sunni jihadists who first invaded the region in 2014 – thrived in its more remote and ungoverned corners, such as the Qarachokh mountains.

Unfortunately, the deep societal divisions created by more than 90 years of Arabisation programmes in the Makhmur region and beyond had created fertile territory for sowing discord and grievance.

More than 120,000 Syrian Kurds made stateless by Syria’s bogus census in al–Hasaka province

In October 1962 the Syrian government demanded that the predominantly Kurdish inhabitants of al-Hasaka in northeastern Syria register themselves for an exceptional census. The census was conducted over a 24 hour period with no advance warning. Subsequently, thousands of Kurds were unable to produce documentation proving their Syrian residency.

Returning to power in 1968, Iraq’s Ba’ath Party was no longer so insistent upon creating an international union between Syria and Iraq.

Attempts by the Ba’ath Party to bring about an official merger of the two countries had seen them deposed from government in 1963.

Backed by a conservative military faction who strongly opposed the efforts to dissolve their nation, President of Iraq Abdul Salam Arif had jailed the influential Ba’ath Party member – and Iraq’s serving Prime Minister – Ahmed Hassan al–Bakr, banished the party’s secretary Ali Salih al–Sadi to Spain, and wrested power back from the Ba’athists.

However, Abdul Salam Arif died in 1966 under suspicious circumstances, and the new Iraqi President, his brother Abdul Rahman Arif, was himself deposed following the Ba’ath Party’s second coup d’etat of 1968.

Newly installed as President of Iraq, Ahmed Hassan al–Bakr did not make the same mistake again, and Iraq and Syria’s Shia and Sunni regimes would no longer countenance a formal union.

Lasting just 24 hours, the census in al–Hasaka concluded that more than 120,000 Syrian Kurds were to have their civil rights revoked immediately

Despite this, the Arab nationalist politics of the two countries remained close in outlook throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Nowhere was the political affinity between the two countries more clearly evidenced than in Syria’s mass ethnic cleansing programmes, which were most aggressively implemented between 1962 and 1976.

The Syrian government’s robust attempts to ‘Arabise’ its own minority Kurdish population supplied a template for Ba’athist policy in Iraq for decades to come.

On 5 October 1962 the Syrian regime of President Nazim al-Kudsi – which was itself toppled by a Ba’athist coup a year later – conducted an exceptional census in the predominantly Kurdish al-Hasaka province in northeastern Syria.

No advance warning was given to the inhabitants of al–Hasaka, who were not told of the consequences of failing to register within a strict time period of 24 hours.

Once completed, this 24 hour census concluded that between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds were no longer to be considered as citizens of Syria and were to have their civil rights revoked.

Syria implements ‘Arab Belt Project’, redistributes 1.4 million acres of Kurdish agricultural land to Arab farmers

The ‘Arab Belt’ ethnic cleansing project along Syria’s northern border with Turkey encompassed an area 375 km long and 15 km wide.

Following the sudden and unannounced 5 October 1962 exceptional census conducted by the Syrian government in its northeastern al–Hasaka province, inhabitants of the region were given a strict 24 hours deadline to register themselves as citizens of Syria.

After this 24 hour deadline passed, the census concluded that between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds were to have their civil rights revoked.

Now officially registered as ‘foreign’, these Kurds who had failed to register themselves in the census effectively became stateless.

They were unable to receive passports, unable to legally own property, land or businesses, and unable to receive state subsidies, nor use Syrian state hospitals.

The gross iniquities of the ethnic cleansing unleashed in the “Arab Belt Project” distorted the political demographics of Syria for multiple generations

Where Kurds had their citizenship annulled, the Syrian government demanded that properties belonging to them be expropriated and redistributed to Arab families.

The gross iniquities of this ethnic cleansing programme would distort the political demographics of Syria for multiple generations, mutating into a cordon of ethnically cleansed land along Syria’s northern borders of approximately 375 kilometres length and 15 kilometres width.

Implemented in 1972, the ‘Arab Belt Project’ broke up large Kurdish estates and saw the Syrian authorities enact agrarian reforms to create ‘model farming villages’. These redistributed Kurdish agricultural lands to more than 4,000 Arab farmers, leading to the expropriation of around 1.4 million acres.

While the Ba’athist government of Syria suspended its ‘Arab Belt Project’ in 1976, the ‘model farming villages’ were never dismantled and the lands never returned to their Kurdish owners.

Iraq accelerates radical ethnic cleansing programmes and KDP retaliates with raid on oil installations in Kirkuk

After the success of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) 1969 raid on Kirkuk’s oil installations, the Iraqi army attacked Kurdish villages near the Turkish border.

Upon its return to the seat of power in Iraq in 1968, the Ba’ath Party faced great resistance from the Kurds in the north of the country.

Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr soon renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), fighting a fierce war in the Kurdish mountains against Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s peshmerga.

The world had remained unmoved by the plight of the Kurds in Iraq and of the mass ethnic cleansing programmes imposed by the Ba’ath Party. In fact, the United States and Britain had profited from the process.

Under the Ba’ath, the Iraqi government had raised funds trading Kirkuk’s oil to buy weapons from British and American arms manufacturers. These weapons were in turn used to attack numerous Kurdish communities across northern Iraq.

The United States and Britain had profited from the sale of weapons purchased by Iraq with Kirkuk oil revenues, which were used to attack Kurdish communities

In the summer of 1969, Iraqi forces trapped more than 70 Kurdish women and children in a cave in the Zagros mountains and burned them alive. HAJI MIRKAN DOLMARI, a peshmerga commander who was nearby at the time, describes the scene he witnessed when he arrived at the cave in Dakan.

Barzani and the KDP developed a scheme to embarrass the British, and bring international attention to the ‘Arabisation’ of Kurdish lands.

On 1 March 1969, a KDP peshmerga unit carried out a lightning raid on the Kirkuk oil installations run by the Iraq Petroleum Company, whose shareholders included British Petroleum (BP). Using long range mortars and cannons they destroyed 10 of 12 installations in Kirkuk’s crude oil stabilisation plant, reducing Kirkuk’s oil output by 70%.

The successful raid attracted international attention and was followed by a successful Kurdish offensive across Kurdistan. The Iraqi army responded with draconian raids on Dakan and Soriya villages just south of the Turkish border. About 120 Kurds were killed, many burned to death.

The Iraqi regime came under international pressure to resolve the conflict, and was forced to negotiate a ceasefire with the KDP and terms for Kurdish autonomy.

General Barzani and the KDP plotted to embarrass the British and bring international attention to the “Arabisation” of Kurdish lands

‘It was the first time such a massive operation had been executed, inflicting great damage to the Iraqi economy’

In 1969 Mullah MUSTAFA BARZANI planned a daring attack on Kirkuk’s oil installations to embarrass the Iraqi regime and the British government.

In early 1969 the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) carried out a daring raid on Kirkuk’s oil fields, which has since gone down in Kurdish folklore.

The previous year, the Ba’ath Party had seized power for the second time in Iraq and escalated its conflict with the Kurds.

Using advanced weaponry purchased from Western nations the Iraqi government attacked Kurdish communities across northern Iraq and relaunched its ‘Arabisation’ programme in the Kurdish populated areas of Kirkuk

The Iraqi army, backed by local militias, was deployed to evacuate or destroy rural Kurdish settlements. As sources of food, shelter and arms, these villages had proved the lifeblood of the Kurdish resistance movement.

Iraqi militias had devastated rural communities across Kurdistan, driving Kurdish farmers from their homes and giving their land to Arabs from central and southern Iraq

These Iraqi forces devastated rural communities across Kurdistan, driving Kurdish farmers from their homes. Their land and property was then offered to Arabs from central and southern Iraq, who had been given financial inducements by the state to relocate their lives.

The Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani decided to strike back. His aim was to execute a military operation that would damage the oil fields run by the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) in Kirkuk, an international conglomerate headquartered in London, and economically damage the Iraqi government in the most public manner possible.

The secret mission had three objectives. The first was to alert the international community, in particular the British, that Iraq was attacking civilian communities across Kurdistan with weapons bought with money raised from the sale of Kirkuk’s oil.

The second was to interrupt the flow of petroleum from one of the world’s richest oil fields and disrupt Iraq’s foreign trade. And the third was to force the ruling Ba’ath Party back to the negotiation table, to agree peace and recognise the Kurdish right to political autonomy.

A young Kurdish engineer named SAMI ABDUL RAHMAN was chosen to lead the clandestine attack on Kirkuk’s oil installations. The unit he assembled was named ‘Halgurd’, after Iraq’s highest mountain.

In 1966, similar talks had led to a peace agreement with Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul Rahman al-Bazzaz. However, Barzani’s deal with al–Bazzazz had foundered after military hardliners forced the Prime Minister to resign his position.

Kurdish demands that Kirkuk be included in an autonomous region under KDP control, and for the cessation of all ethnic cleansing measures, angered the military faction within the Iraqi government, which installed Naji Talib, a former major general in the Iraqi army, as his replacement.

Once in power, Talib simply refused to honour the al-Bazzazz declaration, and the negotiations with the KDP and Barzani disintegrated.

The stakes were therefore high for Barzani and the KDP, and their mission to attack Kirkuk’s oil installations was conducted with great secrecy.

With the Iraqi government refusing to negotiate a peace agreement, the stakes were high for General Barzani and the KDP

The execution of the plan began in late 1968, when the KDP assembled a small team of Israeli military specialists to instruct peshmerga in the precision deployment of long range mortars and cannons.

To coordinate the mission, General Barzani appointed one of the Kurdish movement’s brightest and bravest commanders, a young Kurdish engineer named Sami Abdul Rahman.

Rahman had studied in the UK at Manchester University and the London School of Economics before returning to Iraq to work as an engineer in the Oil Ministry until the Baathist coup of 1963. He was one of Barzani’s most trusted aides.

Rahman’s mission began with reconnaissance. In December 1968 he set out with two companions on foot towards Kirkuk. Disguising themselves as sheep traders, they reached the outskirts of the oil fields, collected the necessary intelligence for the attack, and then returned to their headquarters high in the Zagros mountains, near the borders of Turkey and Iran.

Legendary Kurdish leader Mullah MUSTAFA BARZANI, warned the United Nations that the Ba’ath Party was planning a mass genocide in Kurdistan, but his appeals were ignored.

On 23 February 1969 Sami Abdul Rahman launched the operation in earnest. He led a 200-man strike force who carried their heavy weaponry on a caravan of 100 mules, traversing snow-covered terrain to reach a small village north and east of Kirkuk.

Using this village as a base, Rahman sent raiding parties out to requisition vehicles, so that his men could quickly establish their position, carry out what needed to be done and then escape into the night via rural roads.

He identified five routes leading to optimal firing positions that overlooked the Kirkuk oil installations they were targeting. Sami positioned small peshmerga units around each of these firing positions to resist any Iraqi counter attacks, and gave his strict orders to cover the withdrawal of their main force – to the last bullet.

‘The dangers were enormous,’ says Sirwan Abdul Rahman, his son, when interviewed by the Kurdistan Memory Programme (the KMP) in 2019. ‘When I think what they were doing today, it strikes me as a crazy undertaking. One small mistake and my father and his men could easily have been caught and executed on the spot.’

Sami Abdul Rahman positioned small peshmerga units around firing positions overlooking the oil installations, and gave strict orders to cover his force’s withdrawal – to the last bullet

Fully aware of the stakes should they be captured, Sami Abdul Rahman’s Kurdish commando team successfully reached their firing positions without detection.

General Barzani’s son, Masoud, who was at the time the head of the Kurdish intelligence service, Parastin, played a crucial role in the Kirkuk operation.

‘We had spread misinformation that our peshmerga were going to attack the Iraqi garrison in Erbil and the Governor’s Office there,’ he tells the KMP in 2019.

‘So because of their limited troops strength at that moment, the Iraqis were obliged to dispatch a regiment to the outskirts of Erbil to strengthen their positions. Once the regiment marched to Erbil, our peshmerga struck.’

