Monday, March 25, 2002

Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Great Terror" (New Yorker)

This is an extremely important article, and I strongly recommend reading the whole thing very carefully. It provides some crucial reality checks on a few (not all) of the key issues at stake in dealing with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S.: And see the update from 11/1/2005 at the end of this post, below]


The New Yorker

April 2, 2002

The Great Terror
By Jeffrey Goldberg

During my visit to Kurdistan, I talked with more than a hundred victims of Saddam's campaign against the Kurds. Saddam has been persecuting the Kurds ever since he took power, more than twenty years ago. Several old women whose husbands were killed by Saddam's security services expressed a kind of animal hatred toward him, but most people, like Nasreen, told stories of horrific cruelty with a dispassion and a precision that underscored their credibility. Credibility is important to the Kurds; after all this time, they still feel that the world does not believe their story. [....]

The story of Halabja did not end the night the Iraqi Air Force planes returned to their bases. The Iranians invited the foreign press to record the devastation. Photographs of the victims, supine, bleached of color, littering the gutters and alleys of the town, horrified the world. Saddam Hussein's attacks on his own citizens mark the only time since the Holocaust that poison gas has been used to exterminate women and children. Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who led the campaigns against the Kurds in the late eighties, was heard on a tape captured by rebels, and later obtained by Human Rights Watch, addressing members of Iraq's ruling Baath Party on the subject of the Kurds. "I will kill them all with chemical weapons!" he said. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them."

Attempts by Congress in 1988 to impose sanctions on Iraq were stifled by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, and the story of Saddam's surviving victims might have vanished completely had it not been for the reporting of people like Randal and the work of a British documentary filmmaker named Gwynne Roberts, who, after hearing stories about a sudden spike in the incidence of birth defects and cancers, not only in Halabja but also in other parts of Kurdistan, had made some disturbing films on the subject. However, no Western government or United Nations agency took up the cause.

In 1998, Roberts brought an Englishwoman named Christine Gosden to Kurdistan. Gosden is a medical geneticist and a professor at the medical school of the University of Liverpool. She spent three weeks in the hospitals in Kurdistan, and came away determined to help the Kurds. To the best of my knowledge, Gosden is the only Western scientist who has even begun making a systematic study of what took place in northern Iraq. Gosden told me that her father was a high-ranking officer in the Royal Air Force, and that as a child she lived in Germany, near Bergen-Belsen. "It's tremendously influential in your early years to live near a concentration camp," she said. In Kurdistan, she heard echoes of the German campaign to destroy the Jews. "The Iraqi government was using chemistry to reduce the population of Kurds," she said. "The Holocaust is still having its effect. The Jews are fewer in number now than they were in 1939. That's not natural. Now, if you take out two hundred thousand men and boys from Kurdistan"—an estimate of the number of Kurds who were gassed or otherwise murdered in the campaign, most of whom were men and boys—"you've affected the population structure. There are a lot of widows who are not having children." Richard Butler, an Australian diplomat who chaired the United Nations weapons-inspection team in Iraq, describes Gosden as "a classic English, old-school-tie kind of person." Butler has tracked her research since she began studying the attacks, four years ago, and finds it credible. "Occasionally, people say that this is Christine's obsession, but obsession is not a bad thing," he added. [....]

"For Saddam's scientists, the Kurds were a test population," she said. "They were the human guinea pigs. It was a way of identifying the most effective chemical agents for use on civilian populations, and the most effective means of delivery."

The charge is supported by others. An Iraqi defector, Khidhir Hamza, who is the former director of Saddam's nuclear-weapons program, told me earlier this year that before the attack on Halabja military doctors had mapped the city, and that afterward they entered it wearing protective clothing, in order to study the dispersal of the dead. "These were field tests, an experiment on a town," Hamza told me. He said that he had direct knowledge of the Army's procedures that day in Halabja. "The doctors were given sheets with grids on them, and they had to answer questions such as 'How far are the dead from the cannisters?' " Gosden said that she cannot understand why the West has not been more eager to investigate the chemical attacks in Kurdistan. "It seems a matter of enlightened self-interest that the West would want to study the long-term effects of chemical weapons on civilians, on the DNA," she told me. "I've seen Europe's worst cancers, but, believe me, I have never seen cancers like the ones I saw in Kurdistan."

