Talk of ‘invasion’ and ‘occupation’ ignores the effect on a long-suffering minority
When I walked towards the memorial in Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan a fortnight ago to attend the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the genocide, I passed by a seemingly endless stream of images. Men. Women. Children. Entire families. All of them victims of Saddam Hussein’s crime regime. The walls inside the monument are engraved with their names – a bridge between the past and the present.
On March 16, 1988, life was forever changed beyond recognition for the people of Kurdistan. In the early hours of Friday evening, a strange smell filled the air over Halabja. It resembled the scent of fresh apples. What actually rained down was a toxic cocktail of mustard gas and nerve agents.
The perfect weapon. The invisible death.
Before they knew the truth, birds were falling from the sky and bodies started piling up in the streets. Some died in their sleep. Others suffocated at work. Still others were found sitting up as if only lost in thought. Some just dropped dead.
Others painfully choked on their own vomit or suffered severe burning and blistering. Children sought the shelter of their mothers’ arms but there was no escape. Two days of conventional artillery attacks had destroyed all sanctuaries. The thanatophoric gas was everywhere, mercilessly and indiscriminately filling the lungs of the infants, young and old.
5000 Iraqi Kurds died within seconds. Thousands more were disfigured. The overwhelming majority of them were civilians. They had attacked no one. Their only “crime” was to be Kurdish.
Halabja became a ghost town and it was as if the human race had been eradicated.
The attack was part of the wider genocidal Al-Anfal campaign, initiated by the Iraqi Ba’athists, which claimed over 182,000 lives. Out of 4,655 villages roughly 90% were destroyed and between April 1987 and August 1988, 250 towns and villages were exposed to chemical weapons. It was the first time a government used such weapons against its own civilian population.
Saddam Hussein was a modern-day Hitler. When I visited one of his concentration camps, the Red House in Sulaymaniyah, it starkly reminded me of Auschwitz. Women were gang-raped for hours in what the prison guards called “party rooms”; men faced mutilation and death in the most barbaric fashion in the notorious torture chambers; foetuses and babies were burnt in incinerators.
The Kurds have experienced their own Holocaust. The crusade against them was not simply a by-product of the Iraq-Iran war but a deliberate act of genocide – the crime of all crimes – the aim to annihilate an entire people.
25 years later, the people of Kurdistan are struggling with their bloody past. It will always be a scar on the soul of the Kurdish nation and will forever be embedded in their collective identity. But there is reason for hope. Their hearts have not been consumed by darkness. While they are still grieving and hurting, they have little appetite for vengeance. The Kurds have learnt an essential lesson: hatred only leads to more suffering and death.
Such spirit was reflected in the motto of the anniversary celebrations – “From Denial To Recognition. From Destruction To Construction. From Tears To Hope”. Kurdistan is now the most prosperous and democratic part of Iraq. As British-Kurdish Member of Parliament Nadhim Zahawi – a speaker at the genocide conference in Erbil – pointed out, Kurdistan has become one of the safest places for Christians in the Middle East. Business is booming. New houses are being built on every corner. The peace is fragile, life is not perfect, but when you talk to ordinary people you realise just how far the region has come.
Whatever you may think of the controversial war in 2003, for the Kurds it came as liberation rather than an invasion or occupation. The vast majority hold no animosity towards America or Britain. In fact, they are grateful for the roles we played in the removal of Saddam Hussein.
To say that he possessed no WMDs is not a popular thing to say with people still suffering from the consequences of the very same weapons; and the argument, made by some of the opponents of the war, that the Ba’athist regime someone provided stability and contained Iran is perceived as a hideous excuse and apology for genocide and ethnic-cleansing.
Ten years later, the opinion of Iraqis is virtually absent from the debate in the West. If we ever want to gain a balanced and nuanced view of the complexities of the lead-up to the war, it is time to give the victims of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror the attention they deserve.
Post was published in The Independent.
I talked to Damian Counsell of Ricochet in a wide-ranging conversation about my recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against its people; why the survivors viewed Allied action as a liberation; the surprising preference of many Kurds for Turkey over the United States as a future partner, and the meaning of humanitarian intervention 10 years after the Iraq War.
