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Kurdish legal consultant, writer and journalist Chiman Salih explains how the emergence of ISIS is connected to the cruel policies of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein Photo Credit: Channel 2 News

I have no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s regime implemented policies that radicalized the Iraqi society. One of the main policies was triggering religious pulses in the predominantly Muslim state. This kind of policy is also one of the key reasons behind the emergence of ISIS in Iraq.

Recently, I read an interesting debate in Foreign Affairs between historian Dr. Amatzia Baram and analysts Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill regarding the issue. Baram asserted that there is a connection between Saddam’s religious practices and the emergence of ISIS in Iraq while Helfont and Brill dispute this claim.

According to what Baram wrote in his book, Saddam’s religious practices in the 1990s contributed to the emergence of ISIS but Helfont and Brill do not agree with him. They claim that they read 11 million pages in Arabic that document Saddam’s regime at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives (a claim that Baram is skeptical about) and from this research, they concluded that there is no evidence that Saddam was motivated by religion. According to Helfont and Brill, the dictator was a secular man driven by brutality, not Islamic law. 

Baram says that while there might not be any indication in the records, Saddam’s regime had some kind of Sharia (Islamic law) policies in place in the 1990s that led to the radicalization of the Iraqi society. He cited the Halabja bombardment that claimed the lives of 5,000 civilians as an example. He said that although this atrocity is not documented in the regime’s records, it happened and no one can deny it.

I believe that this subject is tremendously important. However, I feel that the most important claims are missing from the debate. In order to see the full extent of Saddam’s religious policies, you don’t need to read millions of pages. It is quite obvious especially after the trials of Saddam and a number of prominent figures of his regime like Ali Hassan Majeed, who is well known to the Kurds as “Chemical Ali” because of the Anfal Campaigns, Halabja bombardment and many other crimes.

It is important for me to stress that the Halabja bombardment was only a one attack that was part of a wider genocide campaign against the Kurdistan people carried out by Saddam, commonly known as the Anfal Campaign. Al-Anfal is the title of the eighth chapter of the holy Quran and means “the spoils [of war].” Saddam tried to apply one of chapters in his own way and interpreted it as the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in order to trigger the hatred of the Arabs and others against the Kurds by religious means. The majority of Kurds (more than 90%) are Muslims and while most of the Kurds are committed to their religious obligations, extremism is rare inside the Kurdish community. Hating others because of religion is unacceptable and that’s why the orientalists said that nationality is more important than religion for Kurds.

During the Anfal Campaign, the documentations of the attacks were being broadcasted on Iraqi state television. I have seen most of the videos. In those videotapes, the mercenaries of Saddam were dancing, chanting, singing and hailing Saddam after the attacks on the 5,000 Kurdistan villages that were leveled to the ground. A total of 182,000 Kurds were murdered in the Anfal Campaign. Another 8,000 men from the Barzani tribe were taken by Saddam’s regime, put into vehicles and never to be seen again. According to international reports, they were buried in mass graves, which were discovered in Southern Iraq after Saddam’s fall in 2003.

ISIS (archives)

ISIS (archives) Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

After 2003, many papers that were confiscated from the dictator’s security offices disclosed the various stages of the Anfal Campaign. Some papers revealed that there were orders given by Saddam’s men to sell many Kurdish women who were abducted in the Anfal Campaign (just like spoils) to night clubs in some Arab countries.

Indeed, Saddam was not a devoted religious person but like all other chauvinists, authoritarians and dictators in the Middle East, he used religion as a means for suppression. The Anfal Campaign is the strongest example. This murderous act has been recognized by the international community as a genocide and crime against humanity.

18 years after the Anfal Campaign, ISIS repeated the same cruelty against Yazidis. On August 4 2014, ISIS attacked them in Sinjar. Ever since, there has been an ongoing and cruel reality in the area, which has had catastrophic effects on the Yazidi ethnoreligious minority (an estimated 700,000 people worldwide, most of whom are located in Kurdistan-Iraq). The genocide carried out by ISIS has recently been recognized by the United Nations and has left 90% of Iraq’s Yazidis displaced, more than 5,000 men and boys murdered and 7,000 women and girls abducted and forced into sexual slavery. According to the UN report, at least 3,200 Yazidis remain in captivity.

I conclude that any dirty movement that intends to harm human beings in Iraq, no matter how many years after the dictator’s fall, can be traced back to Saddam’s regime, as he tried to subdue people by all means including religion.