According to an ongoing survey conducted by a team of Kurdish physicians and organized by Gosden and a small advocacy group called the Washington Kurdish Institute, more than two hundred towns and villages across Kurdistan were attacked by poison gas—far more than was previously thought—in the course of seventeen months. The number of victims is unknown, but doctors I met in Kurdistan believe that up to ten per cent of the population of northern Iraq—nearly four million people—has been exposed to chemical weapons. "Saddam Hussein poisoned northern Iraq," Gosden said when I left for Halabja. "The questions, then, are what to do? And what comes next?" [....]

The Kurdish safe haven, in northern Iraq, was born of another American betrayal. In 1991, after the United States helped drive Iraq out of Kuwait, President George Bush ignored an uprising that he himself had stoked, and Kurds and Shiites in Iraq were slaughtered by the thousands. Thousands more fled the country, the Kurds going to Turkey, and almost immediately creating a humanitarian disaster. The Bush Administration, faced with a televised catastrophe, declared northern Iraq a no-fly zone and thus a safe haven, a tactic that allowed the refugees to return home. And so, under the protective shield of the United States and British Air Forces, the unplanned Kurdish experiment in self-government began. Although the Kurdish safe haven is only a virtual state, it is an incipient democracy, a home of progressive Islamic thought and pro-American feeling. [....]

The chemical attacks on Halabja and Goktapa and perhaps two hundred other villages and towns were only a small part of the cataclysm that Saddam's cousin, the man known as Ali Chemical, arranged for the Kurds. The Kurds say that about two hundred thousand were killed. (Human Rights Watch, which in the early nineties published "Iraq's Crime of Genocide," a definitive study of the attacks, gives a figure of between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand.) The campaign against the Kurds was dubbed al-Anfal by Saddam, after a chapter in the Koran that allows conquering Muslim armies to seize the spoils of their foes. It reads, in part, "Against them"—your enemies—"make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly."

The Anfal campaign was not an end in itself, like the Holocaust, but a means to an end—an instance of a policy that Samantha Power, who runs the Carr Center for Human Rights, at Harvard, calls "instrumental genocide." Power has just published " 'A Problem from Hell,' " a study of American responses to genocide. "There are regimes that set out to murder every citizen of a race," she said. "Saddam achieved what he had to do without exterminating every last Kurd." What he had to do, Power and others say, was to break the Kurds' morale and convince them that a desire for independence was foolish.
<>Most of the Kurds who were murdered in the Anfal were not killed by poison gas; rather, the genocide was carried out, in large part, in the traditional manner, with roundups at night, mass executions, and anonymous burials. The bodies of most of the victims of the Anfal—mainly men and boys—have never been found. [....]

In September, when the war with Iran was over, Saddam issued a general amnesty to the Kurds, the people he believed had betrayed him by siding with Tehran. The women, children, and elderly in Nugra Salman were freed. But, in most cases, they could not go home; the Iraqi Army had bulldozed some four thousand villages, Baban's among them. She was finally resettled in the Chamchamal district.

In the days after her release, she tried to learn the fate of her husband and three older sons. But the men who disappeared in the Anfal roundups have never been found. It is said that they were killed and then buried in mass graves in the desert along the Kuwaiti border, but little is actually known. A great number of Anfal widows, I was told, still believe that their sons and husbands and brothers are locked away in Saddam's jails. [....]

In a conversation not long ago with Richard Butler, the former weapons inspector, I suggested a possible explanation for the world's indifference to Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons to commit genocide—that the people he had killed were his own citizens, not those of another sovereign state. (The main chemical-weapons treaty does not ban a country's use of such weapons against its own people, perhaps because at the time the convention was drafted no one could imagine such a thing.) Butler reminded me, however, that Iraq had used chemical weapons against another country—Iran—during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. He offered a simpler rationale. "The problems are just too awful and too hard," he said. "History is replete with such things. Go back to the grand example of the Holocaust. It sounded too hard to do anything about it."

