Iraq’s attack on the Kurds, 1963-65

Iraq’s attack on the Kurds, 1963-65

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses

On 10 June 1963, the Iraqi military began a vicious campaign against the Kurds, whose struggle for autonomy against Baghdad had been stepped up when the first Kurdish war broke out in 1961. The Kurds were also calling for a share in Iraqi oil and the exclusion of Arab troops from Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq.

British officials noted the ‘Iraqi intention to carry out terror campaign’ [sic] and within ten days of operations ‘the army are now apparently engaged in the clearing out and destruction of Kurdish villages in the Kirkuk neighbourhood’. With two-thirds of the Iraqi army deployed in the north, the Foreign Office noted that ‘the Iraq [sic] government is now clearly making an all-out effort to settle the Kurdish problem once and for all’. ‘Ruthless tactics’ were being employed by the Iraqi military including air strikes against the Kurds.

The British Embassy in Baghdad reported to London on 22 June:

‘The brutality of the methods used by the army is likely to mar Arab/Kurdish relations for some time to come. The army has succeeded in clearing the Kurdish villages in lowland areas around vulnerable points… The method adopted is to take the villages one by one, shelling them from a safe distance with tank guns and field artillery, giving sometimes little or no warning to the inhabitants. After a safe interval the National Guard or government-paid Kurds move in to loot…In some cases, eg in the Kurdish quarters of Kirkuk, bulldozers have been used to knock down houses. The result is that the men take to the hills, women and children are often left to fend for themselves and the village is left abandoned and, for the time being, quiet’.

The Foreign Office recognised there were certain dangers in this campaign for British interests. These were: that ‘unsuccessful hostilities could jeopardise the present Iraq regime’; that fighting might increase the opportunities for Russian trouble-making in Kurdistan; that the Kurdish unrest could spread to Turkey, Iran and Syria; and also a risk of damage to the IPC’s oil installations and interruptions in the flow of oil. Glaringly absent from this Foreign Office list was the effect the fighting might also just have on the Kurdish people. The files indicate that the ambassador encouraged Baghdad to negotiate a settlement with the Kurds, but once the campaign was launched, Britain provided outright support for Iraq.

Before Baghdad began operations, Britain had already approved major arms exports knowing they would be used against the Kurds. Douglas-Home ‘is anxious that in general Iraq’s arms requirements should be met as quickly as possible’, one file reads. On 11 April Ministers approved the export of 250 Saracen armoured personnel carriers which, it was recognised, were ‘possibly for use if needed against the Kurds’. Also approved were exports of artillery ammunition, 22 Hunter fighter aircraft and rockets for Iraq’s existing Hunters ‘again possibly for use against the Kurds’, the Foreign Office notes. ‘There are considerable commercial advantages to be gained’, a ministerial committee noted, and ‘the scope for military exports is considerable’ – the deal was worth £6 million.

Officials decided to delay the supply of some of the rockets since: ‘We must give the Iraqis some of their requirements in order to enable them to hold their own vis-à-vis the Kurds, but it may be inadvisable to give them too generous supplies, since this might only encourage them to be more intransigeant [sic] with the Kurds and, if fighting breaks out and there are indiscriminate rocket attacks, there might be parliamentary and public criticism’.

After Baghdad attacked Kurdistan, the British government further deliberated on whether to deliver the rockets, a ‘sensitive item’ since they ‘are intended for use against the Kurds’. In the files, there is no consideration of the effects on Kurds, but simply the effect on public relations: ‘The news of the fighting may provoke public criticism of our decision to supply Iraq with arms’, a briefing for the Cabinet reads.

Two weeks into the campaign, the Foreign Office noted that ‘we are ready to do our best to meet Iraqi requirements in the field of arms and training’, though ministers were still keen to delay the supply of rockets for which the Iraqis were pressing ‘for use against the Kurds’. In July, ministers approved the export of 500 of these ‘high explosive rockets’. A senior Iraqi air force commander, Brigadier Hilmi, had told the British ambassador that he ‘needed these weapons now in order to bring their war against the insurgents to a quick and successful conclusion’. When told that Britain would be delivering the rockets Hilmi was ‘genuinely grateful’ and thought that the Air Force Commander, ‘would be delighted at our gesture’, the ambassador noted.