Just before 9pm on 1 March 1969 the peshmerga units launched their attack on Kirkuk’s main oil processing plant. The shelling lasted 90 minutes.

The attack on the IPC oil installations was launched just before 9pm on 1 March 1969 at New Baba on the outskirts of Kirkuk. The peshmerga team later recalled that the moon brightly illuminated their targets in the clear night conditions.

In their opening salvo, Sami Abdul Rahman’s peshmerga force fired six 120mm mortar shells. These exploded at the heart of the giant oil processing plant, creating panic among the night workers at the installation.

Their barrage lasted for about 90 minutes, the last of the 117 shells falling just after 10:30 pm.

“When I think what they were doing today, it strikes me as a crazy undertaking – one small mistake and my father and his men would have been caught and executed on the spot”

‘Twenty minutes later an Iraqi force of about 1,000 men approached them along the main road from Kirkuk, one of the routes my father had anticipated they would take,’ says Sirwan Samil Abdul Rahman. ‘His team were forced to retreat.’

With time rapidly running out, the principal group of peshmerga hurried to load their equipment onto the back of the vehicles, before revving their engines and vanishing into the night.

At 1am in the morning, after hours of driving, several vehicles in the Kurdish convoy switched on their headlights, assuming they were safe. It was a big mistake.

‘The Halgurd Warriors’ celebrated a resounding success. Their raid was covered in BBC World Service bulletins and in The Sunday Times of London. It was a public relations embarrassment for the British government and damaged Iraq’s economy.

Out of nowhere Iraqi MIG jets opened fire on the convoy, injuring five peshmerga. Having turned their lights off, they managed to seek cover from the planes in the dark, but the Iraqis had been alerted to their location.

Later that morning, the Iraqi jets strafed them again, destroying three vehicles. However, there were no casualties and Sami Abdul Rahman’s team successfully evaded Iraqi fire once again.

The KDP leadership soon learned that their raid on the IPC oil installations had been a resounding success, as oil drilling at the installations had been temporarily suspended, causing great short term damage to the Iraqi economy.

The Ba’athist government tried to play down the significance of the operation and refused to acknowledge the identity of the attackers. However, the KDP raid made waves in London where the IPC was headquartered, with the attack on its Kirkuk installations being covered by the BBC and other international news sources.

Thinking they were safe at one hour past midnight, the Kurdish convoy turned on their headlights and were immediately fired upon from above by Iraqi MIG jets

The loss sustained by the Iraqis was clearly significant: Kirkuk’s oil installations produced almost 55 million tons of oil in 1968 and made an annual profit of more than 300 million pounds sterling.

After the 1969 operation the KDP’s fight with the Iraqi government intensified and their battlefield successes forced the Ba’ath Party back to the negotiation table.

In 1970 President of Iraq Ahmed Hassan al–Bakr sent his second-in-command, Saddam Hussein, to negotiate a peace deal with Barzani. This culminated in the March 1970 Autonomy Agreement which brought a temporary respite to Iraq’s campaign to ethnically cleanse Kurdish lands in Kirkuk and other areas, but it later transpired that Saddam Hussein was not negotiating in good faith.

Nevertheless, the 1969 attack on the IPC oil installations has achieved a legendary status in Kurdish popular history. Sami Abdul Rahman’s team have since come to be known as ‘The Warriors of Halgurd’, their elevated status recognised by being named after Halgurd, the highest mountain in Iraq.

Autonomy Agreement grants Kurds self-rule, but Ba’ath break terms

The March 1970 peace agreement granted the Kurds autonomy and suspended the Ba’ath Party’s ‘Arabisation’ programme. Historian AREF QURBANI describes the terms of a landmark agreement that the Iraqis refused to implement.

On 11 March 1970 the Iraqi government and the KDP signed an agreement which recognised the legitimacy of the Kurdish cause, and proposed a Kurdish autonomous region of three governorates, pending a new census.

A 15 point plan was agreed by Saddam Hussein and Mullah Mustafa Barzani, with the signed statement concluding, “History will bear witness that you [Kurds] did not have and will never have as sincere a brother and as dependable an ally as the Arab people.”

The Kirkuk issue was to be resolved by a census which would determine the city’s boundaries by showing where the Kurds were in a demographic majority in the disputed territories.

Meanwhile, as Kurdish and Ba’ath Party officials negotiated, Kirkuk’s ‘Arabisation’ policies continued unabated throughout the petroleum, agricultural and educational sectors, with Arab tribes from southern Iraq settling in the Kirkuk region and establishing villages. Some worked the land, whilst others found work in the Kirkuk oil fields and local administration.

The Iraqi government and the KDP signed an agreement proposing a Kurdish autonomous region of three governorates, pending a census to settle the disputed territory of Kirkuk

The Shia Arab al–Bedir tribe arrived in Dibs north of Kirkuk in 1971 and 1972, displacing Kurdish and Turkmen farmers who had been expelled from their villages. Sheikh JAWED KAZEM HAIFA, the tribe’s patriarch in Dibs, refuses to accept a ruling by a local court stating the land they have been occupying must be returned to its original owners.

This large migration of Arab workers to Kirkuk was accompanied by a building boom in the city, with apartments being rapidly constructed for their incoming families, Ba’ath Party members and for Iraqi secret police officials.

In the 1970 Autonomy Agreement the Kurdish leadership demanded that the Iraqi government’s Arabisation measures cease, and that those Kirkuki Kurds who had been expelled from their homes be allowed to return to resume their original employment.

However, despite agreeing the terms, the Ba’ath regime failed to honour the accord, and assassination attempts in late 1970 on General Barzani’s son, Idris, and on Barzani himself in 1971, cast doubt on whether they ever would.

‘I knew [it was a ruse] even before I signed the agreement,’ Barzani later recalled. ‘But our people asked me, “How can you turn down self-rule for the Kurdish people?”’

“I knew it was a ruse before I signed the agreement,” General Barzani later recalled

The futility of the Autonomy Agreement was further illustrated by the Iraqi government’s deportation of the Fayli Kurds to Iran.

The Faylis are Shia Kurds who have lived in border areas between Iraq and Iran since the earliest days of the Ottoman and Persian empires, with approximately 100,000 Faylis living to the west of the Zagros mountains.

Many Faylis had settled in Baghdad, becoming key contributors to the city’s commercial and cultural life. But the Ba’ath Party argued that as they had not issued the Faylis with national identity papers, they were in fact Iranian.

Consequently, and without any legal procedure, Iraqi police and intelligence units forcibly deported around 50,000 Fayli Kurds to the Iranian border from September 1970.

The Iraqi government conclusively distorted its 1970 agreement with the Kurdish leadership in March 1974, when Baghdad unilaterally announced the establishment of a new autonomy arrangement. This allocated to the Kurds only half of the land they had been promised in 1970, and excluded Kirkuk entirely.

With the Kurdish autonomy agreement of March 1970 now declared tantamount to secession, the Kurds and the Iraqi regime went to war.

Kurds offered money to change their ethnic identity in new Iraq national census

When the Ba’ath Party seized control of Iraq for the second time in 1968, the Kirkuk region was subjected to fresh waves of ‘Arabisation’. AHMED ASKARI, a schoolboy at the time, remembers how Kurdish communities were expelled from their homes on the pretext of living too close to oil fields or military sites.

In 1975 the Kurdish uprising collapsed after the Algiers Accord between Iraq and Iran effectively ended Iranian and American support for the Kurds.

With Mullah Mustafa Barzani ordering his peshmerga fighters to abandon their struggle, the Ba’ath Party was resurgent. Following the orders of the increasingly influential Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi military immediately accelerated their mass ethnic cleansing programme.

The Iraqis created death strips about 20 to 25 km deep along their remote borders with Turkey and Iran. Any Kurd returning found there could be shot on sight by helicopter gunships.

Thousands of villagers were moved inland to so-called model villages where their movements were policed by army garrisons. Their original homes were demolished, their orchards destroyed and their water wells concreted over.

The Iraqi government created “death strips” 20 to 25 km deep along their borders with Turkey and Iran, patrolled by helicopter gunships that would fire on unauthorised intruders

The Mirani tribe occupied areas in northwestern Iraq, close to the Syrian and Turkish borders, until they were forcibly displaced in September 1974. The Iraqi government accused them of supporting the Kurdish resistance against Baghdad.

In Barzan, those who did not flee to Iran were transported to the arid governorate of Diwaniya in the south of Iraq.

Thousands of Kurds were moved away from oil-rich regions of Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly around Khanaqin and Kirkuk, and around 50,000 were deported to the south of Iraq – to Ramadi, Nasiriya, Basra and Samawa.

The Mirani tribe had similarly been forcibly displaced in September 1974 after large oil deposits were discovered on their land.

Originally a Kurdish nomadic tribe, the Miranis occupied areas of northwestern Iraq close to the Syrian and Turkish borders and had been loyal to the Kurdish cause and its resistance to Baghdad.

The Iraqi secret service tried to recruit IBRAHIM GABARI, a young Kurdish student, for an assassination attempt on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mullah MUSTAFA BARZANI. GABARI immediately informed BARZANI of the offer, however, and worked for him as a double agent.

When interviewed by the Kurdistan Memory Programme in 2019, villagers stated that 24 Mirani villages were destroyed, with their inhabitants dispersed among Arab tribes in the Nineveh governorate.

Such mass relocations were increasingly common under the Ba’ath Party’s increasingly extreme ethnic cleansing programme.

Even those Kurds who managed to remain in Kirkuk did not escape the Iraqi regime’s wrath, particularly those with a past affiliation to the Kurdish resistance, whose property was seized.

Kurds seeking a job or wanting to register a property in Kirkuk were now forced to change their registered ethnicity and declare themselves as ‘Arabs’. And those whose relatives had fought against the Iraqi army were imprisoned and only released if their children surrendered to the authorities.

Around 50,000 Kurds were deported from Khanaqin and Kirkuk and transported to the south of Iraq

After the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in 1975, ZAHRA FARIS KHALID, a member of the Barzani tribe, was transported by lorry to the arid south of Iraq, where she and fellow Barzanis were forced to live in squalor in mud huts. Iraqi security agents told them anyone who said they were not Barzani could return home. ‘Dead or alive, we are Barzani,’ her father told them. He would die there.

Saddam Hussein seizes power and Ba’ath Party redraws official boundaries of Kirkuk region

The Khanaqin region adjoining the Iranian border has always strongly supported the Kurdish movement, but this support came with a cost. AZAD HAMID QARALOSSI says his father was executed because of his commitment to the Kurdish cause and his family was forced to flee their home in the Mandali area in 1972.

The mass Arabisation programmes that had begun in 1963 were beginning to significantly change the demographics of the Kirkuk region, but still not quickly enough to satisfy the ambitions of the Ba’ath Party.

In December 1975 they renamed the Kirkuk governorate al–Ta’mim (which means ‘Nationalisation’ in Arabic), to stress that Kirkuk was now considered to have a definitively Arab character, before doctoring its official boundaries in an attempt to make their false claim a technical reality.

With its official boundaries redrawn, the Kirkuk governorate was formally detached from the Kurdish areas of Chamchamal, Kalar and Kifri.

The Ba’ath Party halved the official geographic area of Kirkuk, manipulating data to suggest that Arabs outnumbered Kurdish and Turkmen Kirkukis

Dallo tribesmen tell of their brutal expulsion from the Naftkhana area bordering Iran in December 1975. All supported the Kurdish uprising, which had collapsed nine months earlier. The Iraqi army forced the inhabitants of 17 Dallo villages from their homes over a three day period.

In January 1976 the Iraqi government reassigned the Turkmen dominated districts of Tuz Khurmatu and Qadir Karam to the Saladin governorate, before switching the Arab sub-districts of Kandenawa and Qaraj – previously part of the Erbil governorate – to Kirkuk in December.

This administrative chicanery halved the official geographic area of the historically Kurdish region, reducing its dimensions from 20,000 to 10,000 square kilometres.