The Kurds have grown sanguine about the world's lack of interest. "I've learned not to be surprised by the indifference of the civilized world," Barham Salih told me one evening in Sulaimaniya. Salih is the Prime Minister of the area of Kurdistan administered by the Patriotic Union, and he spoke in such a way as to suggest that it would be best if I, too, stopped acting surprised. "Given the scale of the tragedy—we're talking about large numbers of victims—I suppose I'm surprised that the international community has not come in to help the survivors," he continued. "It's politically indecent not to help. But, as a Kurd, I live with the terrible hand history and geography have dealt my people." Salih's home is not prime ministerial, but it has many Western comforts. He had a satellite television and a satellite telephone, yet the house was frigid; in a land of cheap oil, the Kurds, who are cut off the Iraqi electric grid by Saddam on a regular basis, survive on generator power and kerosene heat. Over dinner one night, Salih argued that the Kurds should not be regarded with pity. "I don't think one has to tap into the Wilsonian streak in American foreign policy in order to find a rationale for helping the Kurds," he said. "Helping the Kurds would mean an opportunity to study the problems caused by weapons of mass destruction." [....]

A paradox of life in northern Iraq is that, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children suffer from the effects of chemical attacks, the child-mortality rate in the Kurdish zone has improved over the past ten years. Prime Minister Salih credits this to, of all things, sanctions placed on the Iraqi regime by the United Nations after the Gulf War because of Iraq's refusal to dismantle its nonconventional-weapons program. He credits in particular the program begun in 1997, known as oil-for-food, which was meant to mitigate the effects of sanctions on civilians by allowing the profits from Iraqi oil sales to buy food and medicine. Calling this program a "fantastic concept," Salih said, "For the first time in our history, Iraqi citizens—all citizens—are insured a portion of the country's oil wealth. The north is a testament to the success of the program. Oil is sold and food is bought."

I asked Salih to respond to the criticism, widely aired in the West, that the sanctions have led to the death of thousands of children. "Sanctions don't kill Iraqi children," he said. "The regime kills children." This puzzled me. If it was true, then why were the victims of the gas attacks still suffering from a lack of health care? Across Kurdistan, in every hospital I visited, the complaints were the same: no CT scans, no MRIs, no pediatric surgery, no advanced diagnostic equipment, not even surgical gloves. I asked Salih why the money designated by the U.N. for the Kurds wasn't being used for advanced medical treatment. The oil-for-food program has one enormous flaw, he replied. When the program was introduced, the Kurds were promised thirteen per cent of the country's oil revenue, but because of the terms of the agreement between Baghdad and the U.N.—a "defect," Salih said—the government controls the flow of food, medicine, and medical equipment to the very people it slaughtered. Food does arrive, he conceded, and basic medicines as well, but at Saddam's pace.

On this question of the work of the United Nations and its agencies, the rival Kurdish parties agree. "We've been asking for a four-hundred-bed hospital for Sulaimaniya for three years," said Nerchivan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the region controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Salih's counterpart. Sulaimaniya is in Salih's territory, but in this case geography doesn't matter. "It's our money," Barzani said. "But we need the approval of the Iraqis. They get to decide. The World Health Organization is taking its orders from the Iraqis. It's crazy."

Barzani and Salih accused the World Health Organization, in particular, of rewarding with lucrative contracts only companies favored by Saddam."Every time I interact with the U.N.," Salih said, "I think, My God, Jesse Helms is right. If the U.N. can't help us, this poor, dispossessed Muslim nation, then who is it for?" Many Kurds believe that Iraq's friends in the U.N. system, particularly members of the Arab bloc, have worked to keep the Kurds' cause from being addressed. The Kurds face an institutional disadvantage at the U.N., where, unlike the Palestinians, they have not even been granted official observer status. Salih grew acerbic: "Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don't engage in terror. We don't condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority of Mr. Arafat. We have spent the last ten years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society. What has he built?" Last week, in New York, I met with Benon Sevan, the United Nations undersecretary-general who oversees the oil-for-food program. He quickly let me know that he was unmoved by the demands of the Kurds. "If they had a theme song, it would be 'Give Me, Give Me, Give Me,' " Sevan said. "I'm getting fed up with their complaints. You can tell them that." He said that under the oil-for-food program the "three northern governorates"—U.N. officials avoid the word "Kurdistan"—have been allocated billions of dollars in goods and services. "I don't know if they've ever had it so good," he said.