A Foreign Office brief to embassies explaining British policy said that ‘we have throughout thought it possible that any arms we supply might be used against the Kurds, but we have had to weigh this argument against other factors’, which were to develop good relations with the new Iraqi rulers and to wean them away from Soviet military supplies.

By the end of August 1963, with fighting continuing, the Iraqi air force had collected 500 Hunter rockets, a further 1,000 were to be delivered on 1 September and another 500 on 1 October. A further 18,000 were to be provided later.  Following this, approvals were given to supply 280,000 rounds of ammunition for Saracen armoured cars, mortar bombs, 25 pounder shells, armed helicopters and sterling sub-machine guns.

Britain also agreed to Iraqi requests to send a team to Iraq to mend the guns on Centurion tanks supplied by Britain. The ‘one tricky political point’ with this, the Foreign Office noted, was the continuation of Iraqi operations against the Kurds. British officers could not be seen to be going near the areas of fighting; therefore, ‘if tanks guns [sic] break down in the North, the tanks would simply have to be brought to Baghdad and repaired there’.

There is no doubt that Ministers and officials knew exactly what they were authorising. In October, for example, a Foreign Office official approved the export of demolition slabs on the understanding that these ‘will probably be used not only to destroy captured Kurdish strong points but also for the demolition of Kurdish villages’. This British complicity in the destruction of Kurdish villages was the forebear of the same British policies with regard to Iraqi aggression in the 1980s and Turkish terror against Kurds in the 1990s.

Indeed, British officials were aware that the Iraqi aggression they were in effect supporting may have constituted genocide. The Foreign Office noted in a minute in September that ‘Iraq’s methods have been brutal and might sustain a charge of attempting to destroy or reduce the Kurds as a racial minority’. The British embassy in Baghdad had told the Foreign Office on 6 July that:

‘The Kurds tend to be shot rather than taken prisoner. We have had some indications from officials that this may be deliberate policy… We have since heard reports of an intention drastically to reduce the Kurdish population in the North and to resettle the area with Arabs and of at least one Arab officer’s disgust with the methods employed as inhuman and ill-advised in the long term. There is no doubt at all of the government’s deliberate destruction of villages… The government of Iraq… have resorted to the use of force without the normal civilised safeguards against undue loss of civilian life and perhaps even with some intention of reducing the size of the Kurdish minority in Iraq, or at least cowing it permanently’.

The date of this memo is important – most of the British arms exports to Iraq for use against Kurds (ie, the rockets) were approved after this date; policy was thus similar to the increased British support given to the Saddam regime after the chemical warfare attacks on Kurdistan in March 1988.

Another similarity between 1963 and 1988 was British attempts to ensure there would be no international action taken against Iraq. In 1963, British officials worked to ensure that the UN would not discuss allegations of genocide in Iraq. A draft Foreign Office brief dated 12 September 1963 is entitled: ‘The policy of genocide carried out by the government of the republic of Iraq against the Kurdish people: Reasons for opposing inscription’. This brief provides instructions for Britain’s delegation to the UN, saying: ‘it is obviously HMG’s wish to get rid of this item as quickly as possible’.

Foreign Office official William Morris noted that if the question of genocide did come up at the UN ‘our best line would be to abstain from voting’ and to ‘avoid saying anything at all if we possibly can’. Morris also explained that raising the charge of genocide meant the UN concerning itself with the internal affairs of member states, which was contrary to its charter and ‘would be most unwelcome to us in the context of any trouble in our dependent territories’.

British arms exports and training could also help in ‘internal security’, ie, supporting the military regime in domestic repression. British help in mending Iraq’s Centurion tanks, noted above, could help in this since ‘the two Centurion regiments form the backbone of their internal security in Baghdad’. The supply of Hunter aircraft went ahead in the knowledge that ‘it may strengthen the ability of Iraqis to be masters in their own house (the Iraqi air force played an important part in overthrowing Qasim and achieving control of Baghdad)’.

