March 14, 2004 - Exactly a year ago, as I saw the Bush administration pick up the pace for war on Iraq, I sensed President Bush was being pulled along by the Pentagon civilians with their insistence that he was a truly evil man because he had committed genocide. At the end of the Iran/Iraq war in 1988, it was said the Iraqi air force dropped poison gas on its own citizens in the Kurdish town of Halabja and killed at least 5,000 in the course of recapturing the town from the Iranians. That was in March of '88. In the days after Iran sued for peace in August, it was reported the Iraqi army had systematically rounded up another 100,000 Kurds Ė and on the grounds they had fought with the Iranians Ė slaughtered them with poison gas. Secretary of State George P. Shultz reported this latter assertion without checking and the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning Saddam, relying upon a report from Kurdistan by a staff member of its Foreign Relations Committee, Peter Galbraith, son of the famous economist, John Kenneth Galbraith. The story faded but resurfaced when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In the years since, it has been amplified again and again by the Washington organization, Human Rights Watch. Its resident expert, Joost Hiltermann, an Arabic-speaking law professor at Johns Hopkins School for International Studies, was chiefly responsible for this amplification.
In 1997, I had come upon a 1991 report of the Army War College at Carlyle, Pa., that had come to completely different conclusions. Its author, Dr. Stephen Pelletiere, had headed a team that pulled together all the specialists of the US intelligence agencies to study the Iran/Iraq war, to study how Iraq had defeated a country three times its size. The report touched on the Halabja deaths, saying that "hundreds" of civilians had died, with indications they were killed by a cyanide gas known to be used by the Iranian army, not possessed by Iraq. It said nothing about the "disappearance" of 10,000 Iraqi Kurds. Pelletiere had been the CIAís senior analyst in covering the eight-year Iran/Iraq war. When I tracked him down a year ago, living in retirement near the War College, he insisted nothing had happened in the dozen years since to change his mind. There was no genocide, he told me, and said the story about the 100,000 deaths was a hoax, a non-event, propagated by Human Rights Watch. He said he had discussed his differences with Joost Hilterman, arguing the "victims" had never been found, nor had any mass graves been located.
I called Hiltermann at HRW for a discussion of his differences with Pelletiere, which led to an exchange of e-mails over a period of weeks. Here is the last contact I had with him, a long e-mail from me asking questions, and his lengthy response. Iíve merged the two letters so they can be read seamlessly. There are of course no follow-up questions in this exchange, but I think the exchange speaks for itself, and why I could easily conclude that Human Rights Watch had made an enormous blunder in propagating the genocide story and now will say anything to insist it was right all along. Unfortunately, President Bush has not yet been advised by his team that the U.S. intelligence agencies had the story correctly in the first place, as it suits the interest of the warhawks at the Pentagon to have the President believe Saddam is not just a dictator, but a Hitler.
Late May, 2002
Dear Prof. Hiltermann:
A friend has sent me a Christian Science Monitor story of May 13, by Scott Peterson, which mentions the gassing of the Kurds. He says Human Rights Watch concluded Iraq committed "genocide" after it conducted "forensic examination of several mass graves."
This is something new to me. If there were mass graves found, Dr. Pelletiere errs in saying this was a "hoax," a "non-event." There are several clear errors in the story, one saying that 100,000 perished at Halabja, so maybe the mass graves item is incorrect.
Also, since I was last in contact with you, an Iraqi expatriate who is a physiologist living and teaching in Liverpool contacted me and said his brother was a colonel in the Iraqi army and was at Halabja. A point he made was that there were Kurds in almost every unit of the Iraqi army, officers and conscripts. They would have participated in the gassing of the Kurdish civilians or would have been among those who slaughtered the tens of thousands you say were killed by automatic weapons. Do you know if any have since defected and have told of their being forced to do these killings?
A reporter for Barron's also sent me a clipping from the Washington Post of September 1988 by Milton Viorst, a respected correspondent, who went to Kurdistan after the reports from Shultz and Galbraith and said he found the Kurds in a festive mood, with the end of the war, and that it would be hard to imagine this would be the case if so many had just perished on Saddam's orders.
On the other hand, if Kurds constituted 20% of the Iraqi army and 500,000 Iraqis died over the eight years, that would account for the 100,000 who "disappeared." Just a thought.