I mentioned the Kurds' complaint that they have been denied access to advanced medical equipment, and he said, "Nobody prevents them from asking. They should go ask the World Health Organization"—which reports to Sevan on matters related to Iraq. When I told Sevan that the Kurds have repeatedly asked the W.H.O., he said, "I'm not going to pass judgment on the W.H.O." As the interview ended, I asked Sevan about the morality of allowing the Iraqi regime to control the flow of food and medicine into Kurdistan. "Nobody's innocent," he said. "Please don't talk about morals with me."

When I went to Kurdistan in January to report on the 1988 genocide of the Kurds, I did not expect to be sidetracked by a debate over U.N. sanctions. And I certainly didn't expect to be sidetracked by crimes that Saddam is committing against the Kurds now—in particular "nationality correction," the law that Saddam's security services are using to implement a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Large-scale operations against the Kurds in Kirkuk, a city southeast of Erbil, and in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan under Saddam's control, have received scant press attention in the West; there have been few news accounts and no Security Council condemnations drafted in righteous anger. Saddam's security services have been demanding that Kurds "correct" their nationality by signing papers to indicate that their birth records are false—that they are in fact Arab. Those who don't sign have their property seized. Many have been evicted, often to Kurdish-controlled regions, to make room for Arab families. According to both the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, more than a hundred thousand Kurds have been expelled from the Kirkuk area over the past two years.

Nationality correction is one technique that the Baghdad regime is using in an over-all "Arabization" campaign, whose aim is to replace the inhabitants of Kurdish cities, especially the oil-rich Kirkuk, with Arabs from central and southern Iraq, and even, according to persistent reports, with Palestinians. Arabization is not new, Peter Galbraith, a professor at the National Defense University and a former senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says. Galbraith has monitored Saddam's anti-Kurdish activities since before the Gulf War. "It's been going on for twenty years," he told me. "Maybe it's picked up speed, but it is certainly nothing new. To my mind, it's part of a larger process that has been under way for many years, and is aimed at reducing the territory occupied by the Kurds and at destroying rural Kurdistan."

"This is the apotheosis of cultural genocide," said Saedi Barzinji, the president of Salahaddin University, in Erbil, who is a human-rights lawyer and Massoud Barzani's legal adviser. Barzinji and other Kurdish leaders believe that Saddam is trying to set up a buffer zone between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan, just in case the Kurds win their independence. To help with this, Barzinji told me last month, Saddam is trying to rewrite Kirkuk's history, to give it an "Arab" past. If Kurds, Barzinji went on, "don't change their ethnic origin, they are given no food rations, no positions in government, no right to register the names of their new babies. In the last three to four weeks, hospitals have been ordered, the maternity wards ordered, not to register any Kurdish name." New parents are "obliged to choose an Arab name." Barzinji said that the nationality-correction campaign extends even to the dead. "Saddam is razing the gravestones, erasing the past, putting in new ones with Arab names," he said. "He wants to show that Kirkuk has always been Arab." [....]
According to Gary Milhollin, the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, whose Iraq Watch project monitors Saddam's weapons capabilities, inspectors could not account for a great deal of weaponry believed to be in Iraq's possession, including almost four tons of the nerve agent VX; six hundred tons of ingredients for VX; as much as three thousand tons of other poison-gas agents; and at least five hundred and fifty artillery shells filled with mustard gas. Nor did the inspectors find any stores of aflatoxin. Saddam's motives are unclear, too. For the past decade, the development of these weapons has caused nothing but trouble for him; his international isolation grows not from his past crimes but from his refusal to let weapons inspectors dismantle his nonconventional-weapons programs. When I asked the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya why Saddam is so committed to these programs, he said, "I think this regime developed a very specific ideology associated with power, and how to extend that power, and these weapons play a very important psychological and political part." Makiya added, "They are seen as essential to the security and longevity of the regime."