Indeed, during the February coup British-supplied Hunter aircraft had been used to attack the Ministry of Defence building where Qasim was holding out, a scenario repeated ten years later in Chile when British-supplied Hunters were also used successfully to attack the palace where democratically-elected president Salvador Allende was holding out. Hunters were also used against the Ministry of Defence building and the presidential place in the November 1963 coup.

The offensive against the Kurds continued throughout 1963 before in effect reaching a stalemate. In April 1965, the Iraqis resumed what was to be a year long offensive with similar levels of brutality against Kurds, until an agreement was signed in June 1966 giving the Kurds some autonomy. The British embassy noted in July 1965 that ‘Kurdish casualties have been mainly among the civilian population who are again being subjected to considerable suffering through indiscriminate air attack’; indiscriminate air attack, that is, by the Iraqi air force already supplied with 27 Hawker Hunters, thousands of rockets and other ammunition by the Douglas-Home and Wilson governments. It was also known that napalm was being ‘evidently dropped from the Iraqi Hunters’. Villages continued to be razed to the ground along with ‘the forcible de-Kurdisation’ of some areas in Kurdistan.

British arms exports continued to flow with the change from the Conservative to the Labour government in 1964. The latter defied a mid-1965 call in parliament to stop arms exports to Baghdad while noting that ‘Her Majesty’s Government had no intention of withholding normal assistance to the Iraq government in the form of arms supplies’. Huge orders were by then in the pipeline, including 17,000 Hunter rockets to be delivered from July, again fully in the knowledge that they would be used against Kurds. The Wilson government also agreed to supply the Iraqis with 40 Lightning fighter aircraft.

A June 1965 Foreign Office brief noted that ‘we have maintained our arms supplies to Iraq, even during periods of Kurdish fighting’ for the reasons of maintaining links with the Iraqi military, described as ‘the Iraqi governing class’, to reduce Iraqi arms supplies from the Soviet Union and Nasser’s Egypt and since ‘they bring us considerable commercial benefit’. Meanwhile, ‘we have no official dealings with the Kurds and give them no assistance’.

The files also reveal that the Wilson government also provided a further terrifying precedent to the rulers in Baghdad. The 1980s under Saddam Hussein was not the first time that Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurds. This had also occurred in the middle 1960s.

In August and September 1965, Mustafa Barzani, President of the largest Kurdish group in Iraqi Kurdistan, claimed to the British Prime Minister that Iraq had purchased ‘large quantities of toxic gases for use against Kurdish inhabitants’. Barzani appealed to Wilson to stop arming Baghdad and to intercede with the regime to ‘prevent the latter carrying out their alleged intention of launching gas attacks against the Kurds’. No British reply was sent to this letter, or to others sent by Barzani, given the British refusal to have any formal contacts with the Kurds.

The British refusal came despite the understanding that the Kurds had good intelligence connections in the Baghdad regime. It also came in the knowledge that in September 1964 the Iraqi ministry of defence had approached the British, West German, US and Soviet governments for an enquiry for an order of 60,000 gas marks for urgent delivery’. Finally, British officials received ‘an account which we believe to be reliable, of the Army’s plan for putting an end to the Kurdish problem’. Moreover, the British embassy wrote in September that:

‘The Iraqis would have little humanitarian compunction about using gas if things were (as they are) going badly for them. They would probably believe they could hush up the incidents and might not worry very much about world opinion. They are certainly showing a strong current interest in chemical warfare. We believe they may well have stocks of some gas (probably of the riot control variety) and likely looking cylinders have actually been seen.’

Although the memo went on to say that it was difficult to see the Iraqis using gas in current circumstances, ‘on the other hand there is ample evidence that the Kurds are genuinely worried at the possibility that gas will be used’. The interesting revelation from this is British unwillingness to intercede with Baghdad anyway even given major concerns and evidence. The same policy of fundamental support for Baghdad was pursued with terrifying consequences in the late 1980s.