Following these dubious new statistics, the Arab population finally outnumbered Kurdish and Turkman Kirkukis in ‘Kirkuk’ according to the official government records.

In 1977 the Iraqi government offered a 10,000 dinar bribe to Kurds in the governorates of Mosul, Khanaqin, Sinjar and Kirkuk to annul their ethnic identity by registering as “Arabs”

Aware that the boundary changes they had instated were a mere deception, however, in 1977 the Iraqi government offered a 10,000 dinar bribe to Kurds in the governorates of Mosul, Khanaqin, Sinjar and Kirkuk if they would annul their ethnic identity by registering as ‘Arabs’ for a new government census.

Politically, this mass ethnic laundering process served the Ba’ath Party’s purpose – to dominate the Kurds and control the oil production in Kurdish ancestral lands upon which Iraq’s economy depended.

Fighting erupted between the Kurds and the Iraqi army after the collapse of the Kurdish autonomy agreement in 1974. Historian AREF QURBANI remembers how Kurdish villages in the Kirkuk region were burned to the ground, including his own home, as the Ba’ath Party intensified its ‘Arabisation’ campaign.

Yet the deeper logic of the process was borne of Ba’athist deceit, a topsy turvy world borne of ideological dogma.

Thus, non-Arabs were forcefully assimilated into a faux ethno-state, and ‘Arab values’ were aggrandised while Kurdish cultural heritage was devalued and ignored under the harsh restrictions of a police state.

The contradictions inherent within the Ba’athist’s grand nationalist dreams were worthy of Michel Aflaq himself, who had previously stated the Arab personality had grown so ‘fragmented’ and ‘impoverished’ that it could only recover its ‘vital forces’ with ‘strong fists and muscles’.

“We must remove all obstacles of stagnation and degradation, so that pure blood lineage will run in our veins,” said Michel Aflaq, architect of Ba’athism, to an audience at the University of Damascus

In an early lecture he delivered at the University of Damascus, Aflaq addressed students with a call for ethnic ‘purification’ while harking back to an imaginary ‘golden age’.

‘We must revive the characteristics and acts that legitimise our lineage to our past and make that a real living entity,’ Aflaq told his audience of students and academics. ‘We must remove all obstacles of stagnation and degradation, so that our pure blood lineage will run anew in our veins. We must purify our land and sky, so that the spirits of our ancestors will descend upon us anew.’

In the Ba’ath Party of Iraq, Aflaq would find common cause in a desire to ‘purify’, or rather ethnically cleanse, Iraq’s territory.

After the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in 1975, the Iraqi government moved against the Yazidis of Sinjar, a religious minority considered heretical by their Arab neighbours. The Yazidis had traditionally supported the Kurdish leader Mullah MUSTAFA BARZANI and so their lands were seized as punishment. The Iraqi army destroyed 137 villages in Sinjar, moving their former inhabitants to 11 collective towns.

Fittingly, in 1968 Aflaq relocated to Baghdad, where he was hosted as a court intellectual by Saddam Hussein.

The Ba’athist strongman would go on to seize the Iraqi presidency from Ahmed Hassan al–Bakr in 1979, and scatter Aflaq’s ideological seeds by his own hand as he oversaw a massive programme to ethnically launder and purge Iraq of its non-Arab inhabitants.

These dark seeds of sectarianism, bedded, ploughed and watered by the Ba’ath Party’s practises of Arabisation in Iraq, would later bloom in the form of mass genocide, when Saddam escalated his ambitions from bureaucratic chicanery and cultural erasure to the mass murder of the Kurdish people.

In 1975 hundreds of Kurdish families were expelled from the Khanaqin region. Arabs from Ali Awa village who witnessed the expulsions claim the Kurds left voluntarily. Iraqi army lorries were used to transport the Kurdish families, but even today Ali Awa citizens interviewed by the Kurdistan Memory Programme claim that no one was forced to board them.

‘Within three days the Iraqi army had deported 86 families to Iran’

The Arkawasi tribe are one of the largest Kurdish Shia tribes in the Khanaqin region, accounting for around 50% of its population. Their support for the Kurdish resistance movement made them a target of the Iraqi government’s ethnic cleansing programmes between 1961 and 1975. ALI MURAD and other Arkawasi villagers tell how the regime deported them in the early 1970s, replacing them with Arab settlers.

The Arkawasi are the largest tribe in the Khanaqin district of Iraq. They are Shia muslims, yet consider themselves Kurds first and foremost.

Although their tribal territories are close to the border with Iran, the Arkawasi have traditionally supported the Kurdish nationalist movement.

They were among the first to join the Kurdish war against Baghdad that broke out in 1961, and were subsequently punished by the Iraqi government for their allegiance to the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Mullah Mustafa Barzani.

‘Successive Iraqi leaders “Arabised” our villages between 1961 and 1975,’ says Ali Murad, a member of the Arkawasi tribe. ‘They detained, tortured, and mutilated us, and killed our people.’

The brutal ethnic cleansing policies suffered by the Arkawasi were in this instance mostly carried out by fellow Kurds – tribes known as jash, who supported Arab militias backed by the Iraqi government.

The jash proved deeply hostile to the Arkawasi. Any villagers they found that were suspected to have hosted KDP-backed peshmerga in their homes were forcibly deported to Iran.

The Arkawasi tribe of Khanaqin were among the first to join the Kurdish war against Baghdad that began in 1961, and were punished by the Iraqi government in a draconian fashion

In the early 1970s, the Iraqi army and jash militias were responsible for expelling Arkawasi from their villages, reducing cherished family homes to rubble.

After the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in 1975, the Ba’ath Party’s ‘Arabisation’ policies became even more draconian. The Iraqi military started to deport Khanaqin Kurds to southern Iraq in far greater volumes.

‘They deported 17 families in one night,’ says Khoshnaw Ismail Mohammed, an Arkawasi tribesman. ‘Between 64 and 68 families were expelled from Khanaqin.’

Ali Wali Sherif, also from the Arkawasi tribe, recalls his family being surrounded by the Iraqi military in October 1975 and ordered from their homes.

They were then forcibly transported to the south of the country in trucks.

‘There was one vehicle for each family,’ says Ali. ‘We left around sunset. I was 15 or 16 at the time and had never travelled outside Khanaqin. I didn’t even know where Baghdad was.’

KHOSHNAW ISMAIL MOHAMMED was 10 years old in April 1979 when he was forced at gunpoint to cross into Iran, accompanied by his family and 16 other Kurdish Shia families. Four or five people died during the crossing.

Kurdish villagers were ordered to leave their possessions behind, including their harvested crops. After they were expelled, the Iraqis installed Arabs in their homes, giving these newly arrived groups the land and possessions the Arkawasi had been forced to surrender.

The Iraqi army then trucked the Arkawasi to towns in southern Iraq. There, each family was allocated a single room for accommodation.

In most cases, these living quarters had no bathroom, toilet, nor running water. With no contacts or connections in largely Arab areas, the Arkawasi men had little option but to seek badly paid jobs as labourers or tea house waiters.

By the late 1970s some Arkawasi villagers had returned to Khanaqin. But with tensions between Iraq and Iran escalating prior to the breakout of hostilities in the Iran–Iraq War, Khanaqin’s Shia Kurds were viewed by the Iraqi government as potential ‘third columnists’, liable to ally with the Iranians.

In October 1979 Iraqi security forces surrounded the the Arkawasi tribal areas.

‘Within three days they deported 86 Khanaqin based families to Iran,’ says Khoshnaw Ismail. ‘The Iraqi soldiers told us, “Go to Ayatollah Khomeini” [the Supreme Leader of Iran].’

After they were trucked to southern Iraq, each Arkawasi family was allocated a single room in living quarters that had no bathroom, toilet, nor running water

The Iraqis justified their deportation of the Arkawasi by spuriously claiming that they were ‘Iranian’ on account of their religion and the Kurds’ previous political alliances with Iran. The government stripped them of their Iraqi citizenship documents prior to the expulsion.

Forced to leave without citizenship documents, the Arkawasi had no option but to trek miles across dangerous territory between the two countries. Some of the more elderly amongst the villagers did not survive the journey.

Similar deportations happened every five or six months, and thousands of Arkawasi subsequently landed in Iranian refugee camps in the border areas. Arkawasi who remained were targeted for capture by the Iraqi army and later executed.

Several younger groups of Shia Kurds, who were aged between 15 and 25 years, were abducted and disappeared without trace in this period.

‘Some 60 to 62 young people disappeared from our village. I have their names,’ says Khoshnaw Ismail.

Professor Kamal Ketuly, a Duhok academic, estimates that around 6,000 young Shia Kurds were executed around this time.

KDP and PUK ally with Iranians in Iran–Iraq War and Saddam seeks immediate vengeance

In 1983 SADDAM HUSSEIN told local Kurdish dignitaries in Erbil that thousands of Barzani males rounded up from resettlement camps across Iraqi Kurdistan ‘went to hell’. All were murdered by death squads in the southern Iraqi deserts.

The violent expulsion of Kurds from their ancestral lands continued in 1980 when the Iraqi military forcibly deported around 50,000 Fayli Kurds to Iran.

The Fayli are Shia Muslim Kurds who have inhabited the Zagros mountain areas near Iraq’s border with Iran since the earliest days of the Ottoman and Persian empires.

The Sunni-led government of Iraq had long regarded Fayli communities as ‘fifth columnists’ who were sympathetic to Iran on account of their religion and proximity to their neighbour state.

In September 1980 war broke out between Iraq and Iran after Saddam Hussein launched a pre-emptive strike against the Iranians.

Saddam had primarily been concerned that that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 would inspire Iraq’s long oppressed Shia Arab majority to launch an insurgency against their Sunni rulers, but the conflict heaped further misery upon Iraq’s Kurds.

The Kurds were now divided into two primary political factions: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by former KDP member Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by two of Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s sons, Idris and Masoud

In 1979 ZAHRA FARIS BARZANI was returned to Iraqi Kurdistan after four years of enforced exile in southern Iraq. She was placed with other members of the Barzani tribe in a special camp in Erbil guarded by the Iraqi secret police. In 1983 thousands of Barzani males were taken away from the camp by Iraqi agents and secretly executed.

The position of the Fayli Kurds in particular worsened. Those Fayli who had identity papers were stripped of their citizenship and then expelled to Iran.

Those who remained faced execution, and as many as 6,000 young Fayli Kurds who chose to stay in Iraq were reportedly murdered.

Meanwhile, much weakened since the 1975 collapse of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) alliance with Iran and the United States, the Kurds resumed their armed resistance to the Iraqi government.

They were now divided into two primary political factions: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by former KDP member Jalal Talabani, and the KDP led by the exiled Mustafa Barzani’s two sons, Idris and Masoud.

Throughout the Iran–Iraq War, both the KDP and PUK at different stages allied with Iran against the Iraqis, incurring Saddam Hussein’s wrath.

In October 1986 peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) attacked Kirkuk’s oil installations with support from a small number of Iranian soldiers. AZAD SAGERMA was one of two commanders who led the operation. Although the attack had limited impact, the Iranians claimed it as a propaganda victory. As a reprisal the Iraqi regime destroyed some 1,600 Kurdish villages and intensified their ethnic cleansing campaign in Kurdish areas.

In July 1983 KDP peshmerga fighters supported an Iranian raid on Haji Omran in the mountains of the north east, helping Iran gain a strategic foothold in areas where KDP influence was strong. Furious, Saddam demanded immediate revenge.

Vengeance arrived late in July, when the Iraqi army arrested some 8,000 men, members of the powerful Barzani clan, at resettlement camps across Iraqi Kurdistan.

The captured Barzani men were forced at gunpoint into buses and then driven towards the arid deserts of southern Iraq. They were never seen again.

Addressing a gathering of prominent Kurds in Erbil, Saddam announced the missing Barzanis ‘went to hell’.

Elsewhere, Saddam sought to divide and conquer the Kurds, conducting ceasefire negotiations with the KDP’s great rivals the PUK in December 1983. In exchange, the Iraqis agreed to halt their Arabisation programmes in the Kirkuk and Khanaqin governorates.

