Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nebuchadnezzar Reborn: Genocidal Massacres and Ethnic Cleansing in Saddam’s Iraq

The crimes of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein read like a mile-long wrap sheet. You name it, he, his wicked sons, and his sadistic Baathist regime did it. Saddam ruled the disparate parts of his country with fear, intimidation and brutal suppression. He violated UN resolutions left and right; invaded neighboring states; created huge environmental disasters during and just after the first Gulf War; committed the Mother of all Heists in what became known as the UN Food for Oil scandal; built over seventy presidential palace compounds during the Oil for Food program and bought weapons while his people starved; and used chemical and biological weapons against civilians. One of the conflicts that Saddam started, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), was the deadliest conventional war in the last third of the 20th century. Saddam’s elder son, Uday, a rapist and psychopath by trade, headed a paramilitary group called the Fedayeen Saddam that carried out the most heinous tortures for slight offenses, from disobeying an order to not performing satisfactorily on the soccer field.

Saddam’s repressive violence could take on genocidal proportions, a reprisal incommensurate with the original action. Take for example his response to an attempt on his life while visiting the town of Dujail in southern Iraq (1982). He “disappeared” 140 suspects, rounded up and imprisoned over a thousand men, women and children (torturing many of them), banished them to another region, and with bulldozers wiped Dujail off the map. In the al-Anfal Campaign of 1988 Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, sought to solve the so-called Kurdish Problem in Northern Iraq by razing thousands of villages, executing males between 13 and 70, throwing their bodies into mass graves, placing the women and children in horrendous relocation centers, and most notoriously firing chemical weapons into many Kurdish villages, most notably Halabja where 5,000 people died. (Thousands of other victims endured horrific disfigurement and long-term aftereffects.) Ultimately over 150,000 Iraqi civilians died in the campaign.

What happened in 1991 at the brief war’s end should bring some shame upon us, but let’s not forget that Saddam’s regime is the perpetrator. (Sometimes, in our appropriate condemnation of international third parties who could have done more or who inadvertently aided the perpetrator or who tried to profit from the crimes, we forget that they weren’t the murderers.) Encouraged by President Bush’s vociferous support, disenfranchised Iraqis tried to take advantage of the postwar defeat of Saddam with an uprising. Our own troops stood by and watched Iraqi helicopter gunships massacre Kurdish civilians because we were bound by our own agreement not to intervene unless Saddam violated a no-fly zone (by fixed-wing aircraft). Saddam’s crackdown on would-be liberators was worse in the Shiite south. The Iraqi Republican Guard squashed the revolt and mass executions followed. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, bereaved families with international forensic teams in tow were finally able to visit the mass graves that dotted the barren landscape. But a decade earlier Saddam’s anger was not satiated. In a massive program of environmental destruction, he diverted water from the marshlands in the South, causing the Marsh Arabs to flee and ending a civilization that had thrived in the region for millennia.