At 08:52 AM 5/21/2002 -0700, you wrote:
1. CSM story by Scott Peterson says HRW "concluded Iraq committed 'genocide' after it conducted forensic examination of several mass graves.'" You misquote from the Christian Science Monitor. The story by Scott Peterson says: "The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, after a three-year investigation of 18 tons of captured Iraqi documents, forensic examination of several mass graves, and hundreds of eyewitness accounts, concludes of the 1988 campaign: 'The Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide.'"
In other words, the evidence of genocide is based on a lot more than forensic examination of some mass graves. In fact, the graves of those who died during the Anfal campaign have not and cannot now be examined by forensic experts because they continue to be in areas under Iraqi government control; they are not in the Kurdish areas. The mass graves found and examined in the Kurdish areas are of people executed for primarily political offenses, for example membership in one of the banned Kurdish parties (before 1992). They would not contain more than a few hundred people, as far as I know.
2. "There are several clear errors in the story, one saying that 100,000 perished at Halabja..."
Again you misquote the CSM. The story by Scott Peterson says: "During the Anfal campaign, rights groups say more than 100,000 men disappeared, 4,000 villages were destroyed, and 60 more villages were subject to chemical weapons attack. Some 5,000 Kurds died during the gassing of Halabja alone." In other words: 5,000 people died in the gas attack on Halabja. During the Anfal campaign (i.e., not Halabja), more than 100,000 men disappeared. (I would disagree with "men," as also a lot of women and children "disappeared.")
3. The brother of your Iraqi friend's claim that Iraqi Kurds in the Iraqi army would have participated in the gassing of the Kurdish civilians at Halabja or have been among those who slaughtered the tens of thousands...etc.
It's time you start doing your homework. If you'd have read the HRW report after our last exchange, you wouldn't have had to ask this question, as the report makes clear that: (a) The chemical attack on Halabja was carried out from the air; there were no ground forces involved. In fact, Iraqi troops in Halabja had been driven out by a combined force of Kurdish guerrillas and Iranian Pasdaran, thereby triggering the Iraqi chemical attack. (b) The mass executions during Anfal were carried out by small units of Iraqi special forces, not by regular army units. HRW has in its possession Iraqi Military Intelligence documents that clearly state that the Iraqi military rounded up the people and then handed them over to forces of the Amn, or security police, at a Popular Army base near Kirkuk. I very much doubt that at this stage any Kurds were involved, and the few survivors of the Anfal campaign in their testimonies do not make reference to the presence of any Kurds among the executioners.
However: In the case of Halabja, yes, there is one senior Iraqi Air Force officer who has come forward to tell his story, which is that he was a general in the Air Operations Room in Baghdad when the order came to attack Halabja with chemical weapons. The man managed to leave Iraq a few years ago and went public with his story in 2000 (he did a radio interview with Radio Free Europe). Apparently, he felt guilty because his mother was a Kurd from Halabja (who was not there at the time of the attack).
4. If you read the story by Milton Viorst carefully you will see that he was part of a small group of western journalists who were escorted to the Iraqi border with Turkey by Iraqi military officers. They were not allowed to move independently or interview persons without an Iraqi military officer present. Be that as it may, it is very possible that when Viorst was in northern Iraq in September 1988 he saw Kurds in a festive mood. This would not have been because of the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which had ended a month earlier, and which never even came near the area that Viorst visited near the Zakho border point with Turkey. This would have been because the Iraqi government had announced a general amnesty "for all Kurds" on September 6 (you can check the Iraqi daily papers of that time to check this, if you wish), thereby marking the end of the Anfal campaign. This meant that those who had managed to flee the chemical attacks and had reached Turkey could now return to Iraq. That would have been a cause of great happiness. Also keep in mind that Viorst was only taken to Kurdish towns, and the arrests and "disappearances" during the Anfal campaign did not affect the Kurdish towns, only the Kurdish villages in areas that had been declared prohibited (most rural areas).