However, the agreement between the two parties broke down in January 1985 over the PUK’s demands for Kurdish autonomy in Kirkuk, which – much as in March 1970 – the Ba’ath Party had little interest in facilitating.

The Iraqi army arrested some 8,000 male members of the Barzani clan and forced them onto buses at gunpoint – they were driven to the deserts of southern Iraq and never seen again

With their accord with the Iraqi government in tatters, the PUK allied with Iran to launch a joint military offensive on Kirkuk’s oilfields on 10 October 1986.

The strike was designed to greatly damage Iraq’s economy. Although it did not achieve this goal, for Iran such a bold incursion into Iraqi national territory was a propaganda victory at least.

Immediately after the attack, the Iranians signed an agreement with the PUK establishing their military, political and economic support and alliance.

Viewing the actions of the PUK as a grand act of betrayal, the Ba’athists embarked upon a new offensive against the Kurdish people, laying waste to an estimated 1,600 villages.

In 1987 Saddam Hussein appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al–Majid as head of the Ba’ath Party’s Northern Bureau to more conclusively, as al–Majid put it, ‘solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs’.

He immediately stepped up the arabisation of Kurdish areas west of Kirkuk: the Iraqi army drove out the inhabitants of the Makhmur region and replaced them with thousands of Arab settlers.

SADDAM HUSSEIN rescinded his agreement with Shah PAHLAVI and invaded Iran in 1980. Many Kirkuki Kurds refused to enlist in the war effort and hid in their home villages. Iraq used their refusal to conscript as an excuse to expel them and their families from Kirkuk, replacing them with Arab families.

Ali–Hassan al–Majid attempts to destroy all villages in rural Kurdistan and complete Kirkuk ‘Arabisation’ project

Kurdish historian AREF QURBANI describes how the appointment of ALI HASSAN AL–MAJID as head of Iraq’s Northern Bureau heralded disaster for the Kurds. Over a two year period, AL-MAJID ordered the destruction of more than 770 Kurdish villages. QURBANI’s own village was razed in September 1986.

Saddam Hussein’s 1987 appointment of Ali Hassan al–Majid to head the Ba’ath Party’s Northern Bureau was a disaster for the Kurds, and set the Iraqi military on a path to mass genocide.

Establishing his headquarters in Kirkuk, al–Majid set two main priorities.

The first was to complete the Ba’ath Party’s ‘Arabisation’ project once and for all, finishing the mass ethnic cleansing of the Kirkuk region that the party had worked to achieve since 1963.

Makhmur, west of Kirkuk, sits on one of the Middle East’s biggest oil fields. In the mid 1980s the Iraqi government began to assert absolute control over this massive petroleum reservoir: Arabs were moved in and Kurds expelled from their homes to create an Arab demographic majority in the region. As a young boy, MAJID MUHAMMED SULTAN remembers the political tensions in Makhmur and the peshmerga attacks on the Ba’ath Party headquarters in the city centre.

To this end, al–Majid later boasted of his success in an April 1989 meeting to welcome his successor as Secretary General of Iraq’s Northern Bureau, in a conversation that was recorded on audiotape.

Claiming Saddam Hussein’s regime had spent 60 million Iraqi dinars (worth approximately US $204 million in March 1987), al–Majid bragged to a subordinate that he had increased the percentage of Arabs in the Kirkuk governorate from 51 per cent to 60 per cent in the space of one year.

The second stated priority of al-Majid was to complete the destruction of all rural villages in Kurdistan.

Ali Hassan al–Majid bragged to a subordinate that he had increased the percentage of Arabs in the Kirkuk governorate from 51 per cent to 60 per cent in the space of one year

On 16 April 1987 DOCTOR ‘ZYRIAN’ ABDUL YOUNES, a medical officer with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), witnessed the chemical attack by Iraqi planes on the Balisan valley. That night hundreds of Kurdish villagers arrived at his medical station seeking help. Many of them died.

Rural settlements were the lifeblood of the Kurdish resistance, supplying peshmerga fighters of both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with food, weapons and intelligence.

Seeking to ruthlessly annihilate this source of Kurdish power, al–Majid ordered the deployment of chemical weapons against rural Kurdistan.

The first attack of this nature took place on 15 and 16 April 1987 when the Iraqi Air Force bombed the Jafati and Balisan valleys with chemical weapons.

ALI MOHAMMED AMIN describes life in the Kirkuk Citadel when Kurds were the largest community living there. SADDAM HUSSEIN flew over the citadel in a helicopter in 1988, and later ordered that all Kurdish occupants be removed. By 1992 only four houses remained. In October of that year ALI watched bulldozers destroy his family home.

It was an extraordinary step, taken with complete disregard for international law, and one of the few times in human history that a sovereign state had used poison gas against its own civilian population.

However, the Iraqi government managed, at least initially, to conceal the scale of this chemical weapons onslaught from the international community.

These poison gas attacks were followed by two directives issued by al-Majid in June 1987.

The first applied a shoot-to-kill policy for any person found in areas decreed to be prohibited. The second ruled that Kurds aged between 15 and 70 captured in the prohibited zones could be lawfully executed.

On 15 and 16 April 1987, the Iraqi Air Force bombed the Jafati and Balisan valleys – one of the few occasions in human history a sovereign state used chemical weapons on its own civilian population

AHMED ASKARI, a Kirkuk Provincial council member, says that Kirkuk’s citadel has been inhabited by a range of different cultures throughout its history, from Kurds to Jews, Zoroastrians, Turkmen, Christians and Muslims. He says in 1988 SADDAM HUSSEIN ordered the destruction of the citadel’s archaeological sites to remove all evidence of non-Arab habitation.

Saddam Hussein demands completion of northern Iraq Arabisation programmes, orders mass genocide

AREF QURBANI, a Kurdish historian who has written six books on Anfal, says the Kirkuk region was the main target for Iraq’s genocidal attacks on its Kurdish population. In all, according to his research, 779 villages were razed in the Kirkuk governorate in April and May 1988, and tens of thousands of Kurds were either displaced or killed.

On 6 September 1987 Ali Hassan al-Majid chaired a meeting with his Northern Bureau that ordered a census in areas the Iraqi government decreed to be ‘prohibited zones’.

Supposedly inviting Kurds to rejoin the fold of Ba’athist Iraq, the census was to be administered by Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council and scheduled to take place on 17 October.

In actuality, al–Majid did not send any government officials to register Kurds in prohibited areas, and his ‘census’ instead proved an exercise in administrative chicanery.

The reality was that al–Majid’s earlier June directives – in particular, order number 4008 – had instructed that Kurdish villagers caught travelling to or from the prohibited zones were to be lawfully executed by agents of Amn, the Iraqi secret police, or army soldiers.

Ali Hassan al–Majid’s June 1987 directive, “order 4008”, stated that any Kurd caught travelling in an area deemed prohibited by the Iraqi government could be legally killed

This meant any Kurd in an area deemed to be prohibited could be freely murdered if they attempted to register themselves in a city, with the perpetrator facing no legal recourse.

Needless to say, few Kurds risked registering themselves as such in the Iraqi census, and so al–Majid’s efforts to ethnically cleanse these Kurdish regions continued apace.

In late February 1988, Saddam Hussein ordered Ali Hassan al-Majid to launch the ‘al-Anfal’ campaign.

The Arabic term ‘al–Anfal’ is the name of the eighth Sura or chapter of the Koran, and literally means ‘the spoils’, as in ‘the spoils of battle’. More specifically, it refers to the spoils of the first battle of the new Muslim faith at Badr in 624 A.D. in what is modern day Saudi Arabia’s province of Hejaz.

Shortly after the March 1988 attack on Halabja, the nearby village of Sewsenan was also gassed. OBED MOHAMMED, a local tailor, watched his wife and six children die as Iraqi planes dropped chemical bombs on his home.

Although Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime was secular in nature, Saddam frequently and cynically used religious language when describing the actions of his government, portraying Arabs as true defenders of Islam and Iraqi Kurds, who were themselves primarily Sunni Muslims, as infidels.

Each of the Anfal military campaigns organised by al–Majid was slightly different in nature, yet each aimed to break both the resistance of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the village networks that sustained them. The overall pattern of the operations was consistent, however.

First, rural Kurdish settlements were targeted by the Iraqi air force, who used Russian Sukhoi fighter jets to drop chemical weapons onto both civilian and peshmerga targets. In all, more than 200 villages were gassed.

These air raids were frequently accompanied by blitz attacks on Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) bases nearby.

Although a secularist, Saddam Hussein cynically used religious language to cloak the actions of his government in piety, portraying Kurds, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims, as “infidels”

Second, ground troops from the Iraqi army, accompanied by pro-government Kurdish militias known as jash, encircled targeted areas and destroyed all human habitation.

They looted possessions and farm animals, set fire to homes, and then sent in bulldozers to complete the demolition.

Third, fleeing Kurds were captured and loaded onto waiting convoys of trucks, which transported them to holding centres and death camps. Afterwards, jash forces were sent back to sweep up any remaining escapees.

The Iraqi secret police then combed villages and towns for fugitives, luring them with false promises of amnesty.

Women and children from Kulajo village were bussed to Nugra Salman prison in the southern deserts by the Iraqi army. On arrival at a transitory stop, where only old men were held captive, they realised their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers had been taken into the desert and killed.

‘They jumped into the spring to wash off the chemicals, but the water was poisoned’

AISHA MAGHDID MAHMOUD witnessed the chemical bombing of Ware village in 1988. Panic-stricken villagers ran to the local spring to wash themselves. However, the water was poisoned and 20 lost their lives.

In 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war moved to its climax, hundreds of Kurdish villages in Iraqi Kurdistan came under attack from Iraqi planes laden with chemical weapons.

Even being located in an area tightly controlled by the Iraqi army offered no protection. So the settlement of Ware, near the Balisan Valley in northeastern Iraq, was caught completely off guard when it was bombed on the last day of Ramadan, at a time when villagers were preparing to end their fast.

It was 15 May and Aisha Maghdid Mahmoud was alone at home with her baby brother when she heard fighter planes flying overhead.

At that moment her father was guarding the sheep in the mountains and her mother was at the local spring washing meat for the evening meal.

Panic broke out in the village of Ware when toxic white clouds spread from house to house and people began to drop dead in the street

The Iraqi military was executing its fifth Anfal operation, part of a much wider campaign Saddam Hussein had ordered for the genocide of rural Kurds.

The Iraqi planes overflew Ware six or seven times before dropping their bombs.

Panic broke out in the village when white clouds spread from house to house and people began to drop dead in the street after exposure to the chemicals.

Aisha’s mother returned with her shawl soaked in water, which she wrapped around Aisha’s brother, and then they all fled to the village spring.

MALA JAMAL SLEMAN lived in a nearby government settlement and was the first to arrive in Ware after it was gassed on 15 May 1988. ‘There were too many dead to count,’ he tells the Kurdistan Memory Programme.

There, Aisha saw her neighbours throw themselves into the waters of the spring hoping it would help them clean away the chemicals. Instead, the chemicals contaminated the water, making it a toxic hazard.

‘When people jumped in, they were poisoned,’ says Aisha. ‘There were about 20 people lying dead in that spring.’

Siamand Jalal Sieman, who was then a primary school pupil, remembers that he was cultivating tomatoes in his father’s fields when the Iraqi planes struck Ware. He smelled a strong odour, which reminded him of garlic and onions, as the gas clouds spread across the valley.

Aware that something was badly wrong, he immediately fled towards the village mosque.

‘None of us had expected a gas attack because we were near a government checkpoint,’ says Siamand. He jumped into the spring outside the mosque to clean himself, but left when he saw the effect the water was having on others around him.

Aisha saw her neighbours throw themselves into their village spring, hoping the water would help wash away the chemicals but instead they made the pool a toxic hazard

Sent to the fields to cultivate tomatoes by his mother, SIAMAND JALAL SIEMAN escaped the poison gas attack on Ware, his home village. From fields on the mountainside he watched in horror as Iraqi planes launched their bombs, killing his entire family.

