SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — As authorities find more mass graves of Iraqi Kurds believed to have been killed during Saddam Hussein's extermination campaign in the 1980s, one survivor is working to halt the victims' exhumation until more perpetrators are brought to justice.
Four mass graves have been discovered in recent weeks in the desert of Iraq's Muthanna province. The Kurdish region of Iraq is in the north, but many prisoners were taken to Muthanna, about 200 miles south of Baghdad.
Hussein's Baathist regime launched the infamous Anfal ("Spoils of War") operation against Kurds in 1986. By the time it ended in 1989, the number of victims had reached nearly 182,000, Kurdish officials estimate. Human Rights Watch considers the executions to be crimes against humanity.
As of Aug. 1, 130 bodies had been found at the site — and the number is rising, said Basim Jihad, spokesman for the Martyrs Foundation, a government body related to the Iraqi Council of Ministers. Most of the victims were Kurdish women and children, he told Al-Monitor.
In April, another mass grave containing 300 remains had been found in the same area.
Jihad said only one of the four mass graves has been excavated, and after the Eid Al-Adha holiday this weekend, two others will be unearthed. “When the four mass graves are exhumed, the remains will be sent to the medical jurisprudence to make needed tests. Then, we will take the necessary measures to transfer and rebury the bodies in the Kurdistan Region,” Jihad added.
However, survivor Taimur Abdullah wants the evidence to be witnessed internationally. He and some other survivors are trying to get the exhumation process halted until Kurdish mercenaries who collaborated with Hussein's regime are prosecuted. He maintains there are hundreds of mercenaries who are being protected by the Kurdish ruling parties.
According to the Genocidekurd website, the Iraqi High Tribunal has issued arrest warrants for 258 Kurdish defendants in Anfal trials — mostly former mercenaries — to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) judiciary, but so far no one has been arrested. Abdullah said most of the suspects have government connections or affiliations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
“The mercenaries are now better respected than we are in Kurdistan Region," he said.
“I have many complaints against the KRG Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. … They, with some other Kurdish politicians, wanted to conceal that hideous historical crime against the Kurdish nation,” he added, without naming any individuals.
Abdullah also wants the Iraqi federal government to pay regular salaries to survivors' families. The KRG provides some support, though Abdullah pointed out that much of the KRG's wealth comes from oil and gas located in areas mostly populated by those families.
Some victims' families tried to visit the mass graves July 30; they were wearing scarves bearing the image of the Kurdistan flag. But an Iraqi security officer prevented them from entering the sites, arguing they should remove the scarves. The incident happened in the presence of three advisers of the Iraqi president, which sparked resentment and anger in Kurdistan Region.
“The blood of our beloved has been shed in the deserts," Abdullah said. "Why can't we wear the Kurdish flag in federal Iraq while our Arab brothers freely wear the Iraqi flag when visiting Kurdistan Region?”
In a statement later, Muthanna Gov. Ahmed Menfi apologized to the Kurdish people, saying the officer's actions were “individually driven” and did not reflect the province's “attitude” toward Kurds. According to the statement, the officer has been detained for investigation regarding the issue.
Kurds want the Anfal campaign — as well as the Halabja gas attack in 1988 in which Hussein used mustard gas and nerve agents — officially recognized as genocide by the international community. However, Abdullah said, such a step will require more effort by the KRG and the Iraqi federal government.
When he was just 12, Abdullah said, he and 110 of his relatives, including his mother and sister, were forced into big pits in Muthanna where soldiers sprayed them with bullets. He was shot in the shoulder but survived.
He accuses the teams currently excavating the sites of “inhuman” behaviors regarding the victims’ remains.
“I saw a member of the excavating team throwing the hair and skull of a Kurdish woman into a black sack hurriedly; that is an insult to the victims and me as a survivor. According to the Iraqi code for [excavating] mass graves, I should have been told about the process earlier,” he told Al-Monitor.
He also said that after he peacefully protested the situation, he was threatened with legal action, though Jihad maintains no legal measures have been taken against Abdullah.
Foad Othman, spokesman for the KRG Ministry for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, told Al-Monitor the ministry had previously contacted Abdullah. According to the Iraqi code that specifically addresses such matters, he said, the Iraqi Martyrs Foundation has the authority to disentomb the victims.
“We hope in the future to fulfill [Abdullah's] rightful demands to make Anfal an internationally recognized genocide and bring perpetrators in the Anfal case to justice. All these are legitimate demands; we are supporting them,” Othman said.