5. Your calculation about the 100,000 Kurds having perished in the war. Sorry: The evidence from testimonies and Iraqi documents is clear that these people were arrested in or near their villages during February-September 1988 and then failed to ever come back. We have plenty of Iraqi Military Intelligence documents that give long lists of Kurds (by name, age, and village) arrested from rural areas during the Anfal campaign and handed over to special forces in Kirkuk. If the Iraqi government acknowledges having arrested these people, why will it not tell the world what it has done with them?
In the following exchange, I will go directly to his responses to the comments I made.
Dear Mr. Hiltermann:
Thanks so much for your reply. Sorry about the misspelling of your name. I did not do it on purpose....
JW You are right about the 100,000 in Halabja. If you have a copy of the newspaper, you will see that it was the caption on the Halabja photo which said 100,000 had perished there. The caption writer erred, not Scott Peterson, the CSMonitor reporter.
JW: On Halabja, Peterson does say 5,000 died. Stephen Pelletiere says the on-the-spot reports were that "scores" had died, which would mean they would be in the "hundreds" not 5,000.
JH: He is wrong, and anyway he himself wasnít on the spot, nor has he spoken to eyewitnesses. On-the-spot reports within 2 days said 5,000 had been killed. I have spoken to a number of witnesses, including Kurdish guerrillas, Kurdish civilians, and Iranian doctors, all of whom have first-hand experience with what happened at Halabja. I donít have a number either, but thousands were injured in addition to those who died. After all, the area had a population of 70,000 or 80,000 at the time, and the attack was a direct hit. The mustard gas victims continue to suffer today, many needing continual treatment. It is well described in the medical literature.
JW: You and Human Rights Watch cannot attribute the gassing of Kurds to the assertion of "genocide" if you acknowledge that Kurd rebels and Iranians drove out the Iraqi army and the army retook the town by gassing. Can you? [ That is, the civilian victims were caught between two warring armies.]
JH: We didnít and we donít. The [Iraqi] army did not retake the town. It gassed the town but did not even try to retake it until June 1988, three months later.
JW: This is a battlefield situation, at worst, with the Defense Intelligence Agency of the Pentagon finding that Iran did use gas on the way in [THEY SAY THIS BUT HAVE PRESENTED NO EVIDENCE. THEY ARE WRONG], and Iraq used it to
drive the Iranians out.
JH: They say this, but have presented no evidence. They are wrong.
JW: You say you have no evidence Iran used gas, but the DIA seem sure enough.
JH: Sure enough but not a whit of evidence.
JW: Those civilians caught in the crossfire, Pelletiereís team insists, died of cyanide gas and not mustard gas, which indicates they were killed by the Iranians in their siege of Halabja
JH: No crossfire on March 16; Iraqi troops had been driven out the day before and were far away, running for dear life. And it doesnít this at all. The Iraqis had plenty of cyanide. Anyway, it is not even clear that cynide was used in Halabja. It is possible, yes, but irrelevant.
JW: As to the senior AF officer who you say defected, the Iraqi expatriate who lives in Liverpool says the following: "Dr. Hiltermann did not mention the name of that senior Kurdish Iraqi air force officer. To my knowledge so far, there is only one air force high rank officer who fled Iraq and that is Lt. Brigadier Jawdat Al-Naqeeb, who was deputy chief of staff of the Iraqi air force until he fled the country. However, Al-Naqeeb is a Turkumani guy, and not Kurd, originally from Kirkuk, and whose brother is one of my closest friend (lives now in the US)."
JH: This is correct, thatís the man.I didnít say he was a Kurd. I said he had a Kurdish mother. Yes, he has a Turcoman father. I donít know what that makes him. An average Iraqi perhaps?
JW: I don't know if this makes a difference, but I am trying to find out if Halabja was bombed by the Iraqi Air Force during the battle, or if there were only artillery barrages.
JH: Good luck, let me know.
JW: Still, it was clearly a battle and not genocide.
JH: Human Rights Watch never said the Halabja attack constituted genocide.
JW: Anfal would constitute "genocide" by Iraq, on the other hand. But in your comments to me, you acknowledge there are still no bodies to be found.
JH: True, be we have eight survivors from the execution sites who managed to escape and were able to tell their stories. Very detailed and compelling stories, all described at length in the HRW report.
JW: And now you tell me that the "disappeared" of the Anfal campaign were taken to the south, and then shot. If they were gassed, they would have to be buried somewhere near where they died, in the north.