‘I watched as people lost their minds around me,’ he says.

Siamand fled Ware with several of his relatives. They trekked in search of a friendly village until they could walk no further and Siamand collapsed on the floor.

He was unable to speak. His companions carried him along with them, but after transporting him some distance they became convinced he was too ill to help and left him for dead.

Siamand was finally rescued from the floor by two of his uncles, who brought him to a camp where other villagers who had survived the gassing had gathered.

Siamand later discovered that all of his immediate family died in the attack at Ware.

“I watched as people lost their minds around me,” says Siamand Jalal Sieman

IBRAHIM SHEIKH MUSTAFA drove by tractor to Ware village just hours after it was gassed and helped collect corpses for burial. ‘I knew them all,’ he says. ‘It was a dreadful day.’

Back in the village, Aisha, her mother, and baby brother were rescued by relatives from a neighbouring village who risked their lives to travel in search of them, bringing mules for transport.

When Aisha’s father returned to Ware from farming work in the mountains, he hunted desperately to find evidence of his missing family amidst the corpses that now littered his home village. Convinced they had died, he collapsed in shock.

Aisha’s relatives took her, her mother and her brother to a nearby field clinic maintained by friendly Kurdish peshmerga. But this facility was also bombed by the Iraqis.

Aisha survived the attack and travelled to a nearby village that had not been attacked, and there she finally found her father.

Aisha and her surviving family were eventually given permission to live in Shkarta, a government collective town near Ware. Her father died there a year later.

In 1990, Aisha married in Shkarta and in 2002 returned with her husband to Ware, where they have raised six children together.

AMENA HASSAN describes how her family were gassed as villagers congregated at the local spring in Ware to celebrate the Eid festival. ‘Only three or four of us survived,’ she tells the Kurdistan Memory Programme. ‘We were like the walking dead.’

Between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurds killed and over 4,500 Kurdish villages destroyed by Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaigns

Three Kurdish brothers from from Birjini village just south of Iraq’s border with Turkey describe how their farming community was bombed with chemical weapons by the Iraqi military in August 1988. Two of their brothers died in the attack.

On 16 March 1988 Saddam Hussein’s regime brought chemical hellfire upon the Kurdish city of Halabja, using mustard gas as well as the nerve agents sarin and tabun to kill more than 5,000 Kurds at one stroke, while injuring more than 10,000.

The bombing of an urban stronghold was a separate operation to Saddam Hussein’s ‘Anfal’, which had already laid waste to rural areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

By the time the Final Anfal operation was concluded by the Iraqi military in September 1988, it is estimated that between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurds had been killed and around 4,500 villages destroyed within a period of seven months.

With the Kurdish resistance defeated once more, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled Iraq to Iran and Turkey.

While the mass ethnic cleansing policies implemented between 1963 and 1988 displaced Kurds primarily for the purposes of political and economic control, this time the Ba’ath Party focused the full apparatus of the Iraqi state on mass slaughter

After crawling out of an execution pit in southern Iraq, in which his mother and other family members lay dead, TEIMOUR ABDULLAH MOHAMMED, who was at that time 11 years-old, fled deep into the desert. He was found by a Bedouin Arab family who risked their lives to save him from the Iraqi secret police.

Coupled with Saddam Hussein’s drive to complete his ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing project in the Kurdish ancestral heartlands, one might understand the Iraqi government’s genocidal assault on rural Kurdistan as an extension of the Ba’ath Party’s efforts to ‘purify their blood lineage’, as Michel Aflaq had put it.

Yet while the mass ethnic cleansing the Ba’athists implemented between 1963 and 1988 had sought to displace Kurds for the purposes of economic and political empowerment, this time the full apparatus of the Iraqi state was being forcefully brought to bear in the bureaucratic and military process of mass slaughter.

Those Kurds who had previously resisted attempts to erase their very identity in official records now found themselves in the trigger sights of machine guns and targeted by chemical weapons.

The seeds of Arabisation that the Ba’ath Party had so successfully planted and tended to since their first coup of 1963 were now bearing full and bitter fruit in the form of the mass genocide of Kurds in Iraq.

You can read the full story of Anfal in this special interactive feature produced by the Kurdistan Memory Programme. 

The seeds of “Arabisation” the Ba’ath Party had so successfully planted and tended since 1963 were now bearing bitter fruit with the genocide of the Kurds of Iraq

Kurdish children who survived the Iraq army’s efforts to exterminate their communities fled with their families from villages south of Iraq’s border with Turkey. Deeply traumatised, many found sanctuary in a refugee camp just inside Iran, and in this film they describe the horror of the Iraqi poison gas attacks.

USA invites Kurds to rise against Ba’ath Party in the Gulf War, abandons them when they do so

MASOUD BARZANI, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), leaves his mountain stronghold during the Kurdish uprising in 1991 and addresses the people of Koysanjak. This was a politically sensitive location, as Koysanjak was the hometown of JALAL TALABANI, head of the KDP’s rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Talabani was in London, England at the time.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Ba’ath Party’s efforts to ‘Arabise’ northern Iraq with mass ethnic cleansing policies were greatly complicated by major global conflicts and their own military missteps.

The Iraqi army’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 triggered the Gulf War. Forces from a coalition of nations, which most notably included the United States, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Egypt and France, rapidly mobilised to defeat Saddam Hussein.

The venture to conquer a neighbouring power rapidly backfired on Iraq. 

In March 1991, with the Iraqi army expelled from Kuwait, previously pro-government Kurdish jash militias joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Yet when Kurds followed enticements from the United States to take up arms against the Iraqi government, American forces refused to intervene to help them.

The United States worried the Kurdish uprising might lead to a secession from the state of Iraq: although they had encouraged Kurds to take up arms against Saddam Hussein, they refused to intervene when the Iraqis responded aggressively

Under the administration of President George Bush Senior, the Americans worried that the revolt might lead to Kurdish secession from Iraq, a development that its ally Turkey greatly feared.

The United States was also wary of facilitating a Shia–led Iraqi regime that might ally with the Islamic Republic of Iran. So the Americans ultimately negotiated a ceasefire agreement with Saddam Hussein’s regime that proved a great betrayal of their Kurdish allies.

Exploiting a loophole in the agreement, which forbade Iraq from flying fixed-wing aircraft but not military helicopters, the Ba’ath Party brutally bombed Shia regions in the south of Iraq and Kurdish areas in the north, driving large numbers of Kurdish refugees to flee to Iran and Turkey.

Turkey, concerned that the large numbers of Kurdish refugees massing at its borders might create civil unrest within its Kurdish regions, sought assistance from its allies.

So the United States, Britain and France established a no-fly zone prohibiting Iraqi aircraft from overflying the region of northern Iraq, at long last giving the Kurds a ‘safe zone’ in the north and safe harbour from Iraqi persecution.

During the Kurdish uprising of 1991, Kurds from Erbil watch cinema screenings of footage that showed the aftermath of Iraq’s massive poison gas attack on Halabja three years previously. It was the first time they had seen the true horror of the events of Halabja. The shock reduced audiences to tears. ‘My heart is broken,’ says one woman.

‘Our area is rich in agriculture, oil and gas, but economically we were pushed back below zero’

Kurdish lawyer MAHMOUD HUSSEIN HAJI worked for many years to document the expulsion of Kurdish tribes from their traditional lands. Originally from Chifitk village in northwestern Iraq, he recalls how his entire community was driven from their homes by the Iraqi military in 1974. They were soonafter replaced by Arabs, a fate shared by scores of Kurdish villages in the region.

Mahmoud Hussein Haji, a Kurdish lawyer, hails from a once prosperous village called Chiftik, which was situated on the western banks of the Tigris river, close to Iraq’s border with Syria.

Since the early 1980s Chiftik has been submerged beneath waters flowing from the Mosul Dam.

In 1974, Haji, his family and their entire community were expelled from their lands.

‘The Iraqis ordered everyone to leave,’ he says. ‘They brought bulldozers to raze our seasonal harvest. Then they settled Arabs in our village, giving them cash incentives and weapons, granting them our lands, and providing other services to encourage them to stay there. The situation couldn’t have been worse for us.’

“The Iraqis brought bulldozers to raze our seasonal harvest, then told everyone to leave and settled Arabs in our village”

In total, the Iraqi army moved the population of 28 Kurdish villages from an area close to the Syrian border, which stretched down to the Shingal region further south. Similarly, they evacuated around 50 to 60 Kurdish villages across the Nineveh Plain.

The Iraqi government then repopulated these settlements with Arab tribespeople.

The scale of the dispossession experienced by these rural Kurds was enormous. Chiftik farmers had held large grain stocks, abundant orchards, and kept large numbers of animals, from flocks of sheep to herds of cattle.

They operated their farms with relatively expensive machinery, including tractors and ploughs, and generated sufficient income to own cars, which became an economic status symbol amongst their tribal communities.

MAHMOUD HUSSEIN HAJI believes his documentation of SADDAM HUSSEIN’s crimes in northwestern Iraq may one day help dispossessed Kurds recover their farms or claim compensation from Baghdad. He hopes the legal record he has compiled will also prove the sheer scale of the ethnic cleansing that has taken place to future Kurdish generations.

Their fortunes had accrued over many decades. The Hasina, Musarashi and Mirani tribes had intermingled in this border region near Syria since Ottoman times, and founded a school there in 1924.

The pupils of that school would go on to train as doctors and lawyers, rising to elevated positions in both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army.

However, the Ba’ath Party saw fit to punish these tribes for supporting the Kurdish war with Iraq in 1974, which had broken out after the Iraqi government had refused to respect their 1970 Autonomy Agreement with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

In March 1975 the Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran saw the Kurdish resistance collapse after Iran and the United States withdrew their support for the Kurdish cause.

Thereafter, the Iraqi government began to persecute Kurdish areas without restriction. Having discovered that weapons were being smuggled through the areas they lived in, they sought to punish the Hasina, Musarashi and Mirani tribes.

In 1981 Saddam Hussein demanded dams be built on both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to create massive water reservoirs. He proposed that Kurdish villages be flooded, with the economic benefits of the project passing to Arab farmers only

The Iraqis moved the Kurds they captured in these tribal villages to rural areas of northern Iraq where Arabs predominated. Some villagers escaped the Iraqis and fled across the border.

However, in Syria they were soon arrested by Arab nationalists, repatriated and transported by lorry to Khalikan, a region northeast of Mosul. There, they had little option but to work as labourers or taxi drivers.

In 1981, the Iraqi government went further. Investing massively in infrastructure, President of Iraq Saddam Hussein demanded that dams be built on both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to create massive water reservoirs.

Initially, the Iraqi government had settled on building a dam north of Mosul. The idea was to open up tens of thousands of acres north of the dam to irrigation and agriculture, and also generate electricity for the national grid. But the dam project had a further appeal to Saddam Hussein.

The masterplan for the project proposed to submerge the villages of Kurdish farmers underwater. Meanwhile, the benefits of the project were to be channelled only to Arab farmers.

MAHMOUD HUSSEIN HAJI graphically describes how his village was flooded by waters from the Mosul Dam in the early 1980s at the order of SADDAM HUSSEIN.

‘We Kurds were not even given drinking water, even though the water source was originally ours,’ says Mahmoud Hussein Haji.

Haji has been motivated by a profound sense of injustice ever since his village was flooded by the reservoir. He trained in law hoping that his skills might one day help him right the wrongs inflicted upon his community.

Yet the barriers he faced throughout the years were common for those Kurds who had suffered under decades of ‘Arabisation’ policies ordered by the Ba’ath Party.

He was banned from speaking Kurdish at the Mosul courthouse, and discovered that Kurds could no longer register ownership of their properties under their own names. Only Arab names were legally allowed to register property ownership.

