After 21 years, the United Nations commemorated the Halabja genocide for the first time on Monday. The silence of the world on this matter until now is indicative of the general international attitude toward the genocidal suppression of Kurds.

On March 16 and 17, 1988, Iraqi military planes bombarded Halabja, a Kurdish town in northern Iraq, with chemical weapons in the largest documented chemical attack against a civilian population in history. The immediate death toll was about 5,000 Kurds, mostly women and children. Another 7,000 Kurdish survivors suffer everyday from exposure to mustard gas and the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin and VX. The Halabja victims are barely recognized by the international community.

Remarkably, the Halabja genocide is only one of the attacks made against the Kurds by Iraq in the past. This particular attack took place during a larger campaign dubbed Anfal, “the spoils of war” in Arabic. As Human Rights Watch observes: “Anfal . [is] the name given by the Iraqis to a series of military actions which lasted from Feb. 23 until Sept. 6, 1988. While it is impossible to understand the Anfal campaign without reference to the final phase of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Anfal was not merely a function of that war. Rather, the wrapping-up of the conflict on Iraq’s terms was the immediate circumstance that gave Baghdad the opportunity to bring to a climax its longstanding efforts to bring the Kurds to heel. For the Iraqi regime’s anti-Kurdish drive dated back some 15 years or more, well before the outbreak of hostilities between Iran and Iraq.”

The Iran-Iraq War presented an opportunity for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to resolve the “Kurdish question” through deliberate extermination. Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein, was granted special powers to implement the Anfal genocide. Since then, the Kurds have called him “Chemical Ali.”

On top of the thousands of Kurdish refugees and hundreds of destroyed Kurdish towns and villages, the mass murder and disappearance of Kurdish noncombatants amounts to at least 50,000 victims by conservative estimates.

The Kurdish struggle against the central government has been ongoing since the independence of Iraq in 1932. The Kurds still struggle for meaningful autonomy. Human Rights Watch states: “In 1970, the Ba’ath Party, anxious to secure its precarious hold on power, did offer the Kurds a considerable measure of self-rule, far greater than that allowed in neighboring Syria, Iran or Turkey. But the regime defined the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in such a way as deliberately to exclude the vast oil wealth that lies beneath the fringes of the Kurdish lands. In the wake of the autonomy decree, the Ba’ath Party embarked on the “Arabization” of the oil-producing areas of Kirkuk and Khanaqin and other parts of the north, evicting Kurdish farmers and replacing them with poor Arab tribesmen from the south.”

Today, the Kurdish struggle still continues against Baghdad (embodied in Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is becoming authoritarian). For the Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch, the issue of the “vast oil wealth that lies beneath the fringes of the Kurdish lands” remains unresolved. As the Kurds proclaim the import of Iraq’s federal constitution, the memories of Anfal and the Halabja genocide and another American abandonment lurk in their minds. But for now, all Kurds this week will commemorate Operation Iraqi Freedom and celebrate the Kurdish New Year with hope of a new day.

Loghman Fattahi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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