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Persecution of the Kurds: The Documents of Saddam’s Secret Police

The Kurds have had a long and troubled history in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein tens of thousands of Kurds were massacred and their villages destroyed during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s. In the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Kurds, staged an uprising against Saddam and fought to gain autonomy over the Kurdish-dominated region of northern Iraq. However, Iraqi troops  recaptured the Kurdish areas and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to the borders. A “safe haven” was then established by the UN Security Council to protect the Kurdish population.

Peter Galbraith was a professional staff member for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at the time and in March-April of 1991 he traveled to northern Iraq to conduct a study on the status of the Kurds. While in Iraq Galbraith discovered what was at the time the largest collection of documents of evidence of war crimes since World War II. Galbraith tells of the difficulties in securing and transporting such papers and how they illustrated the cravenness of Saddam’s regime. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1999. You can also read about the plight of Kurdish refugees as they asked for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the mid-197os.


“I will not give this to the U.S. government because I do not trust it”

GALBRAITH: [At the time] …I wasn’t working for the State Department, but for the Foreign Relations Committee and I interacted with the Near East Bureau…. When I was there in March of ‘91 with [Jalal] Talabani [founder of the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political party advocating self-determination, later elected President of Iraq in 2005] that night in Duhok [in Iraqi Kurdistan], one of the things that he told me was that his party had captured huge numbers of Iraqi documents.

When the uprising had taken place in early March the Kurds had quickly seized the cities of Sulaimaniya, Duhok, Zakho, Shaqlawah, and Kirkuk. In each of these cities were the headquarters of the secret police, and other intelligence agencies of the army and of the Baath party [the Arab nationalist party dominated by Saddam]. By and large the takeover had been quick and the Iraqis had had no time to dispose of the files or to remove them. So, these had fallen into Kurdish hands.

In the case of some of these files, particularly those from Sulaimaniya and Shaqlawah and Kirkuk, the PUK had transported them out of the cities and into the hills. In March Talabani had mentioned it, but because things were so chaotic the issue that I was focused on in my conversations with him was whether he would be negotiating with Saddam Hussein and how the United States can help the [Kurdish] uprising. We were simply watching events unfold including the Iraqi onslaught. We really didn’t discuss this at any great length.

However, in September of ‘91 I returned for about ten days to go into northern Iraq. Operation Provide Comfort [the U.S. operation to defend Kurds fleeing their homes in Northern Iraq after the Gulf War] was well underway….  I went with Talabani and his convoy to Shaqlawah where I stayed with him in the house that he had for three or four days. While there he told me that they still had these documents.

I said to him, “Look, if these documents, if they remain in northern Iraq they almost certainly will be captured again by the Iraqis. This is great evidence of the terrible crimes that have been committed against the Kurdish people. We ought to get them out of northern Iraq to where they can be kept more safely and also where they can be exploited for war crimes and be evidence.”

Talabani (at right) is actually a wonderful man…. He immediately understood my point and he said, “Yes, but I have some conditions. I will not give this to the U.S. government because I do not trust the U.S. government after what Bush did to us, encouraging the uprising and then not helping us, but I will give it to you personally.” So… we negotiated and we agreed that the documents would be given to me but they would remain the property of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party.

Torture and Raping Rooms

Living with Talabani was this boy who told an extraordinary tale. He was part of a large group of Kurds, a systematic deportation who were relocated from Kurdistan to the south of Iraq. When he had gotten there, they had been offloaded on buses…. They’d been on the bus for 24 hours, 36 hours… and then they’d been blindfolded and then driven some distance and offloaded. The boy had lifted up his blindfold and had seen all these corpses in ditches. The Iraqis started shooting and he had fallen into the pit and was shot a couple of times in the back, but not so seriously. The Iraqis had left and darkness had fallen.

He [saw a girl alive nearby] and talked to her, asking her to flee but she was too frightened. He fled and was found by a Shi’ite family who had taken care of him and nursed him back to health…. After the uprising, he had been able to get back to northern Iraq. It was an extraordinary tale and evidence of the one part of the situation that was not really known before 1991– which was the systematic executions of large numbers of Kurds.

Most of the atrocities of Saddam Hussein we knew before the invasion of Kuwait. We knew that he had used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. We knew about the use of chemical weapons after the Iran and Iraq War. We knew about the systematic destruction of all the villages of Kurdistan. I had seen and written about that, but also it would have been evident from overhead satellite photography and so on. We knew about the relocation of people to concentration camps. We knew about the destruction of the symbols of monuments of Kurdish culture, the graveyards, the mosques. I don’t  think that there was known evidence of the deportations to the south which turned out to be systematic killings of tens of thousands of people and this boy was one of the few survivors of this.

[I saw some evidence of this ethnic persecution] … in Diyarbakir…. We set out to the first of the refugees who had been moved from the border to a camp near Diyarbakir. The technique that we developed as we went to see [the Kurdish refugees] was first we would find the camp leaders and they would describe what would happen and we would ask them to show us.

We had a very detailed topographic map to show us where the villages were that the chemical weapons had been used. They would say what had happened and then we would ask them to bring us witnesses and they would. Then we would go out and talk to people at random, again asking people to identify where the attacks had taken place on this topographic map.