“The psychological impact of ethnic cleansing is immense,” says Mahmoud Hussein Haji. “Our grandchildren don’t understand where we come from and what their true origins are”

Over the years Mahmoud Hussein Haji secretly collected documents, dreaming of compiling a legal case that would stand up in the courts so that those Kurds who had been dispossessed of their lands might one day claim compensation for their losses, and even recover their landholdings.

He considered it essential that a historical record be kept, so that it would be impossible for future generations to deny that the Arabisation ethnic cleansing of Kurdish lands had taken place.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Haji’s efforts could often seem hopeless. But slow developments in global politics brought about dramatic changes in Iraq.

In 1990 Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait saw an American-led international coalition of nations fight Saddam Hussein’s regime in the Gulf War, and by 1991 the Iraqi army had been defeated and a no-fly zone established over northern Iraq. This no fly zone secured predominantly Kurdish areas from Iraqi military incursion.

A treasure trove of official documents became available after Iraq’s defeats to American-led coalitions of nations in the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003. MAHMOUD HUSSEIN HAJI found detailed evidence of Baghdad’s ethnic cleansing programme in Kurdish regions. Unfortunately, his research was largely ignored by international bodies such as the United Nations.

With the authority of the Ba’ath absent in regions protected by the no-fly zone, a treasure trove of documents became available that aided Mahmoud Hussein Haji’s cause.

His ambition for legal reparations now seemed distant yet attainable.

Haji’s project was empowered further when US-led coalition forces finally ended the Ba’athist dicator’s ruthless reign in the Iraq War of 2003, and he found even greater opportunities to gather legal evidence of Iraqi ethnic cleansing.

‘After Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, I walked into several directorates and security branches. I was searching for evidence of their oppression, which not only took place in Zummar, but also in Kirkuk, Mandali, Diyala, Mahmour and Garmiyan,’ he says.

‘The genuine documents I found were signed by the Iraqi governors of those provinces and also military officials.’

Unfortunately this work has not yet had the impact Haji hoped for. He had wanted the documents to be used in future negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad, and to be presented to the United Nations.

“We want the world to learn the facts, because globally people remain oblivious to what really happened here”

‘We want the world to learn the facts, because globally people remain oblivious to what really happened here,’ he says.

Iraq’s decades long project of ethnic cleansing in Kurdish lands, however, remains a contentious issue that is unresolved and has never been properly addressed by an Iraqi government.

So for Haji the battle for justice goes on.

‘Our area is rich in agriculture, oil and gas, but economically we Kurds were pushed back below zero. The psychological impact of the ethnic cleansing is immense, because our grandchildren don’t understand where we come from and what their true origins are,’ he says.

‘Arabisation has therefore had a major psychological impact on our community. Many of our people were made martyrs, many of us had our properties looted by the Iraqis, and many of us saw our health suffer from the stress.’

‘We can never forget those sad memories, I’m afraid,’ says Haji. ‘We try to, but we can’t.’

Iraq retains control of Kirkuk but concedes 10% of ethnically cleansed lands

Although his army faced a heavy defeat in the 2003 Iraq War, SADDAM HUSSEIN ethnically cleansed the Kirkuk region to the bitter end. Kurdish historian AREF QURBANI uncovered documents in Kirkuk’s archives revealing that Kurds were still being expelled from the region just 22 days before the Iraqi dictator’s fall from power.

The no-fly zone established by the United States, the United Kingdom and France over northern Iraq prevented the Iraqi army from targeting Kurdish regions as they had previously.

The coalition allies extended their support with ‘Operation Provide Comfort’, which defended Kurds who had been forced to flee their homes after being bombed relentlessly by Iraqi helicopters, while also delivering humanitarian aid.

The no-fly zone was further secured by the movement of coalition ground troops south of Iraq’s border with Turkey, following United Nations resolution 688, which demanded the Ba’ath Party of Iraq ‘immediately ends this repression’.

Saddam Hussein’s forces responded to the presence of coalition forces by drawing a militarised demarcation line stretching from northern Syria to Iraq, withdrawing their administration in territories north of the line.

By implementing this demarcation line, the Ba’athists effectively abandoned about 10% of the land area they controlled previously and over three million former citizens. The Iraqis retained control of the Kirkuk governorate, however.

Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians who wished to remain in Kirkuk were told by the Iraqis they could only do so if they officially registered themselves as “Arabs”. Many refused and were punished

Ten years after the crippling 1988 attack on Halabja, a British television team returns to the city to investigate the long-term effect of chemical weapons on its inhabitants. They find a tragedy that has not only escaped the notice of the outside world but also the Kurds themselves.

Adapting to their new geographical limitations, the Ba’ath Party invited Arab families who had settled north of the demarcation line during previous Arabisation programmes to resettle in Kurdish areas south of this new border line, which included Kirkuk.

Below the Iraqi ‘line’, tens of thousands of Kurdish families were forcibly displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge in the newly established Kurdistan Region to the north.

Meanwhile, those Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians who wished to remain in Kirkuk were told they would be allowed to do so as long as they officially registered themselves as ‘Arabs’.

Many refused and were punished.

In 1999 the United States State Department reported that the Iraqi government had expelled 900,000 Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas, relocating them in the south of Iraq.

The U.S. State Department reported that after the no-fly zone over northern Iraq was established, Saddam Hussein’s government expelled 900,000 Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and its surrounding areas, relocating them in the south of Iraq

For many victims of Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks there was also a disturbing genetic legacy, with many unforeseen medical conditions passing to their children.

New Iraqi constitution outlines three stage mechanism to resolve Kirkuk’s status, but promised referendum does not take place

In 2005 the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) launched a mission to southern Iraq to find 8,000 Barzanis, who had been abducted in 1983 from Iraqi government controlled camps in Kurdistan. After an initial investigation the remains of some 500 Barzani men and boys were disinterred.

After the end of the Gulf War and the 1991 establishment of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein continued implementing ethnic cleansing policies in Kurdish regions governed by Iraq.

Between 2001 and 2003 the Iraqi government forcibly expelled an estimated 1,000 non-Arabs from their territory into the Kurdistan Region on a monthly basis.

Following Iraq’s failure to comply with the United Nations weapons inspection, the Iraq War began in March 2003 and a new coalition led by the United States bombarded Iraqi cities before moving into Baghdad.

By May of the same year the Ba’ath Party had suffered a crushing military defeat, and Saddam Hussein had fled his luxurious palace.

In December 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured by the American military at a farmhouse in Tikrit, where he was found cowering in a hole in the ground, his beard wild and unkempt

Eight months later, the Iraqi dictator was captured hiding in a hole at a farmhouse in Tikrit, wearing a wild, unkempt beard.

Following the agreement of a new Iraqi constitution in 2005 and the establishment of a new national government, Saddam faced trial, was sentenced for crimes against humanity and was then executed in 2006.

In the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War, many Kirkuki Kurds who had suffered forcible displacement in the previous decades returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their homes.

There, they discovered that the settlements they had once lived in were either inhabited by Arab families or destroyed altogether. They in turn found themselves accused by Arab and Turkmen communities of attempting to facilitate demographic change in the Kirkuk region to favour their own interests.

The United States led invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to unrest in neighbouring Syria and quickly spread to northern Kurdish areas. Violence erupted at a football match in Qamishlo in 2004 after Arab football fans chanted support for SADDAM HUSSEIN and his mass killing of Iraqi Kurds.

Yet while the Iraqi constitution of 2005 formalised the Kurdistan Region’s autonomous status within the borders determined by Iraq’s retreating forces in the aftermath of the Gulf War, this area critically did not include the so–called ‘disputed territories’.

Subsequently, Iraqi Arabs and Kurds remained at loggerheads over who should govern the oil–rich region of Kirkuk, and also disagreed on how the major oil and gas reserves in other areas of the Kurdistan Region were to be developed in future.

The new Iraqi constitution had outlined a mechanism for resolving the status of Kirkuk and all of the disputed territories, which was set out in Article 140.

Yet the deadline it established for a referendum on the matter was not met, and although Article 140 established a three stage process – for normalisation, a census and then a referendum – the status of Kirkuk remained unresolved.

The new Iraqi constitution of 2005 outlined a mechanism for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, but the census and referendum it proposed never took place

Elsewhere in Iraq, political instability spread as Islamist terrorists began to operate in the tribal areas.

A group of Kurds searching the arid southern deserts for the remains of Barzani men abducted in 1983 was forced to flee in late 2005 as Islamist gunmen threatened to attack.

Daytime travel from Baghdad to Kirkuk and other parts of the country became hazardous, even for heavily armed military convoys.

The instability caused by the Gulf War spread into Syria, affecting even the Kurdish areas in the far north. Subsequently, decades old conflicts between Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party and the radical Muslim Brotherhood were reawakened.

IBRAHIM GABARI is a Syrian Kurd who spent 24 years of his life in captivity at Syria’s notorious Tadmur prison. In 1980, the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of trying to assassinate Syrian President HAFEZ ASSAD. GABARI tells the Kurdistan Memory Programme he saw 1,200 jihadists from the group massacred at Tadmur in a single day.

Tensions rise as Iraqi government refuses to pay Kurds their share of national oil revenues

After the August 2014 invasion of Sinjar in northwest Iraq by ISIS jihadists, tens of thousands of Yazidis sought sanctuary at refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region, including AMAL KHEDIR. To provide for her family, she makes bricks from mud and sells them. ‘Sometimes we don’t have food for days on end,’ she tells the Kurdistan Memory Programme. ‘We have three children and they’re all ill. This isn’t a life.’

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 Iraq War, the American military remained a constant presence in Iraq until December 2011 when President Barack Obama fully withdrew United States troops from the country.

Throughout this period, the Kirkuk governorate remained politically stable and the ethnic cleansing that had taken place for more than 50 years slowed to a halt.

Significantly, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) commenced oil exports to Turkey from its own pipeline in 2009.

In February 2014 the Iraqi government refused to pay the Kurdistan Regional Government the 17% share of Iraq’s oil revenues it was entitled to under the terms of Iraq’s Constitution of 2005

Previously under Ba’athist Iraq, Kurdistan’s oil pipeline had fed into the national energy supply and was sold by Baghdad.

Already flourishing after 18 years of relative stability, Kurdish regions of northern Iraq experienced a period of prosperity and rapid development.

However, by February 2014 the Iraqi government, now controlled by a democratically elected coalition of Shi’ite political parties and headed by Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki, contested the KRG’s oil exports to Turkey.

In August 2014 HAMSHA ALI ELIAS was captured when ISIS raided the Yazidi town of Tel Uzeir in the Sinjar district in northwestern Iraq. The jihadists executed her husband and other close family relatives in front of her. Once captured, the young women were enslaved and traded by the soldiers, but HAMSHA managed to escape.

Stating that the Kurdistan Region’s resources belonged to the Iraqi government, Baghdad refused to pay the KRG the 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues it was entitled to according to the terms of Iraq’s 2005 constitution (in actuality the KRG only ever received a fraction of this sum).

From 2014 on, the effect on the economy in Kurdish regions of Iraq was grave.

The situation worsened that same year with the rise of the brutal jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) following Syria’s disintegration into civil war.

Kurdish peshmerga stepped in to successfully defend Kirkuk from ISIS jihadists after the Iraqi army abandoned their positions, yet the Kurdistan Regional Government received no economic support from Baghdad for their troubles

A popular Sunni uprising against the Ba’athist Shia government of Bashar al–Assad in 2011 had destabilised the region, and ISIS emerged as a force in 2013 and 2014, seizing large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

ISIS rapidly went on to take the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Mosul, before advancing on Erbil.

Fearing they would themselves be attacked by notoriously barbaric jihadists, the Iraqi army abandoned Kirkuk in June 2014, leaving the oil fields of the governorate unguarded.

A Yazidi couple, ABDULLA HAMO KHEDIR and TORA MURAD AHMED, tell how their seven children, one of whom was only six months old, were captured when ISIS invaded the Sinjar district in northwestern Iraq. ‘They killed many of us,’ says ABDULLA. ‘And so we have nothing left in Iraq now.’