JH: They were not gassed. They were taken to the south, and then shot. Those who died from gassing were indeed buried in the north.
JW: You also say they were not Kurds taken from the "towns," but from the villages along the border.
JH: I didnít say "along the border." I said they were from villages that werenít even close to the border with either Iran or Turkey. Many were from villages very close to the town of Kirkuk... Just look at a map.
JW: But Pelletiere tells me the people taken from the border areas were relocated in the interior, in high-rise apartments in some cases
JH: Pelletiere has no evidence for this preposterous allegation. If they were relocated to highrises in the interior, could be please produce these people for me? Their surviving relatives would be overjoyed to discover their loved ones were still alive!
JW: Iraq invited the foreign press to witness the relocation process. Have you taken this into account? Pelletiere thinks you have "conflated" the two stories.
JH: Not really. Foreign journalists were invited after the Sept. 6, 1988 amnesty only, at which point survivors of the Anfal campaign (those who had succeeded in remaining in hiding during the campaign and then surrendered after Sept. 6) were relocated to resettlement camps. This does not account for the people arrested and disappeared before the amnesty, a period of 6 months. Pelletiere doesnít know what he is talking about because he hasnít done any research on this. He had not even heard of the Anfal campaign until recently, even though it was announced in banner headlines in the daily Iraqi papers at the time.
[In the following exchange, I refer to assertions made in late August 1988 by Secretary of State George Shultz and Peter Galbraith, a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that Saddam Hussein had killed 100,000 Iraqi Kurds with poison gas in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war. Without confirmation or hearings, within days the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning Saddam Hussein for the action.]
JW: [Pelletiere] is very happy you acknowledged to me that he and you agree in the falsity of the Shultz/Galbraith assertions of gassing, but he believes you have mixed up the stories of the "relocation" and the "disappearance."
JH: I donít know what he is talking about. I agreed to no such thing. I said the Galbraith had exaggerated the number of deaths as a result of the gs attacks in the Badinan region on August 25, 1988. Nope, I have mixed up nothing.
JW: If the material you found listed men, women and children, they are far more likely to have on relocation lists than on "arrest" lists.
JH: I can read Arabic, thank you. It said arrested and transferred to the Topzawa popular army base in Kirkuk. The eight survivors have told the rest of the story Ė what happened after they arrived there, again, described in the HRW report.
JW: Certainly they would not keep neat little lists of Kurds exterminated and buried somewhere in mass graves.
JH: I donít know if the Iraqis did nor did not. Such documents were not found in the 18 metric tons of Iraqi secret police documents whose analysis and indexing I supervised in 199-94. They did, though, keep "neat little lists" of those they arrested and transferred to Kirkuk and who never returned, until this day. Interestingly, those arrest lists did include three or so of the survivors from the execution sites.
JW: The story strains credibility, especially when such a high proportion of the population is said to have "disappeared" in a short period of time, never to return!
JH: Well, other genocides have strained credibility as well. To this day there are people who deny the holocaust. Can you believe that?
JW: Dr Pelletiere also insists that our spy satellites would have been able to track the mass movement of tens of thousands of Kurds from the north to the south, and nothing like that was observed.
JH: So if they didnít observe that, then how does he know these people were relocated. He clearly made it up. I donít know what US satellites saw, but I have been working with US officials for 2 years now to locate the mass grave sites using satellite photographs, in case we gain access to the areas. But thanks for this Pelletiere quote; I can use it for my book.
JW: Again, Mr. Hiltermann, I'm only interested in this insofar as it bears upon the decision- making process of our government on whether or not to unleash our military on Baghdad. Thanks again for your reply.
As a footnote, the CIA last October issued a report on Iraqís use of gas during its war with Iran. It said its last use of gas was at Halabja, that "hundreds" had died, and that Iraq had used mustard gas, not cyanide gas. It dismissed the report of the disappearance of 100,000 Kurds later in the year. As for the assertion by Hiltermann that the Iraqi air force had delivered the gas on Halabja, I was advised in an e-mail by W. Patrick Lang, who was the chief intelligence officer at the Pentagonís Defense Intelligence Agency in those years, that there was no evidence of air attacks, that both Iraq and Iran had used gas at Halabja and had delivered them by artillery.