A former US diplomat has condemned his country’s “silence” about the genocide of Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Peter Galbraith was speaking at a conference in London on the Kurdish genocide, which is being attended by senior experts, humanitarians, politicians and survivors.
The genocide began in the 1960s and continued until the late 1980s.
An estimated 180,000 Kurdish people were killed between 1987 and 1988 alone during Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign called Anfal. The true scale of the killing is not yet known and mass graves continue to be uncovered.
Mr Galbraith told the conference:
“I want to speak as one of a handful of Westerners who was a witness to the genocide as it unfolded. I want to talk about the silence.”
He was working for the US Senate’s foreign relations committee in 1987 when he was given permission to go into Kurdistan.
“As I crossed into the Kurdish region I was struck by something – the absence of the villages that appeared on the very detailed military maps that I had,” he told the conference.
“You could see then the systematic destruction of the villages - on one side of the road abandoned houses and buildings, on the other side bulldozers in the process of making rubble out of them. And beyond you could see people being located in ‘victory cities’ in other words concentration camps.”
Mr Galbraith said: “It was very clear that Iran never used chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq war, but the fiction was put out at the time and even perpetrated today that it was the Iranians that did it (gassed Kurdish villages).”
He also recalled how the US Senate unanimously passed a Bill to impose sanctions on Iraq over the genocide.
“We drew up a Bill and called it the Prevention of Genocide Act and got Jesse Helms, a right-wing Republican, to co-sponsor with Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, and got it through the Senate in a day.
“If you know anything about the US Congress the idea anything could happen in a day was amazing.
“Then the special interests went to work. In the House of Representatives it was weakened.
“The Reagan administration - first it said ‘yes Iraq used chemical weapons on the Kurds’. They did not dispute that, in fact they had intelligence intercepts proving it, but their next response was that sanctions, even cutting off the $700m a year that the US was giving Iraq in 1988, that was too extreme a response to Iraq gassing the Kurds.
“Ironically, the very same people who had argued that this response was premature when the genocide was actually taking place in 1988, in 2003 those same people – Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz - said that fact that Saddam had gassed his own people was a reason for the (Iraq) war, that turned out to be a trillion dollar cost to the United States.”
Mr Galbraith added:
“There was something that actually happened at the time and there was a response and the response was not that people ignored it, they decide actively not to do anything about it.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon told the conference that while he has “few Kurdish people in constituency” the UK Parliament has a “moral duty” to help gain international recognition for the Kurdish genocide.
He said what happened to the Kurds under Saddam was “scientifically planned mass murder”.
“What I have learnt about the Kurds is that they are people who have learnt from the past but don’t live in it, but they have waited too long for justice,” he said.
“The state of Iraq now recognises the Kurdish genocide and it is the duty of the rest of the world to do the same.”
He said his work with the APPGs on Kurdistan and on genocide will is part of an effort “to ensure that all the perpetrators are brought to the international court”. He also advocated a programme of education and remembrance, “so that the true story of Saddam’s brutality will not be forgotten by future generations”.
Mr Halfon said an e-petition calling on the British Government to recognise the murder of hundreds of thousands of Kurds as genocide has attracted more than 25,000 signatures.
Dr Mahmoud Osman, a member of the Iraq Council of Representatives, recalled the attacks on his people in Kurdistan, including attacks on villages and people fleeing the repression with “a cocktail of mustard, sarin and other nerve gases”.
“Almost every Kurd and every Iraqi has a story to tell about Saddam’s brutality,” he said.
He condemned the silence of the international community, but praised “Western media, NGOs and many members of parliament who were very supportive of the plight of the victims”.
The conference also heard contributions from Nadhim Zahawi, the British-Kurdish MP for Stratford upon Avon, Akhtar Chaudhry, Deputy Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament, and Dr Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres and former French Foreign Minister.