Kurdish peshmerga stepped in to successfully defend the city and keep the peace, with the tacit approval of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Kirkuk’s security was fragile, however, and in 2016 the KRG’s peshmerga fended off major ISIS attacks on the city, which involved several days of street fighting.

By 2017 ISIS had lost much of their territory in Iraq and Syria, although more than 10,000 jihadist soldiers remained at large across the two countries.

The constitutionality of the 2017 Kurdistan Region independence referendum was challenged by the Iraqi government, who responded to a peaceful democratic ballot with military aggression

With no economic support forthcoming from the Iraqi government in Baghdad and a large bill to pay for their military fight against ISIS, the KRG held a controversial, non-binding independence referendum.

By a massive majority the Kurdish people backed the nominal establishment of an independent Kurdish state on 25 September 2017.

Yet the constitutionality of the referendum was challenged by the Iraqi government.

KHAIRI ELIAS ALI, a Yazidi refugee, tells how his community was abandoned by peshmerga fighters when ISIS invaded the Sinjar district. He fled with his family of nine from Iraq into Syria, but his daughter was killed by an ISIS sniper’s bullet. His wife carried her daughter’s body into Iraqi Kurdistan. ‘We didn’t tell anyone she was dead,’ says KHAIRI. ‘We wanted to bring her to our holy land.’

In late September 2017 the Iraqi army, backed by al–Hash’d al–Sha’abi, Iranian trained Iraqi Shia militias, seized control of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.

In the years since 2017, having taken over Kirkuk, the Iraqi government introduced new Arabisation policies: Arab settlers who had left the region following the return of Kirkuki Kurds were invited back, with many Kurdish farmers subsequently driven from their land.

Elsewhere, Kurdish office workers were fired, the Kurdish language was banned in public institutions, and paperwork written in Kurdish rejected.

“They call it law enforcement,” says Ahmed Askari, “But the sole intention is to harass Kurds and decrease their numbers, whilst using force to increase the Arab population”

Ahmed Askari, a member of Kirkuk’s provincial council, found his home in the city seized by the Iraqi authorities and his possessions looted in late 2017.

Interviewed by the Kurdistan Memory Programme, he says that an Arab nationalist agenda has returned in Kirkuk, this time led by the Shia parties of the Iraqi government.

‘They call it law enforcement and implementing the constitution,’ he says. ‘But the sole intention is to harass Kurds… to decrease the Kurdish population whilst increasing their own by force. Our nightmare is never ending.’

Following the Iraq War of 2003, many Kurdish families returned home to the town of Makhmur to resettle in areas the Iraqi government had expelled them from. However, when ISIS jihadists invaded their region in 2014 they were forced to flee their homes once again.

‘We won’t tolerate injustice – this is our land’

When ISIS stormed Kirkuk on 21 October 2016, Kurdish peshmerga AKO RAHMAN rushed to defend the city, customising a BMW he purchased for US $10,000 so that it might shield against gunfire.

On 21 October 2016, Kirkuk became an urban battle zone as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and suicide bombers stormed into the heart of the city in a pre-dawn attack.

The ensuing gun battles lasted 24 hours and saw ISIS fighters kill 18 members of Kirkuk’s security forces, seize hostages, and take control of three city districts and several hotels.

Sixty miles north of the attack, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces – backed by colleagues from an international coalition of nations – were entrenched in a battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second city and an ISIS stronghold.

With its grip on Mosul threatened, ISIS had opened up a second line of attack in Kirkuk in an apparent attempt to draw their enemy away from the main battlefront.

Driving their bullet-proof BMW, Ako Rahman and his friend Abbas transported wounded Kurdish peshmerga out of the ISIS combat zone in Kirkuk

Kurdish forces had controlled Kirkuk since June 2014, when the Iraqi army had abandoned their positions.

Prior to this, the Iraqi army had been in charge of the city’s security for decades under Saddam Hussein and in post-reconstruction Iraq. But in 2014 the Iraqi army had abandoned their equipment and fled Kirkuk, fearing that ISIS would overwhelm them after the jihadist’s rapid and notoriously brutal incursions into northwestern Iraq from Syria.

Many Kurds view Kirkuk as an ancient heartland, possibly even the fulcrum of a future Kurdish state. This is why, despite the risks involved, Kurds were united in their desire to defend the city, no matter the cost.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters flocked to Kirkuk to join the fight. Amongst their number was Ako Rahman and his friend, Abbas, who are natives of the city of Tuz Khurmatu. They drove to Kirkuk in a customised bulletproof BMW car, which they had purchased for US $10,000.

AKO RAHMAN and his friend ABBAS risked life and limb to help wounded peshmerga survive the ISIS onslaught. ‘We were helping our country and accepted that we might be killed in the process,’ Ako tells the Kurdistan Memory Programme.

Their idea was to use the car to ferry injured fighters to safety from the Kirkuk battlefield, and also remove the dead bodies of those who had died fighting in the streets.

Ako and Abbas headed towards to the heart of the war zone, where Kurdish security forces were taking casualties. ISIS fighters were positioned just 10 metres away from their car at times, with snipers firing at them from nearby rooftops.

‘When we reached the injured I climbed on to the back seat of our car,’ says Abbas. ‘I opened the back door and used it as a shield against the bullets to cover the wounded men. Ako then helped lift their bodies into the car.’

‘We made 140 round trips in that BMW and ferried 130 hurt fighters to safety. We also retrieved 10 bodies and carried them from the combat zone,’ says Ako. ‘We were determined not to leave the injured in enemy hands, so that they would not be captured and disrespected.’

“We ferried 130 wounded fighters to safety in that BMW,” says Ako, “And retrieved 10 bodies to ensure they would not be captured and disrespected by the enemy”

Ako and Abbas demonstrated incredible bravery. While bulletproof military vehicles were accessible to many, most Kurds were wary of approaching the enemy line of fire.

‘We told ourselves that if ISIS fighters were ready to die for their cause, we should also be ready to sacrifice ourselves,’ says Ako. ‘We were helping our country and accepted that by doing so we might be killed.’

Ako counted around 70 bullets thudding into his front windscreen and side windows. In each case, the bullets fractured the glass without penetrating it.

‘It was very dangerous. Of course, if we’d been hit by a rocket propelled grenade, our car would have blown up,’ says Ako.

After three days of heavy fighting, Kurdish peshmerga succeeded in driving ISIS forces out of Kirkuk on 24 October 2016.

Ako and Abbas are now celebrated as local heroes. Stories of their heroism soon spread throughout Kurdistan and even further afield.

With their new-found fame came death threats. ISIS soldiers communicated on social media that Ako and Abbas had been identified for execution, stating that if they were captured they would chop their heads off with knives.

This was a grim fate that had befallen many other unfortunate ISIS captives. It was an unsettling development, but Ako and Abbas did not flinch.

‘ISIS can threaten us as much as they want, but we won’t tolerate injustice,’ says Ako. ‘This is our land.’

By 24 October 2016 all ISIS fighters had been driven out of the city of Kirkuk.

“We told ourselves that if ISIS fighters were ready to die for their cause, then we should be ready to sacrifice ourselves for Kurdistan”

Five months later, and emboldened by their victory over the jihadist invaders, Kurdish security forces raised the Kurdish flag alongside the Iraqi flag in public offices throughout Kirkuk.

This caused fury in Baghdad, with many Arab Iraqis viewing the presence of the Kurdish flag as a provocation.

The following year, on 25 September 2017, the Kurdistan Region held a non-binding independence referendum, in which its citizens voted overwhelmingly to endorse the future establishment of an independent Kurdish nation.

On 15 October, the Iraqi government responded by moving against Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, and were supported by Shia militia units. Following instructions from the KRG, Kurdish peshmerga forces stood down their positions.

With Kirkuk back under Iraqi control, reports soon circulated that the ‘Arabisation’ laws, put in place by Saddam Hussein’s regime to ethnically cleanse the region, were still being policed, and that Kurdish villagers there were once again being forced to leave their homes.

The Kurdish role in defending Kirkuk from ISIS was quickly ignored and then forgotten by the Iraqi government, which ordered its forces to retake the city following the Kurdish independence referendum of September 2017. Soon afterwards, news reports circulated that Kirkuki Kurds were once again being subjected to policies of forcible displacement at the hands of Arab militias.

Syrian civil war brings chaos and bloodshed, as Turkey resurrects ‘Arab Belt’ project

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa. Children who spray-painted graffiti on their school walls were arrested and beaten by government security forces. In response, locals took to the streets to protest, sparking the first ‘Arab Spring’ demonstration amongst many that would take place across Syria.

From the middle of the 20th century, a succession of Arab nationalist regimes held power in Syria.

For these hardline governments, Syria’s Kurdish minority, which was largely concentrated along the Syria-Turkey-Iraq borders, represented a threat to national unity.

After the discovery of oil in northeastern Syria in 1956, a plan was hatched to establish Arab control of these predominantly Kurdish regions.

Under the regime of President Nazim al-Kudsi the Syrian government conducted an exceptional census on 5 October 1962 in the al-Hasaka province. The census aimed to separate Kurds who had a right to live in Syria from those who had illegally entered the country from Turkey or Iraq after 1945.

The census was conducted over a 24 hour period with no advance warning. Subsequently, thousands of Kurds were unable to produce the necessary documentation to prove their residency in Syria before 1945.

After the 1956 discovery of oil in northeastern Syria, the Syrian government hatched a plan to establish Arab control of the mineral-rich Kurdish areas near the border with Turkey and Iraq

In addition, the Syrian authorities broke up large Kurdish estates and created ‘model farming villages’, another means of expropriating 1.4 million acres of Kurdish land to an estimated 4,000 Arab farmers.

The New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch reported that the census was part of ‘a comprehensive plan to “Arabise” the resource-rich northeast of Syria’, and upon the completion of the al–Hasaka census between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds had been stripped of their national citizenship.

Officially registered as ‘foreign’, these Syrian Kurds effectively became stateless: they could not receive passports, own property, land nor businesses, legally marry, receive state subsidies nor use Syrian state hospitals.

They were excluded from employment in the public sector, barred from running for public office, and unable to legally leave Syria.

In 1965 the Syrian government took a further step, unveiling ‘Law No. 93’ which demanded that an Arab cordon be established close to Syria’s border with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

In September 2014 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists invaded the Kobani canton in northern Syria. They captured 350 villages and massacred men and women wherever they went. They entered Kobani, but female Kurdish fighters played a major role in pushing them back.

The ‘Arab Belt Project’ was eventually implemented in 1973 and saw Kurds in affected areas – a zone along Syria’s northern borders approximately 375 km long and 15 km deep – forcibly removed from their homes and replaced with Syrian Arab settlers.

Although the Ba’athist government of Syria suspended the ‘Arab Belt Project’ in 1976, their so-called model villages were never dismantled and the lands never returned to their Kurdish owners.

Meanwhile, successive Syrian governments suppressed the expression of Kurdish identity and culture, banning the use of Kurdish languages in public institutions and prohibiting the public celebration of Kurdish festivities such as Newroz, the Kurdish new year. Kurds who disobeyed these rules faced arbitrary arrest.

The enforced demographic changes that took place in Syria from 1962 onwards bore a striking resemblance to what was happening in neighbouring Iraq.

There, beginning in 1963, successive Ba’thist regimes, resettled Arabs in traditionally Kurdish areas in attempt to consolidate Arab control over oil producing regions.

Kurdish frustration and anger at half a century of Syrian ethnic cleansing boiled over at Qamishlo in 2004, when violence erupted at a football match contested by Kurdish and Sunni Arab teams

The deep resentment caused by Syria’s mass ethnic cleansing of its Kurdish population rolled into the 21st century.

Arab settlers were allowed to remain on confiscated land and provided with clinics, schools and municipal facilities, whilst their deprived Kurdish neighbours lacked even the most basic amenities.

Subsequently, Kurdish discontent towards the Syrian governments of President Hafez al–Assad (in office from 1971 to 2000) and his son President Bashar al–Assad (2000 on) spiralled into violent protests.

