THE suspicion was always there, among those who knew its murderous nature, that Saddam Hussein's regime had killed tens of thousands of Kurds, not simply as the unavoidable consequence of fighting Kurdish guerrillas but deliberately, as a measure of extermination. Now the story is coming out in all its horror.
Iraqi documents seized during the Kurdish uprising in March and April of last year - enough to fill two large trucks, according to sources who have seen them - tell of mass slayings of civilians. So does testimony by eye witnesses; and the Iraqis even left behind videotapes of executions, beatings, and torture. Kurdish sources say as many as 180,000 of their people were murdered by Iraqis. It may never be possible to reach a confirmed figure, but there can be no doubt that the scale of killing was massiv e.
The meticulous documentation removes all possible doubt as to how the killings came about. They could not have been the unauthorized excesses of Iraqi secret police officers, soldiers, or Army unit commanders. They could only have been done on the order of top Iraqi officials.
This puts the actions of Saddam's regime squarely within the definition of genocide. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide in Article II as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group...." Among the criteria it cites "killing members of the group" and "causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group."
But killing was not the only weapon used against the Kurds. From 1987 to 1990, the Iraqi Army systematically demolished Kurdish villages and towns - in all some 4,000 - blowing up or bulldozing houses, wells, orchards, and crops and killing livestock. Half a million or more Kurds were forced into camps that had little or no sanitation or clean water and no medical facilities, and where there was no opportunity for employment; others fled to the major Kurdish cities where they swelled the ranks of the des perate and the poverty stricken.
The Iraqi regime claimed that it was only trying to protect the Kurds. In fact, it is obvious that the effect and motive of these actions was genocidal. To the charge of mass murder must be added that, set out in Article II(c) of the Genocide Convention, of "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."
The Genocide Convention has no enforcement mechanism, and governments have always been reluctant to press for enforcement. But Iraq's violations are too egregious to be ignored if the convention is to retain any meaning. Even if Saddam and his agents cannot at this time physically be brought to justice, an international tribunal should be set up to pass judgment on them. They should be tried under the Genocide Convention and also under the criteria set out by the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1946 for crimes aga inst humanity.
It would be comforting to think that Saddam's atrocities against the Kurds were only an aberration. Sadly, they are the logical culmination of seven decades of refusal by Iraqi Arab governments to accept that the Kurds are a separate people, with a language and a culture of their own and an aspiration to guide their own destinies. After World War I, the Kurds were first promised the opportunity of independence.
They were then lured and pushed into incorporation into the Iraqi state with offers of autonomy that quickly dwindled to promises to respect linguistic and cultural identity. When even these minimal commitments were ignored, the Kurds rose in revolt. Successive Iraqi governments, unable to break the Kurdish revolt, resorted to increasingly savage methods.
The atrocities committed against the Kurds by Saddam's regime have nullified the claim of Baghdad governments to any legitimate right to rule over Kurdish lands. In deference to the Bush administration's advice, Kurdish leaders still speak only of autonomy. In fact, they and their people yearn for independence. With all that has happened it is hard to see how Iraq can ever be put together again as the unitary state it once was.
It is time to recognize that the United States has a moral debt, and a concommitant obligation, to the Kurds of Iraq. By joining the Shah of Iran in supplying arms and money to the Kurds in the early 1970s, the Nixon administration encouraged their revolt in 1974. By failing to protest the Shah's betrayal of the Kurds in 1975, and by joining him in cutting off its aid, the US, too, betrayed them and contributed to the disaster that overtook them.
In the late 1980s, the US stood by while Saddam's regime destroyed the Kurdish villages, knowing full well what was happening but saying nothing publicly. In March of 1991, after having encouraged the people of Iraq to rise up against the Baghdad regime, the Bush administration sat and watched - when it could easily have prevented - the crushing of the Kurds by the Iraqi Army.
The US has a responsibility to assure that the Kurds are not again massacred. It also should help them rebuild from the devastation inflicted upon them, and to help find a political solution that will offer a reasonable prospect for satisfying their aspirations for self-government.