Bulgarian authorities confirmed last week that Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shi’ite terror-organisation Hezbollah was the architect behind the deadly bus bombing that killed five Israeli civilians and the local bus driver in Burgas last summer.
The country’s Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov declared that two of the three suicide bombers “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah” and that data was “showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”
Despite the evidence, both Hezbollah and Iran categorically deny involvement in the attack.
Deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem said Israel was directing “allegations and incitements and accusations against Hezbollah” and added that the organisation “will not submit to these pressures (…) and that the compass will remain directed towards Israel.”
A similar message was conveyed by the regime in Theran: “This has nothing to do with Iran,” Gholamreza Bageri told reporters. “We are against any form of terrorism and strongly condemn such actions.”
What makes the Burgas attack particularly explosive is the fact that it happened on European soil sparking new debate over the EU’s policy towards Hezbollah, which varies widely across the Union. The pressure from the US and Canada to ban Hezbollah once and for all is steadily growing.
Right now, the Netherlands is the only country that has Hezbollah on its official terrorist list. It allows the government to outlaw the organisation’s activities, freeze bank accounts and assets, and put suspected members under surveillance.
The UK has a more ambiguous and problematic policy, making a distinction between the organisation’s ‘political’ and ‘military’ wings, although Foreign Secretary William Hague has indicated that the government would likely back a full ban of the organisation.
Throughout the rest of Europe, Hezbollah can engage freely in political activities and fundraising.
In Germany, up to 950 are believed to operate in the country, which is regarded as a stronghold for the organisation in Europe and key to its fundraising capabilities.
Several EU countries remain in strong opposition to a potential EU ban, most notably France and the Scandinavian countries. The latter have a history of remaining neutral and opposing legislation that takes a stance against one group or another. According to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the EU needs to “reflect seriously on consequences of [the] Bulgarian probe naming Hezbollah as behind [the] terrorist attack.”
France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, believes that outlawing the organisation would put French lives at risk and have a negative impact on the relationship between Paris and Beirut.
So it seems highly unlikely that the Bulgarian attack will eventually lead to a significant change in the EU’s approach towards Hezbollah. To alter the current policy, a unanimous vote would be required by the 27 member states. A full and comprehensive ban is thus almost impossible to achieve. The best compromise seems to be following the British example, whereby the EU would make a distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wing.
The self-defeating structure and decision-making processes of the EU bring out the worst of the organisation. It makes it incapable of taking decisive action and always reduces it to finding agreement on the lowest common denominator, with the result that the problem remains unsolved.
No one is satisfied with the outcome, but at least no one officially rebels against the decision. That is the EU’s modus operandi.
Such sentiments were reflected by the spokesman of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, who issued a statement in which Hezbollah was not even mentioned by name: “the terrorists who planned and carried out the Burgas attack must be brought to justice.”
But if the EU cannot even resolve a dispute over such a clear cut case, how is it supposed to deal with far more complex and controversial foreign and security policy issues in a competent way?
Hezbollah’s record leaves little doubt over the organisation’s nature and ideology, which is in clear breach of the EU’s fundamental principles.
Hezbollah is Iran’s terror proxy, a country regarded by several EU member states as the greatest current threat to peace and stability in the world, and responsible for the death of thousands of innocent civilians. The EU itself declared in 2012 that there was “clear evidence of terrorist activity” by Hezbollah.
The dichotomy of a political and military wing is misguided and dangerous. Just as much as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness had influence over the IRA’s military council, so has Hassan Nasrallah the ultimate power over all Hezbollah activities. Hezbollah is not a charitable, social movement. It is a terrorist organisation with global outreach, funded by pariah state Iran, which hides behind hospitals and schools to cover up its true agenda and ideology.
The trail of blood speaks for itself.
Hezbollah was responsible for the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 58 French peacekeepers and 241 American Marines, regularly engages in deadly attacks against Israeli civilians, and supports the mass-murdering regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria.
But the EU’s incompetence to speak with one voice in the wake of a crisis has once more been exposed. All the evidence is not enough to compete with the different national policy agendas of EU member states, and to lead to an unequivocal ban of Hezbollah.
The winners are our enemies. They take advantage of such weakness, and exploit our differences. And Europe is letting them.