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Book Review: Origins of the Kurdish Genocide

04 Jul 2024
Reviewed by Dr William Gourlay

The Iraqi Ba’ath regime’s murderous attacks on Kurdish populations in the 1970s and 1980s had ongoing impacts on Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere. Ibrahim Sadiq’s book analyses the process of nation-building in Iraq, from its emergence from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, to examine the Ba’ath party’s relationship with the Kurds and how it deteriorated, giving rise to the tragic events of the 1980s.

The political struggle of the Kurds has recently come into the spotlight, particularly since the key role that Kurdish militias played in the campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria from 2014 until 2017. The Kurds had been left stateless during the carve up of the Middle East after WWI, rendering them minorities across the mountainous region where the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey meet. For decades, Kurdish populations in those states endured a range of impositions, from the denial of their distinct cultural and ethnic identity to attempts at assimilation, and varying degrees of political and military repression—circumstances that won little solidarity or acknowledgement from the global community.  

Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the international indifference that met the Iraqi Ba’ath regime’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilian targets in Halabja in March 1988. The culmination of the regime’s Al-Anfal counterinsurgency campaigns against Kurdish guerilla fighters (peshmergas) at the end of the Iran-Iraq war by some estimates killed 5000 people, the majority women and children. Yet, this gross abuse of human rights was ignored by many Western leaders because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was then considered an ally, a bulwark against the Islamic regime in Iran.   

There has since been some debate as to whether the Anfal campaigns constituted genocide. According to Ibrahim Sadiq, lecturer at Soran University in Iraqi Kurdistan, the attacks are categorically genocidal, once examined within the context of the historical and sociological processes that led to the events of 1988. A Kurd himself, Sadiq brings a personal angle to his investigation, having lived among the Sunni Arab population of Anbar province as well as the Kurdish city of Erbil, whereupon he witnessed various events of the Anfal campaigns, including the destruction of his own village, and later working to defend the rights of survivors. 

The book proceeds through an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction sets out key questions. Sadiq asks if the Anfal campaign was a symptom of the conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurds or if it was an inevitable result of the process of establishment of the Iraqi (nation) state. As such, he determines to identify the “roots of genocide” through examining the processes of nation-building that excluded and marginalised non-Arab Iraqis, and via the ways in which Ba’athist ideology, emerging as a specific formulation of Arab nationalism, followed a path towards the horrific acts against the Kurdish population in 1987-88.   

The conceptual framework that Sadiq uses for his investigation is the civilizing process, a central element in nation-building, as elaborated by German sociologist Norbert Elias. Sadiq posits Iraq, one of the states that emerged in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, as a “product of modernity” and argues the government has used “modern means” including “power concentration… and violence against its own population” in order to forge a coherent nation state. This, in turn, amounts to a de-civilizing process, another concept attributed to Elias. Alongside this theoretical framework, Sadiq adopts a qualitative approach, analysing Ba’athist documents and interviewing members of the Ba’ath infrastructure, as well as the Kurds who were the victims of the Anfal campaign. 

In Chapter One, Sadiq applies this theoretical prism to the establishment of the Iraqi state and Iraqi institutions. These were processes that were complex and fraught from a range of perspectives. To a degree, Iraq was an artificial construction—three former Ottoman provinces lumped together—and there was no gradual transformation from feudal state to nation-state, as happened in certain European examples. Tensions arising immediately between the three largest demographic groups—Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds—were exacerbated by the interventions of British colonial authorities, administering the territory according to a mandate, and the imposition of a “foreign” king, Faisal, son of the emir of Mecca. Ultimately, the struggles between internal Iraqi stakeholders saw Sunnis emerge as political elites and the Kurds marginalised. 

The impact of Arab nationalism, or what Sadiq describes as “Arab-centrism,” on nation-building is the focus of Chapter Two. Non-Arab Iraqis, a category that extends beyond Kurds to include several Christian denominations, Turkomans, and Yazidis, had no input in the building of institutions or state administration. Politics was conducted in an authoritarian mode and the settlement of disputes routinely occurred through the exertion of force. Here again, colonial intervention was a complicating factor, consisting primarily of the British pursuing their own interests rather than acting to foster a unified Iraqi administration or populace. Sadiq asserts that Sunni elites were able to manipulate this dynamic to further entrench themselves and undermine Kurdish political movements. In this milieu, the Ba’ath Party emerged after a false start in 1963, eventually taking control of the state in 1968 and using its institutions to progress towards an Arab homeland that denied rights to others, and cast as traitors any who opposed an all-encompassing Arab identity. 

Chapter Three examines the events of the 1970s and 1980s that were precursors to the Anfal campaign. These amounted to a process of Arabisation, with the regime attempting to justify processes of assimilation into Arabness or expulsion of Kurds. These began with a series of actions directed at the Faili Kurds, a group that hailed from both sides of the Iran-Iraq border, many of whom were Shiite. From the mid-1970s, thousands of Faili Kurds were expelled from Baghdad, Khanaqin, and elsewhere, and others were deported entirely from Iraq, on the premise they were Iranian nationals. This was followed by the murder in 1983 of thousands of male members of the Barzani clan, which Sadiq denotes as “gendercide.” 

Subsequently, the Ba’ath regime undertook specific preparations for the Anfal campaigns. These, as detailed in Chapter Four, included the appointment of Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid—subsequently known as Chemical Ali—to direct operations, identifying groups that would be targeted, the designation of prohibited areas, and the setting up of detention camps. In Chapters Five and Six, Sadiq presents his primary data, interviews with a range of stakeholders from Kurdish villagers to Ba’ath Party members, and from a female minister in the Kurdish authority (which was established after the First Gulf War of 1991) to a Shia political activist. These chapters present the “feelings and beliefs” of interviewees on the process of nation building in Iraq and the events of Anfal. 

Overall, Sadiq presents a detailed examination of the long historical road that led to the Anfal campaigns of the 1980s, however his argument could have been more cogently compiled. At times the text is extremely dense, and there is some repetition of ideas; elsewhere diverse terminology and multiple events are introduced in quick succession, which necessitated re-reading for this reviewer. A key shortcoming is that he does not explicitly define his key terms: the civilizing and de-civilizing processes.  

This title will be of some use to general readers with an interest in Iraqi history and Kurdish affairs, as well as academics and researchers of Kurdish studies, genocide studies, ethnicity and nation building. 

This is a review of Ibrahim Sadiq’s Origins of the Kurdish Genocide (Roman and Littlefield, 2021). ISBN: 9781793636829 (Hardback)

Dr William Gourlay teaches Middle East history and politics at Monash University, where he completed his PhD, an examination of Kurdish identity in Turkey. He has previously worked as a teacher, journalist and editor in İzmir (Turkey), London and his native Melbourne. He researches and writes on the history, arts and society of Turkey and its neighbours. He is the author of The Kurds in Erdogan’s Turkey.  

This review is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.