In 2004, Kurdish frustration and anger boiled over in the Kurdish town of Qamishlo, at a football match contested by Kurdish and Sunni Arab teams.

Violence was triggered when Arab football supporters raised a flag of Saddam Hussein and denounced the Kurdistan Region’s political leaders.

In the riot’s aftermath, Kurdish protesters burned down the offices of the ruling Ba’ath Party and in a nearby town toppled the statue of former President Hafez al-Assad.

In August 2016 the Turkish military attacked the most powerful Kurdish faction in northern Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Some 18 months later, Turkey invaded Syria again, this time naming its massive attack ‘Operation Olive Branch’. The Turks displaced about 300,000 Kurdish civilians, announcing plans to replace them with approximately 250,000 Arab refugees.

Triggered by the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in north Africa and the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011. Thereafter, Syria descended into a complex and bloody civil conflict involving, amongst other protagonists, Syrian government forces, Sunni rebel groups, Kurds, and jihadists including Al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The turmoil spread quickly to the Kurdish regions of northern Syria, where forces loyal to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), soon managed to take control of a large swathe of territory.

Within the context of the Syrian Civil War, the PYD’s military wing, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) enjoyed considerable success, receiving military support from the United States and defeating ISIS at Kobani on the Turkish border in January 2015.

The YPG’s decisive victory came at a time when an estimated 10 million people lived under the full or partial control of ISIS’s bloodthirsty movement, then at the peak of its power.

The battlefield successes of the Kurdish YPG marked a turning point in the United States and Syria’s war against the jihadists.

In October 2015, the PYD set up an alliance with Arab and Assyrian forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) whose declared mission was to establish a secular, democratic and federalised Syria. Trained by the US military, the SDF played a decisive role in vanquishing ISIS and loosening their grip on Syrian territory.

When EU leaders condemned Turkey’s violent mass resettlement of Arabs in Syria’s Kurdish areas, President Erdogan responded by threatening to release 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War across European borders

The role of Syrian Kurds and the SDF in defeating ISIS counted for little, however, when President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced plans to resurrect the Ba’athist ‘Arab belt’ plan for the Syria’s border regions, almost 50 years after Syria’s mass ethnic cleansing project had first been implemented.

The Turkish leader’s strategy began to take a concrete form in August 2016 when the Turkish military launched an incursion into northern Syria which they named ‘Operation Desert Shield.’

This was just five months after the Syrian Kurds had established Rojava, an autonomous region divided into three cantons adjoining Turkey’s southern border.

President Erdoğan said Turkey was targeting ISIS and the PYD but clearly the intention was to stop a Kurdish expansion across northern Syria.

In January 2018, the Turks launched another offensive which they named ‘Operation Olive Branch,’ this time invading the Afrin district of northern Syria with a 25,000 strong force.

Again their goal was to crush Syrian Kurdish forces and on 18 March they overran Afrin’s city centre, inflicting heavy casualties on the civilian population.

In January 2018 the Turkish military mobilised a 25,000 strong force to invade Afrin in northwestern Syria. Their plan was to replace the region’s Kurdish population with Syrian Arabs. Hundred of thousands of Kurds were subsequently driven from their homes in Afrin.

The United Nations reported that about 300,000 people had fled the region in the immediate aftermath and in October the Turks announced they had been replaced by 250,000 Arab refugees.

In September 2019, President Erdoğan told the United Nations he planned to set up a ‘peace corridor’ in northern Syria 30 km deep and 480 km long where he would facilitate the resettlement of two million Syrian Arabs ‘with the support of the international community’.

In fact, Erdoğan’s mass resettlement plans were widely rejected by the international community, but in October 2019 the United States abruptly stopped their military support of the Kurds of northern Syria after reaching a secret agreement with Turkey.

The decision was made in a phone call between Erdoğan and Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States, in which Trump, caving in to Erdogan’s demands, reversed United States military policy to support its Kurdish allies.

Days later, Turkey invaded Syria, this time naming their offensive ‘Operation Peace Spring’, attacking SDF positions on multiple fronts.

“There is blood on President Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies,” retired United States marine General John Allen told CNN. “This is full blown ethnic cleansing”

The decision caused uproar in the United States, not least from within the American military ranks.

‘There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies,’ retired marine General John Allen told the multinational television channel CNN. ‘This is full blown ethnic cleansing.’

Following the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the United Nations reported that 190,000 Kurds were displaced during the first two days of the conflict alone.

The European Union (EU) condemned Turkey and refused to fund the resettlement of Arabs in Syria’s Kurdish areas. President Erdoğan responded by threatening to release 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War into the EU from Turkey across its European borders.

By early 2021, Turkey had resettled hundreds of thousands of Syrian Arabs and Turkmen in northern Syria, and the country’s Kurds found themselves once again the victims of a massive ethnic laundering project.

In September 2019 Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN told the United Nations of his plans to establish a ‘peace corridor’ in northern Syria – a strip of land 30 km deep and 480 km long, where Turkey would facilitate the resettlement of two million Syrian Arabs. After reaching a secret agreement with Turkey, the United States administration of President Donald J. Trump abandoned their Syrian allies in October. Days later, Turkey invaded Syria’s northern Kurdish regions, naming their offensive ‘Operation Peace Spring.’

The legacy of 90 years of ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing in Iraq

Kurdish investigators locate the graves of more than 500 Barzani males who were abducted from camps in northern Iraq by government soldiers in 1983.

The global story of autocrats leading nationalist movements has followed a clear pattern over the last century, with the ordered societies they have attempted to institute generally descending into chaos and bloodshed.

Once the gold adorned palaces tarnish and the statues crumble, only deeply fractured societies are left behind.

There was no greater cheerleader for authoritarianism in the Middle East than Michael Aflaq, the intellectual grandfather of 20th century Arab nationalism.

Inspired by the Arab muslim empire of the 7th century, Aflaq’s grand vision advocated for the forcible imposition of a ‘pure’ Arab ethnostate drawn from demographically diverse nations such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Turkey, Iran, as well as lands in the Arabian Peninsula and northern Africa.

Michel Aflaq was inspired by the imperial designs of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union

The Arab nationalism and mass ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Ba’ath Party of Iraq led to unfathomable grief for the Kurds. When the husbands and sons of Barzani women disappeared in 1983, many believed for decades that they would one day return home. Nearly 40 years on, they have come to accept that their loved ones were secretly executed by the Iraqis, along with thousands of other Barzanis.

As an academic at the Sorbonne in the 1920s Aflaq had been inspired by the grand imperial designs of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But his ostentatious vision took its fullest form with the foundation of the Arab Ba’ath Party in Damascus in 1947 with the help of his fellow Syrian intellectuals Salah al-Din al-Bitar, and Zaki al-Arsuzi.

Doubling down on extreme rhetoric, emphasising a need for violent struggle and setting itself in opposition to French and British colonialism in the Middle East, the Arab Ba’ath Party rapidly established itself in Arab populated countries beyond Syria, setting up branches in Jordan in 1948, Lebanon in 1949 and Iraq in 1952.

In the second half of the 20th century, Aflaq’s vision of Ba’athism evolved into the political and ideological force underlying the violent subjugation of Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and the mass ethnic laundering programmes that sought to displace, assimilate or eradicate non-Arab minorities from these regions.

The academic Aflaq, however, had no real political constituency himself, and so spent his latter days basking in the reflected glory of the dictators committing mass ethnic cleansing and genocide under his ideological banner.

Aflaq and Saddam Hussein’s Arab nationalism constructed gold palaces and imposing statues in Iraq, yet their sole bequest to future generations was a cautionary tale of grotesque hubris and societal wreckage on a colossal scale

Too much precious human life was lost to the failed fascism of Arab Nationalist ideologues commanding Iraq and Syria throughout the 20th century. In this instance, investigators discover the identity documents of ‘disappeared’ Barzani men who had been buried in unmarked graves in the deserts near Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia. The ID cards were almost a quarter of a century old.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’

The mass killing of rural Kurds is commemorated at this memorial in Chamchamal, east of Kirkuk. Visiting the monument, AHMED ASKARI, a Kurdish member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, reveals that laws relating to ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing in Iraq were never annulled. Subsequently, Kurds continue to be displaced from their lands by the Iraqi authorities.

The tragedy, cruelty, and inherent contradiction of the Arab nationalist movement is in many ways embodied by its intellectual grandfather, Michel Aflaq.

Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian and secularist who gloried in the grandeur of ancient Islamic conquest.

Towards the end of his life, Aflaq resided at Saddam’s court in Baghdad. Described as ‘a Christian infidel’ by the Iranian leadership, he died of a heart attack in Baghdad in 1989, an event that Saddam Hussein used as an opportunity to promote flamboyant propaganda.

With his legitimacy crumbling in the aftermath of Iraq’s failed invasion of its neighbour state, Saddam was increasingly exploiting religious rhetoric to promote his national socialist politics.

For the commemoration of Michel Aflaq’s passing, Saddam devised a lavish Islamic funeral in Baghdad for the Greek Orthodox Christian.

Mass ethnic cleansing was the most enduring tragedy to befall the Kurds of Iraq and Syria in the 20th century

At the ceremony, the Iraqi dictator falsely proclaimed Aflaq had secretly converted to Islam, even going so far as to claim he had adopted the name ‘Ahmed’ as he oversaw his entombment.

The burial place of the ‘Christan infidel’ Aflaq would later surprise the American military. After quickly routing the Ba’athists in the 2003 Iraq War, the Americans created a military securitised ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad’s bustling centre.

They were unaware of the presence of Michel Aflaq’s tomb in the room that they had earmarked for the construction of a military gymnasium.

So innocuous was Aflaq’s presence that in 2006 a visiting American civilian contractor described navigating his way past a Fussball table and a bench press before realising that he was standing at the final resting place of the father of Arab nationalism.

The cautionary tale of Michel Aflaq’s final days is an apt metaphor for the futility of decades of Arabisation policies in Iraq and Syria, which merely sowed the toxic seeds of racial supremacism in the non-Arab regions of these ethnically diverse countries.

In a non-binding referendum held on 25 September 2017, the Kurdish population of northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. The referendum angered the governments of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, which immediately rejected its result. The Iraqis subsequently led a military campaign against Kurdish forces on 16 October, forcing a peshmerga retreat from Kirkuk.

The violent displacement and ethnic laundering that took place under 90 years of Arabisation policies tended fertile ground for the dark fruit of mass genocide in Iraq, which was inflicted upon rural Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s al–Anfal operations of 1988, where up to 182,000 civilians were murdered and 4,500 villages destroyed.

No lasting triumph was achieved by the Ba’athists as a result of this mass killing spree, only wreckage and despair.

By the end of the 20th century, nothing was left of Aflaq’s grand ideological vision.

Instead of recapturing a ‘golden age’, Arab nationalist leaders in Iraq and Syria came to rule over the ashes of civil society in their countries, leaving only destruction and misery that endures through the generations to the present day.

While the Iraqi state refuses to recognise the patterns of historic ethnic laundering in Kurdish regions, it seems this process will continue with the seeds of grief and anguish scattered today bearing bitter fruit for generations to come

Arabisation was the most enduring tragedy that befell the Kurds of Iraq and Syria in the 20th century.

In Iraq, the seeds of brutality, erasure and callousness scattered by Arab nationalists in the mid 1930s took root in the policies of the Ba’ath Party, which sought to claim the wealth concentrated in the oil fields of Kirkuk to fund a wholly illusory ethnostate.

Kurds live with the consequences of Arabisation ‘cleansing’ to this day. Yet while the Iraqi state refuses to recognise the patterns of historic ethnic laundering in Kurdish regions, it seems the process will continue, and that the seeds of anguish scattered today will bear bitter fruit for generations to come.

The great lesson of Arabisation is that what is past is present. As the Spanish philosopher and essayist George Santayana wrote in his 1905 work The Life of Reason, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Almost 93 per cent of the Iraqi-Kurdish population voted for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in a non-binding referendum held in September 2017.


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