What we found even in that first camp was virtually everybody was a witness to the chemical weapons. The stories were very consistent. The Iraqis had come over either with jet airplanes or helicopters. Each of these, whether helicopters or planes, dropped three or four bombs. They had not had loud explosions and then there had been distinctive smells, rotten onions, burnt almonds and then people had simply died. People had run to water and died….

[Later] …we went around Sulaimaniya and went to the secret police headquarters. That was very chilling. There were underground prison cells, hooks where people were tortured, wires where people got electric shock and then a trailer, a couple of trailers with women’s clothing, children’s clothing.

This was described as the raping room where the women would be raped and often they made videotapes. Now the Kurds captured a number of the Iraqi videotapes of executions. At this time I also saw one of a torture, although it was a little bit of beating, it was a testing of some kind of truth drug. The rape videos they said were destroyed, but the execution videos were chilling enough.

In the case of the guy who was tortured… [he was given] a truth serum, but then when he didn’t respond because he was drugged in the video, they beat him up a bit and slapped him around. Later, I was walking on the street and I saw the man who had survived and was definitely in a better frame of mind than he had been in the video.

“The files were quite something”

I came back to the United States and began to work on how to get the documents transported out. Talabani had 14 tons of them. I wrote letters under [Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Claiborne] Pell’s signature to the Department of Defense asking if they would transport it. I worked with Leon Fuerth who was [Senator Al] Gore’s foreign policy advisor to get Gore to weigh in, which he did very strongly. Eventually, after many months of bureaucratic delay and dealing with extraneous issues which I found very frustrating because I was afraid that the documents might be lost, the Pentagon agreed that they would transport them out.

There were complications. For example, where the documents would be held before transport. There was the possibility of using s a small military MCC, Military Coordination Counsel, in Zakho [in Iraqi Kurdistan]. Would they be willing to take custody of these documents? Would there be a terrorist threat to them if they had these documents? Every issue you can imagine. Eventually an agreement was reached that they would take them out. So, I went back in March of 1992 to secure the final arrangements with Talabani, and to see if another source wouldn’t be prepared to give his documents because he had a collection as well.

It turns out he had 4 tons, a much smaller amount…. I went up to the mountains with Talabani’s nephew and saw where they were stored right on the Iranian border. In this case, some were in Shaqlawah [in Iraqi Kurdistan] in the secret police headquarters, which the Kurds now control. Those were fairly orderly. The ones up in the mountains were in a very leaky building. A lot of the documents were wet. They were stuffed into grain sacks and ammunition crates…. There were also film archives and pictures of Senators [Bob] Dole and [Alan] Simpson visiting northern Iraq that had been cut up. There were pictures of David Newton, our previous ambassador, in some kind of social group, clearly pictures taken clandestinely, but nothing incriminating.

The files at Shaqlawah that I examined… were quite something…. One was in a sort of crumbling yellow folder made out of construction paper.

The first file was an inquiry from some commander who had captured these [Kurdish] shepherds, what should he do with them. The reply was to treat them in accordance and, here I don’t remember the precise wording, but the idea is this: Treat them in accordance with paragraph five of the Baath party decree of such and such date. In the message back, it said that they had been disposed of in accordance with paragraph five and that this followed with death certificates and receipts for family members claiming some of the bodies. There was just tons of stuff like this.

Doesn’t anybody want the files?

I got the Kurds to box up the first two boxes which I then transported back to Zakho and delivered to the U.S. military… and eventually all the documents were transported to a warehouse near Zakho, guarded by Kurds who were being paid by the MCC. Then about three weeks later they were taken by helicopter and flown out on a C5A [military transport craft] to the United States.

The issue then came of what to do with them. There were several options. The [international non-governmental organization] Human Rights Watch  was going to do research with them so perhaps they could have custody, but they really didn’t have the space or the security. I talked to Gore and Leon Fuerth and he was an overseer at Harvard, basically in the position of a trustee.

So, he had the idea that they could go to Harvard which has a literary studies institute. Then I got a call from a very embarrassed Dan Steiner who was the legal counsel at Harvard saying, “Well, we’re not really very comfortable with the idea of having these documents.” It became clear that he was afraid that if Harvard had them they would become subject of a terrorist attack, maybe the Iraqis would blow them up. He didn’t want to tell Gore this, he wanted to work it quietly with me that they wouldn’t take it. That was the end of the Harvard option.

I went over to the Library of Congress and had a meeting there… discussing this whole issue when I realized that what I could do is simply by FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]  make these the files of the Foreign Relations Committee. Then the National Archives would have to take them because they have to take the files of committees. So, that’s what I did. I declared them to be the files of the Foreign Relations Committee just like any of the files in my own safe in my own file cabinets in my office of the Committee. The archives were forced to take them. They did a good job; they even constructed a special room.

We got a million dollar appropriation to have all of these documents photographed and put onto CD-ROM with a brief English language cover sheet describing what each of the documents contained. There are now 178 CD-ROMs and are being used for research into Iraqi war crimes. It is the largest collection of documents of war crimes captured since the Second World War.