Certainly, the threat of another Halabja has kept Iraq's citizens terrorized and compliant. Amatzia Baram, the Iraq expert at the University of Haifa, told me that in 1999 Iraqi troops in white biohazard suits suddenly surrounded the Shiite holy city of Karbala, in southern Iraq, which has been the scene of frequent uprisings against Saddam. (The Shiites make up about sixty per cent of Iraq's population, and the regime is preoccupied with the threat of another rebellion.) The men in the white suits did nothing; they just stood there. "But the message was clear," Baram said. " 'What we did to the Kurds in Halabja we can do to you.' It's a very effective psychological weapon. From the information I saw, people were really panicky. They ran into their homes and shut their windows. It worked extremely well." Saddam's weapons of mass destruction clearly are not meant solely for domestic use. Several years ago in Baghdad, Richard Butler, who was then the chairman of UNSCOM, fell into conversation with Tariq Aziz, Saddam's confidant and Iraq's deputy Prime Minister. Butler asked Aziz to explain the rationale for Iraq's biological-weapons project, and he recalled Aziz's answer: "He said, 'We made bioweapons in order to deal with the Persians and the Jews.' " [....]

It is no comfort to the Kurds that the Jews are now Saddam's main preoccupation. The Kurds I spoke with, even those who agree that Saddam is aiming his remaining Scuds at Israel, believe that he is saving some of his "special weapons"—a popular euphemism inside the Iraqi regime—for a return visit to Halabja. The day I visited the Kalak Bridge, which divides the Kurds from the Iraqi Army's Jerusalem brigade, I asked Muhammad Najar, the local official, why the brigade was not facing west, toward its target. "The road to Jerusalem," he replied, "goes through Kurdistan." [....]

There is some debate among arms-control experts about exactly when Saddam will have nuclear capabilities. But there is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them soon, and a nuclear-armed Iraq would alter forever the balance of power in the Middle East. "The first thing that occurs to any military planner is force protection," Charles Duelfer told me. "If your assessment of the threat is chemical or biological, you can get individual protective equipment and warning systems. If you think he's going to use a nuclear weapon, where are you going to concentrate your forces?"

There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. When I talked about Saddam's past with the medical geneticist Christine Gosden, she said, "Please understand, the Kurds were for practice."

[UPDATE, 11/1/2005: Some people might be tempted to pounce on the last two paragraphs and use them as an excuse to dismiss Goldberg's whole article, but they should resist the temptation. It is now clear in retrospect, unlike the situation in 2002, that by the late 1990s Saddam Hussein almost certainly did not have active nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. However, one important point that this article brings out is that during the period leading up to the 2003 Iraq war almost all informed observers--including the intelligence services of all major governments--believed otherwise. During the debates of 2002-2003, for example, even the French government did not claim that there were no Iraqi NBC weapons programs, only that the renewed inspections had "frozen" them. The major disagreements had to do with how advanced Saddam Hussein's NBC weapons were, the size of his stockpiles, and so on.

In fact, there was no way to genuinely resolve these questions without first overthrowing the Iraqi Ba'ath regime. And a major reason for this, as Goldberg's article also brings out clearly, is that Saddam Hussein very much
wanted Iraqis and the outside world to believe that he had NBC weapon capacities, so he quite deliberately acted in ways that promoted this impression--while at the same time preserving a certain ambiguity with the long-term goal of erodng and finally ending the sanctions-&-"containment" system. This system was indeed collapsing by the late 1990s, and once it had fully disintegrated, Saddam Hussein would of course have resumed his NBC weapons programs for real. Overall, this has to be seen as a spectacularly successful bluff on Saddam Hussein's part--except that, in the end, it turned out to be one more of the catastrophic miscalculations that were his trademark. --Jeff Weintraub]